Asia’s Declining Floating Markets Still Strong in Can Tho, Vietnam
There’s something quintessentially Asian about the image of a floating market. The rustic boats, fresh fruit and old ladies in conical hats appeal to outsiders who have never seen anything like it. As many tourists find out, that romanticized vision of tranquil river life doesn’t usually live up to reality. Some of the floating markets – particularly around Bangkok, Thailand – cater strictly to tourists by selling tacky souvenirs and overpriced snacks. With the advent of highways and mass transportation, floating markets aren’t the economic necessity they once were and are on the decline.
That doesn’t mean they’re gone just yet. To see the real deal, you need to get away from the main cities and off the main tourist trail to Can Tho, Vietnam.
The place to see some of the best floating markets is three hours from Ho Chi Minh City. The city of Can Tho boasts 1.1 million people, but it’s a quiet town spread out over an area twice the size of New York City. There is the nice Mekong riverfront, a legitimate waterpark ,and some quaint Western-friendly cafes. The main reason travelers stop here is to rent a boat and guide to explore the floating markets for a day. Little old ladies aggressively ask passers-by to rent a boat. There’s also a tourist ticket booth, while hotels can also set you up. I paid $25 for a private six-hour tour on a slow boat.
At 5 a.m. – the best time to leave to catch the floating markets at their peak – the city of Can Tho is already bustling. The sun isn’t up, but men sit around on plastic stools playing cards, while laborers lug crates of food along the riverfront. On a modest boat with room for 6, I was the only passenger. As lively as the streets were, the river was quiet save for a passing barge or two. Within an hour, as the sun rose spectacularly on a wide part of the Mekong River, a swarm of boats settled in at the impressive Cai Reng Floating Market.
Boats of all shapes and size – some rowed by strong-looking ladies and others equipped with powerful engines – were anchored side by side. Some were full of potatoes. Others were stocked with pineapples. One lady on a small boat was brewing Vietnamese coffee, while another boat had stir fried vegetables for hungry vendors. There weren’t any foreigners in sight and I was paid no mind. What would a tourist like me do with kilos upon kilos of watermelons anyways? There must have been more than a hundred boats as we cruised past them to our next destination.
We passed fishermen squatting in tiny canoes and casting nets in the hopes of catching fish. Small villages – both on the water and off – were commonplace. After another hour or two of boating, we reached Phnon Dien Floating Market. There were hardly any motor boats, and shopping here was a much more personal affair. Vendors simply paddle in and aimlessly float around as transactions blossom. Now this is the kind of floating market that winds up on all the postcards. It certainly had its appeal, but I was more impressed by the scope of the previous Cai Reng Floating Market. Or maybe it’s because it was getting later in the day and temperatures were rising. We cut the engine and relaxed for 45 minutes as everyone else at the market was busy haggling down prices.
For our return trip to Can Tho, the captain took us off the wide Mekong River and through a small canal in the forest. The change of pace from the Mekong to this quiet, leafy waterway was striking. The driver was a quiet man of few words, but he stopped by the land and gestured for me to walk. He sketched out some rudimentary directions and I was on my way. I suppose I should have been more leery, but a few hours on the small boat made me yearn to stretch my legs. On a tranquil dirt path, I passed by ducks, chickens and some bored-looking villagers.
Things went bad when the rain clouds gathered and the path forked in several directions. I turned right as the rain started to fall. I doubled back and took shelter under a tree. The captain found me and laughed, gesturing to the opposite path. We walked to a nearby restaurant, had a snack and then went onward for a couple more hours back to Can Tho. After six hours total, I was back in Can Tho in time to catch a noon bus to Ha Tien on the Vietnam-Cambodia border.
The idea of getting up at 5 a.m. is totally unappealing, but it’s well worth it to see the Can Tho floating markets in action. Both Cai Reng and Phnon Dien had completely different vibes, yet both lived up to that picture-perfect ideal of a floating market. Looking back, the boat ride was one of my favorite parts of my one week trip through southern Vietnam.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?