Market Day: Can Tho

With its numerous fingers of water dividing and reaching seawards after thousands of miles of travel across the nations of South-East Asia, the fertile lands of the Mekong Delta are often characterised as being the rice bowl of Vietnam.

"The Boy" in his lifejacket Can Tho

"The Boy" in his lifejacket, wondering why he has been woken at the crack of dawn

The wide delta slithers through an unexcitingly flat landscape, which though predominantly rural in its manner is nevertheless very densely populated.

The river is both the lifeblood and the soul of the people. It provides their transport routes, their income and their food.

Elongated ribbons of urban development trail the paths of the various Mekong river channels. These main channels are themselves crisscrossed by broad canals that for centuries have acted as the main transport arteries for the people of the Delta.

Tumbledown houses, rickety huts and basic commercial properties cling to tidal embankments. The strung-out development is often no more than a road or two deep.

The further you are from the water’s edge, the greater your disadvantage.

Road travel in these parts is slow and boats still provide the core means of transport.

Barges, dredgers, ferries and water-taxis all hint at a river-based focus, for trade.

Female boat pilot, Can Tho

Our pilot for the day. Unusually, boating in Can Tho appears to be a female dominated trade.

It is this focus that draws us to the town of Can Tho, or to be more specific, the floating markets of Can Tho.

As the largest city in the delta, Can Tho also plays host to its most important centres of exchange. The distinctiveness of these delta markets is that they take place upon the waterways of the city.

Hiring a small boat and pilot for the morning, we join our lady host at 6.30am and set off downstream at a slow pace.

As the people of Can Tho wake to a new day, we see them washing, preparing food, and in one case, taking a jaw-tensing dump into the river.

Passing under a concrete road bridge as the river narrows and bends, ahead of us we can see a flotilla of craft of all different shapes, sizes and colours.

Welcome to the floating markets of Can Tho.

brisk trade, Cai Rang, floating market

Early morning trade is brisk at Cai Rang floating market

In the weak morning light, trade is already brisk.

As we cruise by, pineapples are touted from one craft, melons from the next.

It appears that each vessel specialises in a specific product, be that potato or pumpkin, onion or orange. The accepted method of letting others know of your speciality is to suspend an example of the product from a bamboo pole set high above the deck.

Some boats even offer fresh flowers, a particularly buoyant (excuse the pun) market in these days leading up to the “Tet” celebration of the lunar New Year.

Though we are by no means the only tourists at Cai Rang market, we are still ahead of the tour groups, and are therefore largely anonymous as our thin, shallow-draught vessel merges in with those of the vendors and their customers.

durian, Cai Rang floating market

A sale of the odorous (and odious) fruit, durian, is made at Cai Rang floating market

Every so often a deal is struck and a woman in a conical sun-hat will throw some melons or other fruit towards another conically topped woman whose vessel is parked broadside to that of the vendor.

A monetary exchange takes place and as soon as the brisk trade is concluded, the boats part under oar power.

Hundreds of these transactions take place along this short stretch of river as we navigate between boats and barges. As we do so, we witness some boatmen grabbing a bite on deck, whilst others jump-start their day with a glass of super-strong and excessively sugary Vietnamese coffee.

After three hours on the water, “The Boy” is getting justifiably edgy so we take their mealtime inspiration, call it a day, and head to dry land for our own well deserved breakfast.

Spring Onions, Shibwns, Cai Rang, floating marlet, Can Tho

"Oi mush, how much are 'ewe shibwns?" Spring Onions are prepared for sale from one of the market boats.

The scenes at the floating market had provided us an insight into a way of life that is alien to our culture. The curious display signs and the garb of the market women (particularly with regard to their conical headwear) completed a setting that remains unique to these delta lands.

For these reasons, the otherwise unremarkable city of Can Tho will live long in my memory.

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About misterkelvin

I searched, I failed. And then I accidentally found one in Ubud.
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