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I was born and raised in Saigon, however several tough years as a child in the river-laced delta defined the true homeland of my heart. I remember lotuses rising above the mud, lush orchards, gentle maidens riding boats, folk chants echoing over the river, and the genuine affection I received from poor, honest peasants.
Growing up overseas, experiencing the surge of modern science and technology, many people find their homeland fading from their memories. However, those images remain in our minds and sometimes we long for a return there to be loved, sheltered and embraced.
I know a place where the essence of my homeland is gathered, where we ride on boats, sightsee, shop or eat out. It is a market on the river – a floating market that drifts over the waves.
Mekong Delta floating markets
There are many floating markets in the Mekong Delta. The most famous are Cai Be Floating Market in Tien Giang, Cai Rang Floating Market in Chau Thanh, Can Tho City, Nga Bay and Phung Hiep floating markets in Can Tho, Nga Nam floating market in Soc Trang and Song Trem floating market in Ca Mau.
Setting out at dawn, you can experience the most bustling moments of a floating market. There is nothing like sitting in a little boat, breathing fresh air and watching fruit being bought and sold at dawn by local women steering their boats gracefully along the river. There is something intoxicating about the lively and crowded atmosphere of floating markets; the sounds of oars dipping into the water, vendors cries as buyers bargain and the echoing calls across the river.
How do you start shopping in an ocean of boats without any signs? How do you find the right place to buy the right thing?
In other markets, merchandise is promoted with signs to let buyers know what vendors are selling. Floating markets are different. On each boat there is a bamboo pole, also known as bẹo that displays the merchandise available on that vessel. For instance, if you see a hanging squash or watermelon, that’s what is being sold on that boat. Look around and you might see a cassava, pomelo, coconut, onion, pineapple or mango hanging off various beo.
Prestige and fairness are highly esteemed in floating markets. All contracts, even for large orders, are verbal. Both parties strictly abide by this oral agreement and seldom argue or sue each other.
A rule of floating markets is to never sell short. The goods are non-refundable, because once the trading is done, people depart in their boats. Many buyers prefer floating markets because sellers are competitive and rarely overcharge.
Boat vendors on rivers look out for each other. Once a boat perches by another, the owners regard each other as neighbors. If something happens, they help each other. A river culture has evolved because boat vendors come from different regions and they rely on each other to get by.
If a vessel is stranded or its engine breaks down, other vendors jump in to help. During violent storms when a boat is wrecked or flooded, neighbors help get the water out. If somebody dies unexpectedly, everyone lends a hand at the funeral.
Goodwill is also practiced. Vendors intervene at the sight of any adversity even though it may be dangerous. As a result, they are not only physically fit but also know some martial arts.
The atmosphere is social. People meet and greet each other and young men and women flirt by singing folk chants back and forth from boats. Side businesses include noodle bars, coffee shops, and floating restaurants. The owners of these floating eateries skillfully approach visitors’ or merchants’ boats and offer their services, even when the weather is bad.
Lunar New Year (Tet)
During the Tet holiday you can see a floating flower garden, or go to Tet markets by boat and admire kiosks adorned with rustic ornaments. These provide a simple and artistic beauty that is calming and peaceful.
If you have an opportunity, recall your images of the river and boats. The uniqueness of floating markets also leaves strong impressions on foreign visitors. They constantly take photos and videos, crying out in delight at what they see.
Floating markets are a cultural essence of life in the Mekong Delta to be enjoyed in person and in your memories.