Discover five vibrant floating markets of Vietnam that are unique to the South-West region of the Mekong Delta
Long and stretched out, located in South-East Asia; Vietnam is a country full of natural wonders and cultural treasures. If you head way down South-West of the country you will discover the Mekong Delta, a region where the Mekong River pours out into the South China Sea. Twisting through villages precariously built on stilts, murky river banks and luscious, overgrown, bank side mangrove and palm leaves, bobs a network of incredible floating markets; extremely popular with tourists but also vital to Vietnamese livelihood. These floating markets in Vietnam are a unique feature to the Mekong Delta.
About the Mekong Delta
Environmental impacts such as; the rising and falling of sea levels and the redisposition of soil has created its formation. This movement of water gradually eroded and reshaped the land. Overtime this accumulated in areas, forming the sand dunes that make up the parts of the Mekong Delta that we see today.
About the floating markets
Imagine walking through the hustle and bustle of a market on the ground but minus the solid floor and stalls and replace with shallow water and skinny, wooden fishing boats called sampans. Sometimes you will also see motorised boats along the waters too. The floating markets are found in river parts where the water is not too deep, making it safer to anchor boats. Trading, buying and exchanging goods are still the primary purposes of the floating markets. The etiquette of haggling and negotiating prices among buyers and traders still occurs, the aroma of delicious fruits and delicacies on offer will still waft past your nostrils and the vibrancy and colour of the boats will still catch your eye, just as market stalls would.
The land that surrounds the Mekong Delta goes through a tropical monsoon climate so the soil is moist and fertile, all year round. This means a diverse range of fruit, rice and vegetables can be grown and pretty much all sampan boats sell their local agricultural produce. Unlike market stalls, the boats of the floating markets do not use written signs to show what they are selling. Instead they tie their produce onto a ‘cay beo’ which is a slim, bamboo pole, for example if they are selling mangos, mangos will hang from the pole. This can be placed horizontally or vertically, and is secured to the boat. Instantly customers can tell what the seller has on offer.
Many people also live on their boat. So if you do see any clothes on display, make sure to double check what is being sold, in case they are actually the belongings of the boat owners hanging out to dry! When planning your visit, it is important to bear in mind that most of the floating markets start in the early hours of the morning, when the sunrises and will often be finished by late morning/midday. There are many floating market tour companies and it is possible to hire private boats too.
Cai Rang floating market – Can Tho city
Cai Rang floating market is around 6 kilometres away from Can Tho city. It is spread out for half a kilometre down the Cai Tho River and Cai Rang Bridge is a superb spot for watching all that goes on at the market.
You can admire the market from the roadside but travelling to it by boat immerses you in a whole new experience. This market is one of the most visited by tourists meaning it is swarming with boats and people. The market opens at around 5am and closes at midday. It is recommended to visit the market in the early hours of the morning to get the most of the lively atmosphere.
As well as local food produce, market-goers will find boats offering different services and products such as; ‘breakfast on the go’, hairdressers, herbalists and those selling gasoline, dried fish, mobile cards, cosmetics and clothes.
Cai Be floating market – Tien Giang province
A Catholic Cathedral is a beautiful backdrop to this floating market. It is situated along the Tien River, within a small town called Cai Be, known for its traditional architecture, crafts and gardens. This market is a popular choice for day trippers who are travelling from Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon.
Unlike most other Vietnamese floating markets, Cai Be stays open until late. So if you aren’t too keen on an early morning hour awaken, then visiting this market is perfect for you as trading goes on all throughout the day! However due to urbanisation, this market is becoming increasingly smaller as boat sellers are choosing to move their trade towards more modern, busy and central markets.
Chau Doc floating market – An Giang province
Due to its proximity with the Cambodian border, this market is a commercial gateway between Vietnam and Cambodia. Many boat owners are from different places therefore; the goods that are on sale tend to be from different regions too.
It is best to visit the market by boat in order to see all that it has to offer in detail. The Hau River is home to the Chau Doc floating market and once visited; tourists can explore many nearby attractions such as; the Sam Mountain or Bà Chúa Xứ Núi Temple.
Tra On floating market – Vinh Long province
Located in the Tra On district, this floating market is smaller and more relaxed compared to most. The market is the last one found along The Hau River before it empties into the sea.
The town that the market floats by is idyllic and overflowing with vegetation and orchards. The boats sell large quantities of this fresh local produce.
The community spirit is clear to see at Tra On market as most boaters are from the area and consider one another as neighbours.
Nga Nam floating market – Nga Nam province
This market is stationed at a unique meeting point of five different rivers called; Ca Mau, Phung Hien, Thanh Tri, Vinh Quoi and Long My. Due to its position, tourists can easily travel to other attractions along the different connected rivers.
Nga Nam floating market is open from sunrise to sunset but the busiest time is between 3am and 8am. At this market boats sell a very broad range of goods including; meat, tropical fruits, rice and even electronic goods.
Preserving the floating markets
At just one market there could be around several hundreds of people living aboard their boats. All human beings produce waste and if you are living on your boat the easiest way to get rid of your rubbish is by dumping it over the side; straight into the rivers that make up the Mekong Delta. This waste can be anything from excrement, to packaging, to food peelings.
As you can imagine this creates a lot of pollution along the river. There are garbage collection teams but the scale of the problem is hard for them to keep under control. If the habits of traders and residents are not changed then the markets could fast become places that are hazardous to human health and the environment.
A main function of the markets is for traders to buy produce and then to use the network of free flowing waters to transport the goods to different regions around Vietnam. However due to rapid urbanisation there has been a great increase in transportation and modern supermarket infrastructure, creating a more desirable way to shop and to transport around produce. Some people believe that if this carries on, the markets will lose their purpose and may become extinct.
The floating markets have become a massive tourist attraction. But what was once a common way of life and way of making money for Vietnamese people has turned into a form of novelty entertainment to keep tourists engaged. It is as though the markets are losing their essence.
Climate change is affecting all areas of the world and Vietnam is no exception. Flooding has always occurred in the Mekong Delta’s regions due to its monsoon climate. But changing sea levels could make flooding more unpredictable, consequently affecting access to the markets and even the yield of crop.
A metaphor for life
Although there are many factors that could negatively affect the floating markets of the Mekong Delta, they are still fascinating attractions, well worth your visit. Vietnamese people are proud to cultivate and sell their land’s diverse produce. They are open to sharing their unique way of living with us, that is so different to any culture of the Western world. The floating markets are almost a metaphor for life; nothing is ever permanent and change is inevitable but we should always try to find vibrancy and inspiration in whatever comes our way.