Despite better road networks and more bridges, many people in southern Vietnam still trade and shop in floating markets that began hundreds of years ago. Locals in Vietnam’s river deltas have maintained their tradition of hosting these markets on river bends.
No visit to the mekong Delta is complete without an outing to a floating market. About a dozen relatively large and crowded floating markets take place all over the delta. Famous ones include Cai Rang Floating market, Phong Dien Floating market in Can Tho, Cai Be Floating market in Tien Giang, Nga Nam Floating market in Soc Trang, Chau Doc Floating market in An Giang and Ca mau Floating market.
Back when people first started to trade goods on rivers and interlacing canals, floating markets featured mainly agricultural products. Today, the merchandise is increasingly diverse and meets all the needs of people’s daily lives. Visitors will find everything from traditional handicrafts made in each region, to household appliances and food. You will even find services like haircuts and electrical goods repair. Boats packed with fruit are a signature image of a floating market, yet market-goers can also discover the unique cuisine of the South via boats selling popular local snacks.
Like conventional markets in Vietnam, floating markets take place before dawn when it’s still cool and the sun has not risen. At 5 or 6am, boats packed with local delicacies may be seen coming and going across river bends. While the rivers are packed with big boats, small ferries and canoes, very few collisions occur. These vehicles travel the rivers with an underwritte rule of mutual consensus that mirrors the honest nature of the delta’s inhabitants. People treat each other with warmth and generosity. Upon reaching the market’s centre, boats and ferries all slow down. Boats transporting delicacies reduce their speed to oﬀer goods for sale. Boats carrying market-goers also slow down so that shoppers can watch the market unfold and choose some favourite goods.
Each boat’s prow features a bamboo pole decorated with the products on oﬀer. Boats selling the same products don’t gather together like in a normal market but keep floating around. Shoppers look for bamboo poles strung with the goods they need. If a pole displays a range of goods, the boat oﬀers a wide range of products. The locals refer to these bamboo poles as “they sell what they hang” and “they sell what they say”. Merchants in floating markets tend not to inflate prices much, and visitors enjoy the chance to talk with these generous boat-owners. Going to a floating market gives visitors insight into the daily lives of merchant families, some of whom have three generations living under one floating roof. Since they spend all of their time on the water, these people’s boats may hold household appliances, bonsais and even pets. While you might feel saddened by these families’ diﬃcult lives on the river, you can’t help but admire their hard work and optimism.
Here and there you can hear a mellow voice echoing or see a gentle young woman in a bà ba tunic pulling at the oars. These images will remain in your mind long after your journey to the mekong Delta.