They say no trip to the South of Vietnam is complete without seeing the Floating Markets on the Mekong Delta. It was something we had been looking forward to since arriving so we couldn’t think of a better way to spend our last day in the country.
After waking up at four-thirty am for a five o’clock start time and making our way down to the lobby, we were greeted by a very energetic Vietnamese man who introduced himself as Bin (pronounced like ‘bean’), our tour guide for the day. He ushered us into a cab with another British couple, followed by an older German couple. We exchanged sleepy greetings and classic traveller questions (how long are travelling? when did you arrive? where do you go next?) on the short drive. When the car stopped, we were a little confused as there was no water in sight. This was supposed to be a boat tour, right? But before any of us could voice our concerns, Bin led us down a tiny alley to a tinier dock and into a small and somewhat rickety, wooden motor boat.
With the moon still up, we climbed into the boat and over benches until everyone was seated before our smiley-but-toothless driver ripped on the loud motor and we took off down the river. We cruised for about thirty minutes as the sky lightened until Bin pointed out a sign saying Chợ nổi Cái Răng. “Cai Rang means crocodile teeth. When the river was being discovered, the people saw a crocodile with massive teeth biting into the banks so they named the market after it,” Bin explained.
As we passed the sign, we started to see them; boats of varying sizes, but none very big, weighed down with their wares. Each boat was selling one or two types of fruit or vegetables and advertising their goods by tying one of their watermelons, cabbages, or pineapples to the top of tall stick at the front of their boat.
“The boats are so heavy that they have to go very slowly. Sometimes it takes the people nine or ten hours to come all the way from their homes,” Bin said “so they will live on their boats for up to three months selling their agriculture or trading for other goods that they will then take back up to their villages.”
So this market was less of a supermarket and more like a wholesale exchange. Not what we expected at all. Just as we were musing this over, we crashed into another small boat, this one complete with a massive steaming pot, and various other containers, bowls, and more.
“Breakfast!” Bin said.
A wooden plank was lowered in front of us, balancing on either side of the boat, as we waited patiently for the woman to make up little bowls of noodles, broths, and herbs for each of us. While she worked, another boat sidled up to us and started doling out iced coffee out of a cooler. If only the Canadian Food Safety Group could see this!
Once we were all served, our driver expertly dislodged us from the puzzle of boats surrounding us and we ate while cruising around the market. We watched boats hooking onto each other, people hand-bombing watermelons down a human conveyer belt across boats, people doing their laundry on the boats, constant activity and it wasn’t fully daylight yet.
We took it all in for about an hour while learning about Bin, whose energy and knowledge at this hour of the morning was truly inspiring. He told us he was only nineteen years old, a university student, and had started offering tours for free so he could practice his English with native speakers. That was only three months ago and now he was making it his career. Oh yeah, and his pictures with those tours are making him low-key Insta-famous.
We cruised for another hour more, watching the sun slowly rise over the palm trees to a second, smaller market, this one more specifically for fruit. Our driver steered us over to a small, muddy bank, and balanced effortlessly on the side of the boat like a balance beam to get on to dry land for a bathroom break. And then, out of nowhere, a black shadow darted from under our seat and between our legs.
“Whoa!” We both jumped a mile in the air, making audible exclamation of surprise. The rest of the boat laughed.
“It’s a dog,” the Brits exclaimed as the incredibly cute mixed-breed jumped off the boat to follow the driver. “He’s been here the whole time, sleeping in the back. Apparently, the driver saved him from drowning and they’ve been inseparable ever since. He has to take him to work because if he doesn’t, the dog just cries all day and won’t eat.”
Our hearts melted just a little bit.
Once the driver and his dog made it back into the boat, we floated around the fruit market for a few minutes while the driver carved us some stunning-looking pineapple skewers. (Boat driver, dog rescuer, fruit carver… a true renaissance man!) We munched on the best pineapple we ever tasted as we started cruising to our next stop, a fruit farm.
As we made our way down the river, we couldn’t help but notice all the bundles of garbage, old styrofoam containers, and even diapers floating along with us, and on more than one occasion, our driver had to stop the boat to detangle a plastic bag from the propellor, which sometimes involved him getting into the water. Wasn’t this waste and pollution a concern for the people on the river? We asked Bin about it.
“The older generation lived through the war, they weren’t educated, so they don’t care. The river is right there so it’s easy from them to just throw the garbage in. The younger generation is trying to do things differently.”
We turned down a much smaller and quieter canal, one with seemingly less garbage as well, and relaxed as we made our way to the farm where Bin showed us all sorts of fruit trees, we teetered across a ‘monkey bridge’, a quick and easy bridge made of two pieces of bamboo to help the people cross small rivers and canals, and Adam even climbed a coconut tree to pick a coconut.
After a nice bathroom break and another ca phe, we got back in the boat to go to the rice noodle farm, where we saw them grinding the rice into flour to make a paste, making that into rice paper, and finally cutting the paper into noodles, all of which was done without the help of mass-production machines. We even had a chance to try our hand at rolling out the rice paper and cutting the noodles.
“You work here now. You can eat noodles every day now that this is your job. We’re leaving you here to work,” Bin repeated, laughing each time at his own joke which he had no-doubt made to every other tour group he brought here. Somehow, that made it all the funnier.
After trying some ‘noodle pizza’ (not at all like pizza, but not like noodles either), we got back in the boat for our final trip down the river. As we cruised down the Mekong for the last time, Bin told us about the unhopeful future of the floating markets.
“The big market used to be three kilometers long, but now it only takes up five hundred meters.,” he explained. “Life on the river is very hard, and if the people have children and they want them to stay with them on the boat, they don’t go to school. The market gets smaller all the time.”
While the sentiment was bittersweet, this fact made us all the more grateful for the experience we had that day.
Back at our little dock, we said goodbye to the driver and his dog, our newfound friends, and Bin, promising to add him on Instagram. And just like that, our last and favourite day in Vietnam was over. While we’re sad to say goodbye we know it’s not forever and that we’ll be back one day for the little piece of our heart that we’re leaving on the Mekong.
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