Nicknamed “Capital of the West” (the capital of the Mekong Delta), Can Tho is famous for river tours thanks to its many intricate waterways. The Mekong has been associated with the economic and cultural activities of the people here for thousands of years. On the rivers, canals, and ditches, there is transportation and people trading goods. All these components contribute to a curious business on the water called a floating market. In the past, floating markets were formed because the roads and means of transportation were not developed. People needed to buy and sell goods, and they did so on boats gathered on the river. Gradually, it became an indispensable way of trading. Today, although the road network has expanded, floating markets still exist and are growing as a way to preserve and promote the cultural identity of the South. There are many crowded and bustling floating markets such as Cai Be (Tien Giang), Phung Hiep, and Phong Dien (Can Tho). The most crowded is Cai Rang, a popular tourist destination for visitors to Can Tho.
There is a famous folk story about the origin of Cai Rang. In the old days, there were many crocodiles, reptiles and dangerous fish in the South West region. A strong man was getting married to a girl and on their wedding day, they were travelling by boat when they were attacked by a fierce crocodile that ate the girl. The man was so angry that he killed the crocodile and chopped it into small pieces. The crocodile’s teeth fell into the water and when the local people saw this, they named the place Cai Rang – meaning “the tooth.” Another explanation is the name was derived from the Khmer word “ca rang,” which refers to a three-legged stove used on boats. In the past, people traded many “ca rang” here.
About five kilometers from Can Tho city center, Cai Rang floating market is found on the Hau river, where products and unique community activities from all over the country convene. To get there from Can Tho, you need to go to Ninh Kieu wharf and then take a 30-minute boat ride to the market. If you are traveling in a group, you can rent a private boat that carries 10 to 12 people. If you are alone, you can join another group for 30,000 VND (CAD $1.50) per person per trip.
Cai Rang floating market is open all day but is most crowded in the morning from 6-8 a.m., when the weather is still cool, fog hovers above the water’s surface and the sunlight is gentle. To appreciate the best of the floating market, go just after sunrise, when there are fewer people. What is more relaxing and comfortable than sitting on a simple boat at dawn, threading your way through the crowded market, breathing in the fresh air. Every morning hundreds of boats, big and small, converge. Diving into the bustling atmosphere of the market, visitors can observe families of many generations living on the boats. They are like “mobile apartments” with flower pots, pets, facilities such as TV, DVD players, sound systems and parked motorcycles show the status of the owner. To advertise their wares, vendors usually have a long pole on the bow of the boat where a sample of the goods for sale hang. For example, on a boat that sells corn, you will see a cob of corn hanging from the pole. Most boatowners are women who wear the local, traditional long-sleeve “ba ba” shirt and conical hats. Buying here, visitors are usually not overcharged as in city markets. Many farm products are available including potato, cassava, lime, and chili. There is also food and drink for sale, as well as essential items such as toiletries, SIM cards, thread, needles, even gasoline. Each boat is a shop, a house, a family. This is the generous floating life of Can Tho people.
In the past, there were boats with paddles but now there are canoes and speedboats. Buyers also come to the market by boat. The small boats skilfully wriggle between hundreds of big boats and a crash rarely happens. At the Cai Rang floating market there are many ways to measure goods such as in buns, kilos, liters, cans, and baskets. It all depends on the item and the agreement on both sides. Trade takes place quickly and does not become detailed bargaining as on the mainland.
At the market you can try local dishes and exotic delicacies such as sweet bread soup, rustic pancakes, garden glass noodle soup and iced coffee with milk. Mekong Delta cuisine is not only reflected in each dish, but also in the way of “inviting” guests to enjoy the food. If you wave down a breakfast boat, it will immediately come to you full of delicious food, served by the boatowner in her “ba ba” shirt. Balancing a vermicelli soup bowl on your lap, surrounded by the crackling sound of boats, bargaining, and voices calling out, is an experience not found anywhere else.
Keep your ears open for “Amateur music,” sweet voices singing from boats carrying musicians and artisans that are anchored in a crowded place. In the middle of the river, an earnest song rises convergent with the sound of a Vietnamese two-chord fiddle: “This flower is not for sale, mother does not fall for the price.”
As they enjoy dishes on the boats, visitors can watch the saleswomen quickly preparing noodles and listen to their anecdotes of the Mekong delta cooking style.
In Can Tho, Phong Dien floating market is also well known. If Cai Rang mainly sells mainly produce, Phong Dien is more diverse with boats, roofing leaves, knives, hoes, fishing nets, panniers and more. The market is located where the Can Tho River separates from the Hau River, about 17 km southeast of Can Tho city center. It usually opens around 4 a.m. and closes around four hours later.
Can Tho’s floating markets have a rustic and unique beauty, making visitors fall for their simple and endearing atmosphere. No matter how fast the pace of life is, the people of the Mekong Delta remain sincere.
“Cần Thơ gạo trắng nước trong;
Ai đi đến đó thì không muốn về”
“Can Tho has white rice and clear water
Anyone who goes there does not want to leave.”
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt