floating markets of Can Tho

Posted from Can Tho, Can Tho, Vietnam.

My boat driver carves me a pineapple whilst steering us down the river.

My boat driver carves me a pineapple whilst steering us down the river.

The morning air is cool along the river. Goosebumps dot my arms, but I hardly notice. It’s pitch black and somehow my boat driver is winding his way along the Mekong avoiding the river traffic with ease, and what I can only guess is years of experience. Rose, my guide, explains to me little things about the river that I can make out in these pre-dawn hours, but there isn’t much to see just yet, only hear. I really didn’t know why I chose to leave on this tour at 5 a.m., but I’m smiling from ear to ear at being in a tiny longtail boat winding my way down the Mekong River in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Ms. Ha, the owner of Mekong Delta Experience, a little company that brings foreigners on personalized tours through the Mekong on little personal boats, told me that it would be good to go early in the morning as “not as many tourists.” One of the floating markets was about 20 km away. Looking at the size of my boat and the bity fan that acted as its motor, I can see why we need the extra time.

A worker separates the ground rice through water to create rice powder.

A worker separates the ground rice through water to create rice powder.

Within 30 minutes we were at the first floating market. It’s pitch dark but people are trading away. This market goes on till early afternoon, so we stick around for a few minutes before heading down a little tributary to a rice noodle factory. If you like rice noodles, you may not want to read any further. The conditions – un-sanitary. Gross. Dirty. The workers, exhausted and … I see one of them farmer-blow his nose into the rice husks they use to fuel the fire and go right back to work. To be fair, he isn’t touching any of the food directly. But there are chickens and ducks running around, mud and grime everywhere, and the one machine they use, the only one, to cut the noodles looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since 1948. I suppose what gets me most is where they wash the ground rice to create rice powder. It’s a concrete well that I’m certain the rooster bathes in. (I had rice noodles for dinner that night.)

One person spoons out the rice, salt and water mixture onto a large flat griddle and steams it covering it with a lid. After less than a minute it is removed and put on a bamboo rack to be laid in the sun to dry.

One person spoons out the rice, salt and water mixture onto a large flat griddle and steams it covering it with a lid. After less than a minute it is removed and put on a bamboo rack to be laid in the sun to dry.

 

The dried rice pancakes are then cut into noodles. They'll make 500 kg of noodles in a day.

The dried rice pancakes are then cut into noodles. They’ll make 500 kg of noodles in a day.

Onward we go to the other floating market. The sun is rising behind us turning the horizon a marigold orange. The boat driver is carving a pineapple as Ms. Ha said she would treat me to breakfast. I slurp it down and I think this is the best pineapple I’ve ever had in my life. Rose points things out along the river’s edge until we get to the next market.

Phong Dien is a smaller floating market than the other one – meaning the boats are smaller and therefore not as much volume enters and leaves the market. But I’m blown away by so many things. The traders put what they have for sale or trade high on a stick aboard their boat. People will come and buy or trade or sell. There’s fruit, veggies, rice patties, flowers, baskets and herbs. I’m sure there’s other stuff I can’t see. (Fish is traded at a fish market.) From their tiny longtail boats ladies and men alike are perched, shoeless, on the ends of their vessels swapping huge watermelons for bushels of bananas, papayas for mangosteens, onions for cabbage, or even rice cakes for garlic. With the season of Tet approaching, flowers and other seasonal favourites are more common, like tiny red onions which they pickle for a holiday dish.

Approaching the Phong Dien floating market. Life is normal on the river for so many. Tea?

Approaching the Phong Dien floating market. Life is normal on the river for so many. Tea?

Two friends improve their produce throughout the day for their markets.

Two friends improve their produce throughout the day for their markets.

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Rose, my guide, tells me to not put my hands outside the edges of the boat. Over and over. There’s a lot of close contact between the boats and most of these seasoned pros are guiding their floating markets hand over hand along the edges of the other boats. I tell Rose we don’t have anything like this in Canada. I tell her how our rivers freeze and beyond farmers markets most of our food ends up in store houses and transport trucks and grocery stores. She explains to me that the government has no part in this. The waterways belong to the people. She tells me how people who own the rundown little shacks (homes) along the river don’t pay rent or taxes (or so I can understand.) She explains about the wet season and how the homes flood and so some people make theirs float. I am blown away.

A house boat!

A house boat!

A river resident washes her clothes. She will wash them once more with clean water.

A river resident washes her clothes. She will wash them once more with clean water.

We go down another little canal and Rose and I get out and walk down a path to a local village. She points out the papayas growing on the trees, the bananas and pineapple, vú sữa, lemons and mangoes. She tells me how they can’t grown strawberries. I treat her and the boat driver to some soup and spend a whopping $6 on lunch.

One of the more poor houses by the village by rice fields. These days, Rose says, the villagers have more wealth than people in the city.

One of the more poor houses by the village by rice fields. These days, Rose says, the villagers have more wealth than people in the city.

Time for a wash in the river.

Time for a wash in the river.

 

We get back to the first floating market with the big boats. People are still trading, but I’m not as enthralled with it as I was with the little market. We spend little time there. I see people from the bus ride into Can Tho and we take some photographs, but the feeling sneaks into me that the tour is over. We get some gas at one of the many gas stops along the river and Rose and the driver drop me off at a tiny dock. She says good-bye and they drive away. It’s over. I meander up the street to my hotel, stopping to buy a scarf and retiring to my hotel room. I think I’m really beginning to like this place called Vietnam.

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Much bigger boats with a lot more fruit.

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