By: Jade Yong
VIETNAM — Almost as soon as Can Tho opened as a new direct route from Kuala Lumpur, we were invited by The Azerai to spend a few days visiting the beautiful resort, as well as explore the town outside the enclave.
Known as the “rice bowl of Vietnam”, Can Tho is the fourth largest city in Vietnam and the biggest city in the Mekong region. It’s a fairly old city, established in 1739 and controlled by the Khmers until the late 18th century. There’s still a fairly sizeable Khmer community in the Mekong, lending to the diversity in culture and food, apart from the Chinese and Chams who have made Can Tho their home for generations now.
There are three seasons to Vietnam - dry, wet and cool. The best time to visit is December to February where it’s dry and cool, getting as cool as 21 Celsius at night; with monsoon rains saturating the region from July to November. When we visited, it was in the midst of its hottest season - April to June - with temperatures averaging as high as 35 degrees Celsius in the day. However being of tropical climate, visitors can still expect to be sweaty almost all year round!
After arriving at Can Tho’s brand spanking new international airport, we were picked up and transported to the hotel’s beautiful lounge on the “main land”. We were then ferried across the Hau river in The Azerai’s own luxury speed boat. The Azerai in Can Tho sits comfortably on the Au Islet in the middle of the Mekong delta, an oasis of class and calm amidst the larger region that is vibrant, loud and proud, basking unapologetically in Vietnamese charm and chaos - both of equal proportions.
The resort is as beautiful as it is sprawling, evident of the amount of thought put into it, so much so that there are bicycles for guests to move around the property. Its design takes inspiration from traditional architecture, while injecting its own contemporary flair; it’s truly a feast for the eyes, while comfort is never compromised. It is obvious that the Azerai does not cut corners.
It’s rooms are luxurious, each comes with a deck offering unique views - either the river, the mini lake resplendent with beautiful lotuses, or the lush greenery of its well manicured gardens where mature banyan trees stand proud and tall, its wispy aerial roots swaying in the afternoon breeze. The Azerai Can Tho’s General Manager Serge Ditesheim told us that the resort was built around the banyan trees.
Walking through the resort, it was obvious to us that every one of our needs will be satisfied, be it a delectable meal or cocktail, a cooling soak in the pool, a relaxing spa session, a fun space for kids to play in, or a workout in their rather extensively equipped gym overlooking the river and helipad. Most importantly, it provided us a respite from the hot and muggy Can Tho, where comfort is second to the rich and varied experiences that we got from exploring outside the resort.
Throughout our stay, we were welcomed warmly by the locals; No doubt, learning how to say “hello”, “thank you”, and “delicious” in Vietnamese by our host and guide Thomas certainly helped. Thomas is funny, a tad eccentric - but in the best way - and a wealth of knowledge about his home region. His passion for his home city is undeniable as he waxes lyrical about its inhabitants, its history, its food; he even sang us folk songs in Vietnamese while we were en route to the beautiful and traditional Bin Thuy house in the air-conditioned van.
Three main experiences that particularly impressed me were the food tour that Thomas brought us on; our journey to the floating market of Cai Rang; as well as an adventure out of the city and into the mangroves, about an hour’s drive outside the city. Food is one of the best gateways to experiencing a culture, so it’s no surprise that intrepid foodie and traveller Anthony Bourdain said about Vietnam: “It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”
Vietnamese food is known for its balance - in taste, texture, heat or cold. Thomas opened the doors to the best Can Tho had to offer. Throughout the three days, we sampled many a bowl of rice-based hu tieu noodles basking in a tasty, clear broth, accompanied with pork slices, bean sprouts, a variety of herbs (usually basil) and fish cakes or seafood. The bún gỏi dà at Thomas’ secret place was this writer’s personal favourite on the trip.
Thomas also introduced to us dishes that perfectly embodied the marriage of Khmer and Vietnamese influences, such as the bánh cống which is a yam cake with prawn filling, that’s dipped in batter and fried twice. Upon arrival at our table, it was then wrapped in a large green leaf with herbs, dipped in a light, sweet and spicy sauce, and partaken to our tastebud’s delight. A part from hu tieu soup and bánh cống, we also sampled all manner of delectables, from fried dough (very similar to our local char koay), banhmi, and BBQ pork skewers. By the end of the night, we were shocked at how much food we’ve managed to put away.
The next day, the Cai Rang Floating Market was a sight to behold. Although it is the biggest floating market in the Can Tho area, we had plenty space to navigate our way around the waterway as we sighted bamboo poles called “beo sticks” with all manner of fruits and vegetables stuck high on them, advertising each vendor’s goods.
As we sipped delicious Vietnamese coffee bought from a conical hat-donning lady manning her floating cafe, we haggled over the biggest tropical fruits we’ve ever seen, thanks to the Mekong Delta’s fabulously fertile soil.
Just as importantly, the Mekong’s is teeming with wildlife, which we found out are predominantly birds. If you’re lucky as we were, you’ll spot a greater coucal, crested treeswift, cormorant, heron or egret, among many other birds either local to the habitat or migrating through the delta. On our tour, we traversed the wetlands in narrow canals overgrown with water cabbages and hyacinths, the water a mere three-inches from the edge of our narrow sampan, and inhaled sweet scents of eucalyptus and melaleuca trees that grow in the area. This place is heaven for bird watching, so avid birders will want to bring your binoculars as you explore the area.
Can Tho is not yet on the map of your typical Asian traveller (who tends to stick to the main cities), but with this much to offer, it’s only a matter of time before the city picks up as tourists flood the plains as much as silt carried by the river during the rainy season. Currently, visitors from Singapore still have to stopover in Kuala Lumpur before taking another direct flight to Can Tho, but it’ll be worth the journey. If the food doesn’t drive you, then the nature, culture and the people will win you over. That, and ending everyday in the lap of comfort and luxury of a beautiful resort that is The Azerai.
This article is a result of a media trip sponsored by The Azerai Can Tho, flights were sponsored by AirAsia
See more photos from the trip below.