The Floating Market

Day 340 – 4 February, 2016
A ferry back to the mainland from Phu Quoc, a mototaxi to a random food stall where a guy is using a pencil to hand write a bus ticket to Can Tho, and I’m left to wait an hour at a plastic kids table, not being told what is going on, if a bus is coming, what time, or how much it will cost because no one speaks English. The whole process is exasperating and a little amusing. Yet, I wait. A minivan eventually arrives already packed with people. I quickly check my Rome2Rio app – how long is this ride again? 2-3 hours. The sliding side door won’t open because all the luggage will fall out so I have to crawl through the front seat to the one remaining seat, next to an elderly woman who has her bare feet propped on the driver’s headrest in front of her. I learn that the seat is vacant because it’s not actually there. The cushion is askew so I’m half on it and half on the metal frame. There was luggage in my foot space so I had to sit with my legs crossed and pulled up onto the metal frame. I don’t bother to look for a seat belt.

The face of someone who is not amused

Can Tho was a spontaneous destination. I was meant to go to Ho Chi Minh City before the Chinese New Year, but it was to be a significantly long journey and Can Tho was approximately half way. It’s also the hub of the Mekong River Delta and one of the most infamous floating markets in the world. I checked into a lovely peaceful riverside dorm and was warmly welcomed with a lemonade that (almost) erased the prior minivan ride. A rope bridge connected the lodge to the dorms, hammocks swinging lazily in the breeze. Right away, I wished I was staying more than one night.

Only 30 days in Vietnam was going to go all too quickly. It’s funny how my perspective had changed from taking 2 week vacations from my former corporate job to traveling for almost a year and realizing that a 30 day visa was not sufficient to see everything in a country that I wanted to see. It’s true that the more you travel, the longer your travel wish list grows.  I digress…

The floating market is a series of boats, all sizes, that tie up together and represent all commerce in the area. You can find anything from flowers to watermelon to soup. We set off before dawn. This was the Friday before Tet and, we were told, the busiest day of the year because the next day, the market would close for 4 in a row. My timing was impeccable….and pure coincidence. Gordon Ramsay had once visited the delta on his show. After having sampled soup from a local woman, he declared that it was the best soup he had ever tasted, skyrocketing the woman to local fame. She couldn’t churn the soup out fast enough for the demand. Sadly, her home had recently burned down and the community had rallied behind her with donations and support to keep her business afloat (pun intended).

Loud speakers squawked in Vietnamese. Our guide, who was Canadian (go figure), explained that they were making announcements about international markets, mostly US and Chinese markets, the relationship of the dong to the dollar and the yuan. It was a bit chaotic but in an organized way and I found it fascinating, the way that each customer knew exactly where to find the vendor he needed amongst the sea of floating shops. Instead of signs, a boat might attach a bag of onions to their mast, if that’s what they were selling or a bag of beans. Smaller rowboats with sundry items, like chips and soda and beer, would randomly pop up next to us. These were usually manned by boys younger than 10 years old.

Next, we disembarked to the land market, which was equally vibrant and full of life. Motorbikes zoomed through the narrow alleys, some loaded with baskets of flowers, some with a string of fish, and some with an entire pig carcass strapped to the back. There were live frogs and dead rats, crickets and spiders and slugs. Pretty much anything that moves or grows is edible. Nothing is wasted.  If it’s not edible, then perhaps it can be used in medicine or to make clothing or for decoration.   The ground was covered in muck,  probably a paste of animal blood and mud.  It reeked of rotten meat and raw sewage.  It was a smelly, dirty place, yet there was a real sense of community at the market and a very functional part of everyday life in the delta.

Market activity was winding down while the morning was still young so I had time for a bike ride. Donning traditional Vietnamese hats (which have a remarkable cooling effect from the intense sun), I don’t remember much about the places we cycled to, mostly because businesses were closed for the holiday. There was a blacksmith and an apothecary and a school, a rice factory and a rice wine factory too. What I remember most were the shouts “Hello!” from every single person we encountered. They all smiled and they all seemed genuinely pleased (maybe a little amused) that a small group of westerners were exploring in this backwater corner of their country. And truth be told, I was too.

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