A Trip to the Mekong Delta’s Floating Markets

There is an incredible bridge laid across the Mekong Delta’s Hau River. Guide books might give it a cursory mention, but it deserves more. At least I think so, although I’m only a casual reader of Engineering Digest and Cable Bridge Weekly. I cannot say with professional certainty that this bridge (called Can Tho Bridge) deserves special recognition within the bridge sight seeing community. Aesthetically it is remarkable: its support structure is massive—two sky-scraper tall towers support a tentacle array of cables that hold up the carriage way. Route 1, a multiple-laner, Vietnam’s main highway, undulates towards the bridge like an unbroken wave set. Crossing by car makes the supporting cables blur like chalk scrapings against the diluted ochre water below, far below: there’s ample clearance for the barges, tugs, and array of river craft that pass underneath. Yet, it is seeing the Can Tho Bridge in situ that makes it more remarkable. Its prominence marks it as the area’s definable feature. To be frank, it reminds me of pictures of Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang because of the audacious promise suggested by a largess that outsizes and makes dejectedly puny its surroundings. The bridge is an exquisite frame on a middling canvas. A Hermes tie between the lapels of a rented suit.

When approaching from Saigon, Can Tho (the city of) is across the bridge on Hau River’s opposite bank. While crossing, it’s forgivable to believe you’re about to enter a remarkable place, even as you look east and see rusted frigates moving imperceptibly along the shore and see in lanes around you high-axled, open backed farm delivery trucks with faded livery and loads of cabbage. But Can Tho is likable. Leonie took it to immediately: as soon as we arrived at our hotel she dropped her bag, said good bye, and wandered off to explore the few temple offerings, thus leaving me to kick stones down sidewalks alone and wander neighborhood lanes. 

Can Tho is likable perhaps because it is what Saigon is not: a regional city and reminder that not all southeast Asian cities are loud and busy. Roads here are wide, their surface areas not at all times covered by traffic. Restaurants are still open-aired but not as crowded. The places on Hai Bà Trưng street are the exception, as this is the city’s gastro and partying heart. With the Can Tho River sleek on its shoulder, this street makes for a nice evening walk. It has a gardened promenade complete with a goliath, polished statue of Ho Chi Minh. Coffee shops are everywhere in the city. Come day’s end they fill and grow rowdy. Men with nails lacquered by tobacco sip bistro glasses filled with coffee, the top layer water from melted ice. When a cafe closes, the clientele picks up and moves to the next open one, hop scotching for caffeine, more glasses filled with coffee, eyes watering from smoke, whites getting peppery, hands shaking like seismic activity. Into wee morning hours this continues.

Ho Chi Minh Statue

Leonie and I came to Can Tho for the Mekong Delta since Can Tho is the origin point for numerous boat tours, and is also the nearest city to the Mekong’s most famous floating market: Cai Rang.

Touring the Mekong is big business. You see it in the Chinese junk boats that are moored to cleats along the rickety docks at city edge. Their companions are flat bottomed speed boats with canvas canopies, company names like “Can Tho Tourists” painted on the hull. The junks have capacities north of 20. The speedsters a dozen or so. Boats offer multi-night river excursions. Private cabins are available, there are lounge decks, three course meals, wine. The canopy boats just have that shoddy look that comes when touched by too many tourists. The feel is corporate. Overused. But of course, since Mekong is a tourist place, it’d be impossible to scrub off the tourist residue. The ick is all over glossy brochures, eye-rolling claims about experiencing an authentic Mekong Delta, the realization that tours are pimped by dozens of travel agencies and whose owners have mastered SEO and bamboozled Trip Advisor ratings. Coming, as I do, from a Western, bourgeois rearing—what with our vintage Instagram filters, hipster arts and crafts and appropriated fashions, and a cultural obsession that borders on the fetish for an “authentic” local experience—I felt quite a pretentious revulsion to a lot of the tours that were on offer.¹ We did find one: a private tour with a local guide that included six hours on the water, breakfast, lunch, a visit to a cacao farm, a visit to a rice paper factory, drinks, fruits, taxi cab pick up and drop off, and was twenty-six dollars. I’m speaking into my echo chamber again, but the company’s name is EcoTours and they’re depositing a zero dollar check for me to say that I recommend them.

We needed to be on our hotel steps at 4:15 am to meet our guide. 4:15 am left and then 4:16 arrived empty handed. Car engines sputtered far off, nothing more than endemic city noise. Nothing approaching. The street’s only vehicle was a taxi, lights off, parked across from us. Five minutes passed before a motorbike turned the corner. The driver dismounted, walked up to us, and we had a “Dr. Livingston, I presume” moment as he introduced himself straight away as Vao.

All flustered and apologetic about his tardiness, he said he’d called a cab. He was small, a bit squirrelly, a university student who wore a Notre Dame hat (he didn’t know what Notre Dame was) and shorts a few fabrics shy of being capris. He paddy caked his cell phone and displayed far too much energy for the hour. He saw the cab across the street and hustled over to it. We followed and watched as Vao knocked on the glass. The cabbie had been sleeping inside and bounced from his chair like he’d just been blasted with a surprise enema. They spoke, Vao turned away, and shuttered. “Not our taxi,” he said. 

Ours arrived and drove us under ailing green street lights.² Vendors popped open their food carts in morning preparation, and security guards slept slanted on flexible plastic chairs, hats tilted over their foreheads, the collateral they protected chained at hand side. The sky at this point was as dark as new denim.

At the docks, we walked down a two-by-four plank into a boat that looked like a banana sawed in half lengthwise. Leonie and I sat back of center, Vao behind us, behind him, on a platform, stood our coxswain.

Our coxswain spoke no English but greeted us merrily. The name she wrote for me in my notebook turned out to be illegible, so from now on she’s referred to as coxswain or she. I’d say she was near sixty. Her body was blockish: flat shoulders, wide torso, stern core. She wore a floral pattern outfit, and had tossed over it a cardigan for the morning’s breeze. Had she been wearing a shirt that said “World’s Most Badass Grandma,” I wouldn’t have batted an eye if told it was a competition’s prize rather than a grandchild’s gift. She might be the most capable and industrious person I have ever met. She maneuvered the boat with deft alacrity. Standing sternwise in sandals, no amount of boat rocking upset her stance. Each time Leonie and I got out of the boat, we’d return to see that she’d filleted mangos for our eating, or skinned a pineapple then carved its sides into a circular staircase, or threaded palm fronds into crowns or roses or grass hoppers. With her controlling the boat and the day, I felt at total ease.

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Getting me to feel at ease was no minor feat. First off, it’s me: I err on worrying. But, second, Vietnamese boat travel is a bit unnerving. Not on the same level as bus travel, but still eccentric enough that it deserves introduction, starting with the anatomy of a boat.

The anatomy of our vessel was common despite its seemingly improvised nature: a motorcycle tire protected our bow, different types of wood cut at different times were cobbled together to make our hull, the boat titled off its central axis the way a gondola does, and it’s propellant system was, for me at least, curiously unique. The motor looked as if it’d been torn from a leaf blower then repurposed. It was, using the appropriate parlance, an “outboard engine.” To Americans, this phrase means a motor that’s clamped to the stern of a boat: the cowling is big, the propeller is almost directly underneath the stern, and the motor moves when a coxswain holding onto the tiller pushes/pulls it right or left. If you were to look at a side-view diagram of an outboard engine, you’d say it makes a right angle with the boat.  The Vietnamese outboard engine is…different. It is not the type of outboard engine that an American would think of. I looked this up, it’s actually a particular subset of outboard engine called a “shrimp tail.” For starters, the motor is built onto a steel frame that’s attached to a pivot that’s affixed to the stern. The steering handle that sticks into the boat is typically in the form of a steel loop—like half of a hula hoop that’s had its sides compressed. The shape lets a coxswain steer with hands or feet. The loop in our boat was wide enough that the coxswain stood inside it and steered using her hips. From out the motor juts the bearing tube. This is a metal pole about ten feet long that enters the water at an acute angle a stone’s kick from the stern. The propeller is at the end. With this confusing set up in mind, I ask that you forget all of it and simply picture a seesaw: the raised seesaw end is the steering handle, the lowered seesaw end is the bearing tube with the propeller at the tip, and the middle point of the seesaw is where the stern transom would be. Now, think of what a seesaw does. This engine is capable of doing the same and with similar ease. Downward pressure on the steering handle sends the whirling propeller airborne. The pivot that the handle is on top of allows side to side movement as well as up and down. What this means is that when a boat putters through a crowded floating market and the propeller comes too close to another boat, coxswains can and do loft their still whirling propellers into the air. On multiple occasions, everyone in our boat had to duck because of lead blades passing overhead.

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I’m guessing that Vietnamese boats are engineered like this because of river debris. Our propeller stalled a dozen times, but our coxswain swung the propeller into the boat and hacked off whatever plastic had become entwined. The operation took two minutes. When we struck a coconut and broke the propeller, Vao removed the broken propeller, which the coxswain had swung next to him, and wrenched on a new one within five minutes. An American outboard engine’s weight and awkward angle wouldn’t allow for such an easy onboard repair.

We boated to river center. Green pin points of light marked the bows of other boats. They crossed underneath the constellation of street lights beaming on the raised river banks. The river in this part was scored between tall banks supported by concrete. Ladders dropped from the embankments, and plenty of people used these to plop into the shallow banks to bathe or else take up supplies from boats tied to them below. After a half hour into an inland breeze the sun lifted behind us.

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Retaining walls went away and in their place came neighborhoods of shanty homes. They had as foundations knobby hardwood poles driven into the river mud. High and low tides were readable on the poles as dark lines. The homes were entirely hand crafted: walls a mixture of particle board, delivery crates, and sheet metal. In the water below moved grass reeds, a kind of riparian lawn. Vao said locals widely cultivate the grass  to use for furniture making and to slow erosion, so you see this grass everywhere, in unclaimed river mud, on bamboo plats, in aquatic nurseries. The grass acts as a net as well, catching styrofoam, plastic gas canisters, and floating soda bottles. 

If the Mekong Delta has a single, obvious negative, then it is the trash. The water reeks of nitrogen run off and gasoline. At times the plume of excrement is so pungent that you need to proclaim your innocence to boat companions. The water color is like a sludge or like coffee grounds have been left to soak at the bottom. Th current churns refuse to the surface, tides scuttle it ashore.  

With the sun up, Vao asked if we’d like coffee. We said yes, and approached a boat that was a veritable bodega despite appearing to be on the verge of collapse. Inside I saw coolers filled with soda, a corner piled with coconuts, a stove, multiple coffee pots, a ginormous can of condensed milk. A bespoke display shelf sat atop the boat’s cabin, its length and width built to fit a sampling of every drink offered: Coke, Fanta, Pepsi, Diet Coke, a narrow canned drink that contains bird nests, beer, red bull. The coffee cranked out in this bare setting beat to death all that fair trade, organic, gluten free, ergonomic, quadruple filtered, thrice-baptized, whatever, beans that a Williamsburg barista offers up for six dollars: ribbons of coffee flattered by sweet milk unraveled so fast from cup bottom that a gulp had me wondering where it’d gone. When you finish coffee in Vietnam, all you think is that you want more, but then you’re slammed with the caffeine rush and the need for bathroom and think, My God, let one be near.

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After another thirty minutes we approached the Mekong’s largest floating market: Cai Rang. Cai Rang is nothing but wholesale vendors. Its peak busy time is 9am. Boats are visible from afar, and the businesses operating out of each amazed me. Think of whatever purpose-built vehicle exists and whatever land based, brick and mortar business there is and know that there, in Cai Rang, is its water borne cousin. Cement trucks are cement boats—men instead of churns do the work of mixing sand, pebbles, and water into mortar. Backhoes occupy boats and the gunwales are nearly level with the river top. A high wave or even a white cap looked capable of capsizing them. Gas stations are gas barges. That bodega boat was the local Starbucks. Banh mi vendors are Subway joints without the five dollar footlong nonsense: here the baguettes bristle with crackly crusts despite the humidity. Stuffed into the incision are herbs, pickles, cut up pork, the insides mortared into delectable goodness with the twin killing of mayo and pork pate. One sandwich lightens your wallet by 20,000 VND (.88 USD). 

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Going through the market is like paddling through a melee. Boats bump into one another, rafts zig zag from hefty paddlers. The barges that sell produce are anchored to moorings. Some sellers come as far as the Vietnam/Cambodia border. They’ll boat and anchor down for a week, rarely going ashore. This means lifestyles are on conspicuous display: women bathe on the stern, holding pails by hemp rope to fill in the river, scrubbing lye bubbles into their arms; men in Slavic squats trawl for fish then butcher the catch on deck and cook whatever remains over open coals; young children watch you with idle eyes from inside cramped cabins.

 

 

The market is exuberant and ad hoc; curated and symmetrical fruit and veg displays would be laughably out of place. Each barge specializes in a particular produce, and there’s heaps on board. If a boat sells pineapples then there is a clime-able mound of pineapples. Watermelons and cabbages make hills. Iceberg lettuce heads are a melted together, green gestalt. Yet there is a sort of guiding compass for shoppers. If you do lose your bearings, or are on the look out for a few hundred of an item, then you can look skyward. Littering the horizon are potatoes, cabbages, watermelons—whatever produce you can think of—tied to the ends of twenty foot poles and hung in the sky. Go forth and follow the Great North Potato the Lord said to the Wise Men. 

 

 

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But…(there is always a “but” when a cultural hallmark or distinguishing, antiquated lifestyle has persisted for hundreds if not thousands of years)…Cai Rang shrinks. Another market we visited—Phong Dien—shrinks as well. “In five years,” Vao said, “These markets will no longer be here.” Vao recited a variation of the same story: youth experiences abundance that age sees shrink to a point of endangerment or extinction. For a millennium, Cai Rang was the main marketplace for food. Then Vietnam built roads. Then, more recently, modern and wide ranging bridge systems. Over a dozen have been built in the Mekong region and more are planned. The Can Tho Bridge is the country’s largest, its most grand, and most expensive ($342M USD). It was a giant leap towards modernization. But. These infrastructural improvements twist the aperture of Cai Rang’s future into a pinhole. If it survives it may be because it’s preserved for tourists, thus becoming a chin nod to Vietnam’s capitalist and aquatic past and converting a thousand year old lifestyle into Instagrammable kitsch. So if you want to see something incredible, then drive across the Can Tho bridge, wake up at dawn, and sip coffee among boat vendors selling garlic. You have less time to do this than you think.

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←Next: Phu Quoc’s Tarnished Promise

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¹ This attitude is bizarre. I’m guilty of it. You are too I bet. It’s so innocuously pervasive that it’s practically a travel article trope. How many  American Way magazine features have you read, or how many ads have you seen in Condé  Nast traveler, that contain phrases similar to: “Get off the beaten path” and “Live like the locals do”? A few weeks after Mekong, Leonie and I met a Dutch girl. She was spectacularly brusque and annoying, she’d toured Vietnam on motorbike, and held the common opinion that the best way to travel is to immerse yourself: eat in village restaurants, live and work among the locals, the standard off-the-beaten path rigmarole. I get this mentality and I agree—it is a marvelous way to travel and understand a culture—but it strikes me as irredeemably bizarre to want to join temporarily in daily lives and take photos of people and comment on a nation’s unique faunae and talk with sincere wonder about a country’s habits and do it in a way that is not touristy. The action and the desire are in opposition. I do understand why to avoid tourist lines and pre-packaged tours—but the desire to live like a local is…and perhaps I’m being extra sensitive here…a privileged, even a superior, attitude that no one wants to fess up to having. I think this because, at the core of this desire to immerse yourself in a culture, is the assumption that you can, in fact immerse yourself: that that culture and its people will allow you to go in and eat up the meats of its cultural stew in the way you see fit. (If there is reciprocity—for example a Canadian can enter American culture just as easily as an American can enter Canadian culture—then cultural immersion doesn’t strike me as privileged or exploitative.) This Dutch girl had no issue knocking on the door to a home and asking to spend the night. She even admitted she’d be frightened if a tourist did that to her at her home. For other visitors—those not blessed with a particular skin tone or those who worship a different deity (or deities) for example—it is possible that they are socially or racially limited in what they can experience when they visit a different country.

² The driver was female. Not our first, and not our last. Many of the drivers, tour guides, and boat operators were female, and I wondered if certain aspects of Vietnamese culture are more egalitarian than in America. If I had only one finger on each hand, then I could still count on one hand the number of female taxi drivers I’ve come across in New York City.   

 

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