A wholesaler sells bananas at the Cai Rang Market, a large wholesale floating market on the Hau River, in Can Tho, Vietnam.
CAN THO, Vietnam — The Mekong delta, “the rice basket of Vietnam,” is the source of much of this country’s sustenance. The city of Can Tho, in the heart of the Mekong, is one of the best places to experience this fascinating region. Can Tho is also where you’ll find the country’s largest floating markets, where much of the Mekong’s bounty is bought, sold and bartered.
We had a couple of options for touring the markets. The first was a half-day tour of Cai Rang, a large wholesale floating market on the Hau River. We had also heard great things about the Phong Dien retail market, a much more intimate market on the smaller Can Tho River. Since we had the entire day free, we went for both, as well as a canal tour (which was included in the package).
The markets open very early and close by late morning, so if you want to see them in full swing, get ready to rise and shine. We met our guide before dawn. A warm cup of coffee helped ward off the early morning chill while we huddled in the narrow, handcrafted teakwood skiff that would be our base for the next seven hours.
Silhouetted by the ever-changing violet, orange and yellow morning sky, our guide prepared for departure as the river was coming to life. A quick pull on the rope starter kicked life into the primitive straight-shaft engine, and our journey began.
As the sun crested the horizon, igniting the river with bright equatorial sun, we began to make out an enormous congregation of large and small sampans laden with brightly colored produce. “Cai Rang market!” our driver yelled over the rising din.
He pulled gently alongside another small boat and ordered us a breakfast of steaming fish soup. Around us, radiant pineapples, taro, coconuts, pumpkins, bananas, pomelo, longan, jackfruit, mangos and durian contrasted sharply with the primitive dull gray and brown wood of the sampans’ decks and gunwales. This was more like touring a natural history museum than visiting a grocery store.
Leaving Cai Rang behind, we motored up the Can Tho River past women in colorful long gowns and dressy hats wrestling their gas-powered sampans through the heavy morning traffic. This was a nation at work — the reckless ordered dance of commerce — in short, life. The experience was engaging, and neither my photographer nor I realized we’d reached Phong Dien until we were upon it.
Phong Dien is where local producers sell to larger wholesalers. So while it’s a smaller, more intimate market, it has a more frenzied pace as buyers hustle to grab as much as they can get, knowing they will make huge profits at larger markets. Our guide got us coffee, and for the next hour we watched the wholesalers swarm the farmers like bees collecting pollen from fresh blossoms. When we snapped photos, the women coyly blocked their faces and the men served up eager, toothy grins.
The market cooled (almost all the action is over by midday), and we began our return journey through the canals. I didn’t expect much from this part of our tour; in fact, I imagined a boring slog through a muddy-banked series of drainage ditches.
Instead, we were treated to a magical journey through Vietnam’s canal life — a wondrous tour replete with farms, aviaries, pigsties, stables, gardens, barns and rice paddies, gliding past us at the speed of gently flowing water. This timeless, circuitous cruise, decorated by aromatic water hyacinth and handmade teakwood bridges, brought us eventually to a soft green bank, a cool bamboo shelter and a mouthwatering lunch of basa fish and rice.
One of the difficulties with travel is you never know what is going to live up to the hype. I can say without hesitation that Can Tho’s floating markets will not only deliver, but will provide sensation-filled memories that will last long after you leave this magical country.
By ERIC VOHR