Budget travel stop in a bamboo shack

My mother-in-law had a great idea: let’s get out of noisy, chaotic Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and go see the Mekong Delta for a few days without breaking the bank. And so off we went.

The set up

Mom found interesting accommodations outside the city of Can Tho. It’s advertised as a homestay. Several young people work and live at the site, a business named Nguyen Shack. There are several private shacks on the grounds, and also dorm beds and shared baths in other shacks. These open structures are made of bamboo and other organic material. They feature mosquito nets and fans.

We opted to splurge for a three-bed shack with private bathroom and shower, with a waterfront deck and hammocks. This cost a little more than $15 each for three people for two nights – $92 total. You likely will battle mosquitoes, so be warned.

There is a sturdy bridge to cross the water that leads to beautiful gardens. The area around Nguyen Shack is like a widespread village. You can explore on your own, or through tours the Shack offers. We did a little of both.

Exploring the Mekong Delta

Free bike rentals with our unit had us out exploring the area shortly after check in. The roads around the shack are narrow – they are more like paved wide pathways, some with large potholes.

We rode bikes around for about an hour. All children who saw us seemed quite excited to greet us with an English “hello”; all adults returned my Vietnamese “xin chao” (pronounced “sin chow). We stopped at a family’s corner store and bought water and dried banana chips.

Tip: take the bike on a test run down the road to make sure you’ll be comfortable with the bike you choose. Some need a little more TLC.

Later that afternoon, for $5 each, we took a boat tour offered by the Shack down the canals. We saw local parents and children washing and playing in the water, the kids eager to yell “hello” to us; we saw local fishermen, farmers, and tradesmen going about their business; we saw tin shacks, and also new and modern homes. We also saw a lot of trash in the water, which is a problem all over the world, not just in the Delta.

Interestingly, we found souvenirs on our beds when we returned to our shack from that boat tour: bamboo straws! The clever gift was wrapped in thick paper with a thoughtful message and business card.

Anyone who follows this blog knows I hate plastic trash — going all the way back to my retired budget travel start in Tulum, Mexico. Kudos to the Shack for doing something proactive. Now, if I can only remember to pack the straw in my day bag every day…

The next morning we were up early for the floating market and land market tour, also run by the Shack, for $9.50 a person. There are ways to arrange a private boat for less money, but we were not staying in Can Tho – the Shack is outside the city. And to get the best experience of the Cai Rang Markets, you have to start before the sun.

We left by boat from the Shack’s dock. Our guide was wonderful. She answered all of my many questions, had quite the sense of humor, and she spoke fluent English.

The floating market was amazing to see. Farmers come from all over the region with bulk vegetables to sell wholesale, and the buyers then resell in their own shops. The coffee man sells strong Vietnamese coffee from his boat for something like a quarter. (If you order milk, it will be condensed milk, not fresh milk, and your order is delivered in a plastic cup, with a plastic straw, unfortunately.)

Our tour around the large, old wooden boats was highlighted by the rising sun. It was awesome to see. A few hours after sunrise, the market disappears – the ships leave.

After the floating market, we went to the land market. Here, I saw things I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been to fresh markets from Mexico to Montenegro to Morocco.

Some of the more unusual sites: women skinning headless frogs with still-beating hearts; snakehead fish and baby turtles for sale; a demonstration on how to make rice noodles; fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen before, and more, all pictured below. (Click to enlarge.)

We took the boat back to the Shack, and relaxed for a little while before our next activity — visiting nearby village sites on bicycles. That tour cost $7.75 each, and again we had another awesome guide who spoke fluent English, answered all of our questions, and had an engaging sense of humor.

We experienced and saw a lot on this three-hour tour, including: a school, (we talked to a few kids practicing their English); village homes; rice storage/shipping facility (this was actually fascinating since so much of Vietnamese culture and economy depends on rice), a pagoda connected to the Shack; and more. The pagoda houses orphans, and part of the money we give the Shack goes to supporting the children.

After cold drinks back at home base, I lounged in the hammock of our waterfront deck for something like three hours – and did absolutely nothing but enjoy the view. Mom went for a walk, Tedly went back out on the bike. After sunset, we reconvened and ate another tasty – and reasonably priced – dinner from the Shack’s restaurant. Breakfasts were included with our rental.

The next morning, we stuck our feet in the fish foot pedicure pond (which is really in an old boat), and relaxed after breakfast until it was time to check out and take a taxi back to the bus station on the edge of Can Tho ($3.25 for a 15-20 minute car ride).

We took Futa Bus Line from Ho Chi Minh to Can Tho and back. Tickets were $5.50 each, each way, and the ride was about three hours on a typical Vietnamese sleeper bus, even though we traveled midday.

4.5 out of 5 stars – for a short Shack stay

While the location is restful and beautiful, and outside of the city, you’re not really in the country. The surrounding land – and nearly all the land in the Delta – is developed or privately owned, so there’s only so much countryside exploring you can do. Two nights felt right to me — like it was enough time. Then again, I’m sure I could have explored more for another day or two. I dinged the rating a bit because the bikes left for free use (outside the bike tours) needed some work.

The best way to experience this part of the Mekong Delta is to take the tours offered by the Shack. It is a bit touristy, but it’s really reasonably priced and it’s so easy because you are already at tour starting points.

The Shack also offers other expeditions we did not take, including longer market trips (six hours to our 3.5 hours), food tours, and more. Also, there are other Shack locations around Vietnam, such as Halong Bay. Their official website is here.

Thank you to everyone at the Shack for a truly memorable sample of the Mekong Delta!

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