The rising sun had brightened up Ninh Kieu and we were happy to be the first tourists to arrive at the famous wharf in southern Can Tho City, to experience the beautiful sunrise over the Hau River, the biggest branch in the Mekong Delta that leads to the sea. At 5am, we found ourselves on a narrow wooden boat floating leisurely along the Mekong River, cooled off by a gentle early morning breeze and the smell of fresh water. We were heading to Cai Rang floating market, as we had decided that it would be the first destination on our one-day boat tour of Can Tho City. Taking a boat tour is the best way to discover the Romanesque beauty of the city, nicknamed Tay Do, (the Western capital). The waters there have always been known as the life and soul of this southern city.
It is made up of a network of streams and canals, that feed the sweetest rice and the biggest variety of fruit crops in Viet Nam. The city's floating markets epitomise how important the waters of the Mekong Delta are to the local way of life, which takes the breath away from some of the global visitors.
Cai Rang floating market is the biggest fruit and agricultural wholesale market in the Mekong Delta and the soil in the delta, fed by the nutrient-rich water from the Mekong, produces the largest variety of fruit and vegetables in Asia. Although the market is open all day, the best time to visit is in the early morning when all the boats gather and the hustle and bustle of the wholesale traders begins. Boat buffet: A variety of food is served for breakfast on the boat at Cai Rang floating market.
We were lucky to have Mrs Nguyen Thi Nam as our boatwoman, who was also our dedicated guide. We met her only the day before, just after we had arrived in the city, but took her phone number and called her later when we had decided to take the tour. It is not difficult to find a boat as dozens of the narrow craft wait for customers at Ninh Kieu Wharf in the city. But to find a boatman as nice as Nam, you have to be lucky!
Cai Rang Market sometimes surprises people who are visiting it for the first time. Here, the vendors do not shout out their wares because their cries would be lost on the vastness of the river. They tie some of their goods to a cay beo, a tall pole on the deck, so customers can see from a distance what they are selling. To our surprise, we discovered a higgedty piggedty multitude of boats loaded with many different kinds of tropical fruit and other seasonal products, including watermelon, mango, orange, pineapple, dragon fruit, durian, pumpkin, cucumber – by the tonne!
But Cai Rang is more than just a market! Besides fruit and veg and other foodstuffs, customers can buy petrol, sim cards and even spare parts for their motorbikes. Our boat then approached another little boat selling a variety of foods. We tried a bowl of hu tieu (southern-style noodles) and had a cup of tea, while bobbing around on the water. It was the most memorable breakfast of my life, but not for Nam. For more than 30 years as a boatwoman, she has taken breakfast every morning on the boat, with her customers.
After we had a walk around the market, Nam invited us to visit her sister's house on the river. There, we discovered that many of the boats were not only shops, but floating mobile homes. Like any house on land, Nam's sister's house had a television, bed, kitchen and flowering plants. When we arrived, the children were playing cards with each other when their mother, Nam's sister, was selling mangoes.
"They have lived in this floating house for 10 years and they never want to leave it, they've become part of the river," said Nam. Can Tho attracts tourists not only because of its floating markets, floating homes but also for its small waterways. We asked Nam to take us along the small canals, in the shadow of the water coconut trees, typical to the region. The little sampan passed leisurely by stilt-houses, laughing children swimming and local women washing their hair and their clothes by hand in the river. Nam suddenly stopped the boat and picked a small branch of golden su flower. She gave us the flower while humming the melody of the well-known song Hoa su nha nang (The su flower of my girlfriend's house) telling of the love a man has for a woman. The 50-year-old divorced woman surprised us for having such a young heart and being so optimistic after many misfortunes.
After haft an hour crossing the small canals, we arrived at an orchard belonging to Muoi Be in An Khanh District. He took us on a guided tour of his two-hectare orchard where a huge variety of fruit trees had been planted a number of years before. We found lots of fruit, which was amazing for me as it was the first time I had come across dragon-fruit and mangosteen still growing on the trees. We also tasted the fresh dragon-fruit and water coconuts, which are typical local fruits.
It was already noon by the time we left the garden so we chose to end our boat tour at the My Khanh tourist village, which features a garden-style eco-tourist site. We spent the whole afternoon fishing, enjoying hot tea, eating fruit and listening to traditional music. Life's rhythm seemed to slow down and we cherished these peaceful moments.
"If we could only live like this forever", said my friend Tran Nhu Nguyen.
"Only when we come here can we understand how the local people live, and see how beautiful the Mekong Delta is," she said.
Several tourist companies in Can Tho offer tours to the floating market and a local fruit farm for around VND300,000 (US$14) per person. But if you hire a boat yourself and discover the region on your own like we did, you will enjoy the region much more.
It's best to visit the city in summer (the fruit season) when floating markets become much more animated and the orchards are much more interesting than in late autumn or winter. Can Tho City has a reputation for being a welcoming place, where everybody is smiling and obliging. Indeed the Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta have a saying that goes:
Can Tho gao trang nuoc trong,
Ai di den do long khong muon ve.
Can Tho, the land of white rice and clear waters,
Anyone coming here will not want to leave