An authentic, busy floating market in Vietnam, near Can Tho.
It is dawn, chaos and mist surround us. and we can smell the incense smoke it is swirls over the surface of the river from the offerings on the prows of the boats. It is often said this floating market is the best to visit from all those in the Mekong delta. We are here to see for ourselves.
As we weave our way in our tiny boat alongside the much larger traditional wooden hulled boats of the market traders, we hear shouting and laughter coming from people who have started their working day hours ago.
The dawn light gives an atmospheric glow to the activities all around us. We are not the only small boat, others have local women traders selling hot drinks, snacks and breakfast noodles to the visitors here at Cai Rang, one of the largest floating markets here in the Mekong delta.
As the day brightens, we see the long poles sticking up from nearly all the larger boats. Attached to each pole are items of produce. This is their advertising “bill-board” – whatever is tied to the pole, (called a cay beo), is what the boatmen are selling. Some boats are so full, almost to overflowing, that we wonder how they were able navigate their boats from their farms to the market. Here they will stay, moored in mid-Mekong, until their wares are all sold. Pineapples, taro and dragon fruit all seem to be in season, but there is a huge variety of other fruits, vegetables and herbs. We know the herb boats before we see them as the aroma is so strong, even over the incense.
The smaller boats are steered by feet, and when the long propellers are not being used, rowed from a standing position. Flexible body parts and elegant agility is a way of life for those living and working on boats. We realize how much so as we are invited on to the roof of a boat to try some pineapple. We struggle to clamor up and wonder whether to sit on the greasy surface or stand atop of the swaying boat. We know it is impossible for us adopt the flat feet squat position that comes so easily to the locals. The pineapple is sweet and delious and made into lollipops for us to eat before we leap off the roof, helping hands all around, and watch as the oldies double our age practically skip between boats and roofs in flip-flops without holding on and without any apparent effort.
Need to know : Cai Rang
The waterways seem to outnumber the roads in the Mekong delta region, so it is no surprise to find markets are nearly always next to, or actually floating on the river. There are five large regional floating markets in the Mekong delta region, Cai Rang is 6km from the surprisingly nice city of Can Tho. As with most markets in Asia, activity starts early (3am!), although leaving around 5am is a good time to catch the dawn breaking over the market. The boats stay all day, but local activity slows from significantly from 11am.
You can drive/cycle the few kilometers upriver and get a boat taxi to take you around the market from the nearest riverbank for a couple of dollars.
Comfortable and Easy Option
Take an official tourist boat from the pier. These can seat as many as 20 people, but are usually no where near that full. Sit in western style chairs and get to the market faster in about 40 minutes. Also possible to privately hire the whole boat. Around $10 per person.
Private Boat Option
Charter a small private boat, leaving early enough to catch dawn breaking. Takes around one hour to get to the market and costs with or without a guide are similar to the tour boats, ($20 a couple).
Not for the fainthearted as the boats are small and it can be a little disconcerting as you weave in and out of the much larger boats. The main advantage is that you can go at your own pace and leave earlier to avoid the crowds.