An early morning motoring through the Mekong Delta’s floating markets…
‘When I don’t have to work on Sunday, my favourite thing to do is get a group of friends together, drink lots of rice wine and share a nice big plate of dog meat, it’s delicious!’…
…this little gem of information was being given to me in the midst of a long lunchtime conversation with ‘Chicken’ – the petite Vietnamese man who was our private guide for the morning we were spending cruising the Mekong Delta.
Welcome to Vietnam!
Our day with Chicken had actually begun long before he started dishing up culinary advice. At 5.30am we’d scurried out of the cool, dry interior of our hotel and down to the nearby riverside in the midst of a hot and thick tropical downpour. ‘Why so early?’ you might ask. Well, this early rise was undertaken rather begrudgingly to allow us to arrive right in time for the beginning of some of the Mekong Delta’s renowned floating markets.
After slipping and sliding our way down the muddy riverbank it was just a clumsy leap before we were seated in a small but long wooden boat with a smiling plump Vietnamese woman at the helm.
The boat was fortunately equipped with a retractable plastic roof so the pounding rain was kept at bay as we began slowly making our way along the Can Tho River in the misty grey of the early morning. As the sun slowly began to rise and the rain mercifully began to ease I was able to spot the stirrings of early morning life in the rickety houses and shacks that lined the river bank.
Tiny children dangled their arms and legs over the edge of a makeshift wooden jetty, trying with all their might to reach down and touch the water.
A group of women walked down towards a small dugout canoe, their shoulders laden with bags for the supplies they would soon by buying from the nearby floating markets.
As we passed close by to several houses I could hear the sound of chopping and rolling as that morning’s breakfast was being prepared.
In an ancient wooden boat a tiny boy with a brightly coloured backpack strapped to his back was being motored towards school by his parents.
The boat traffic surrounding us gradually began to increase until we found ourselves bobbing right in the midst of a number floating stalls. We’d arrived at the Cai Rang floating market, the largest floating market in the entire Mekong Delta. Although there were apparently much fewer vendors there than usual due to the heavy rain, it was still fairly crowded with clumps of boats dotted along a roughly 400 metre long stretch of the river. Fruit, vegetables, breakfast (pho), rice, corn…the list of products that were available at this buoyant Vietnamese version of your local IGA was pretty extensive!
At the front of most boats was a long, thin bamboo pole that typically stretched for a couple of metres above the head of the boat. At the very top of this bamboo pole you could find whatever product that boat was selling strapped tightly, effectively announcing to everyone what little stall was up for grabs long before they could have the chance to look inside the actually boat itself. From the amount of bobbing pineapples and corn cobs I could see dipping in and out of sight over the sea of boats I would have to say that these were the vendors’ items of choice that morning!
We weaved our way through the myriad of boats and eventually came to rest in front of one that seemed to be doing a particularly roaring business. Now it had become time for us to partake in our own morning routine and tackle our dreariness head on with a good strong glass of Vietnamese coffee! After a few yelled instructions from Chicken the little lady manning the boat swirled the thick dark liquid into a plastic cup before throwing in a solid few glugs of gooey sweetened condensed milk.
The sugary, strong coffee was both soothing and fortifying and almost immediately we were gazing upon the market that surrounded us with much more attentive eyes. It seems the Vietnamese like their coffee particularly sweet and rich and this syrupy milk was to become a staple at all of our breakfast tables over our time in Vietnam.
With the caffeine flowing strongly through our veins we picked up speed and motored on for the 40 minute journey towards the Phuong Dien floating market.
As we zoomed across the opaque muddy water nibbling on fresh pineapple bought from the markets we chatted away with Chicken about his family, job, studies and even his love life! He had been married to a long time sweetheart for a little over a year and it was rather adorable seeing his face light up when he brought out his phone to show Will and I a few of the wedding photos he had saved on there. It turns out that she was currently living in Ho Chi Minh city – about 4 hours away by bus – for work and so with his work and studying fulltime they are only able to see each other every few weekends.
Talking with Chicken gave a really fascinating insight into what life can be like for the average Vietnamese person. Chicken readily admitted that his job was very well paid compared to what the standard wage is and he was on around $80 a week. The realisation that this is a substantial wage here and that many have to make do on far far less that that was quite a big reality check.
As we’d been driving along our jovial little boat driver had been having a great old time at the back of the boat. Somehow, in between playing minor pranks on us, cackling constantly and steering she had manage to acquire a number of long palm fronds and had fashioned them into a whole range of accessories and little nick nacks for the both of us!
As we swung leftwards and slowly motored towards the beginning of the Phuong Dien market I was adorned with a palm frond ring along with matching earrings and bracelets. To top it all off she had even transformed a bunch of the long, thin palm fronds into a huge love heart and flower pot that she instructed us to display at the very front of the bow of the boat. Subtlety was not the theme of the day on our boat it seem, we were decorated to the hilt!
As our palm-frond-adorned boat slowly edged our way closer to the jam of boats we could see up ahead I was able to get a much better look at the disorganised chaos that made up the Phuong Dien floating market. Although not as large as the Cai Rang this market is often touted as the most impressive to visit, namely because much fewer motorised boats are used and many more of the stalls are based on traditional style stand-up rowing boats.
Boats were crammed wall to wall over a space roughly the size of a basketball court. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason as to how exactly the boats were positioned and with the constant addition and subtraction of new vendors wriggling their way in and out the boats were in a constant and fluid state of movement.
The ripple effect of a boat trying to turn to the side could cause two vegetable vendor’s boats to smack together sharply 10 metres way. As haphazard and disordered as it all was though almost all the vendors were happy and smiling as we – clearly tourists in our kitschy decorated boat – bobbed along amongst them all.
Getting out of the jumble of boats was not quite as easy as getting into it, however after a few minutes of masterful manoeuvering from our cheeky little driver we were able to bid farewell to the Phuong Dien market and continue on our way.
Leaving the large expanse of the Can Tho river behind us we turned down a much narrower stream and began motoring in towards the rural areas that line the flood plains of the Mekong Delta. After a failed attempted by Will at steering the boat we stopped off at a tiny family-run rice paper factory to get an insight into the stuff that makes those Vietnamese spring rolls so damn delicious!
After seeing the machines that grind the rice into flour we watched two women expertly pouring spoonful’s of a batter made of rice flour, wheat flour and water onto a large hot metal plate before removing them in a flash and stacking them to dry. They moved with such speed that the whole process was completed within a matter of seconds. In their hands it all look so effortless but I have no doubt that I would not have been able to make even one piece of rice paper that vaguely resembled anything they were producing!
We jumped back into the boat and continued on, turning into ever increasingly narrow canals as the boats passing us by became fewer and fewer. We passed by a middle aged man standing waist deep in the murky water as he checked his fish nets and waved to the tiny children who ran alongside the banks as we zoomed past.
A little later our boat pulled into to a tiny make-shift dock on the canal’s edge. With a substantial amount of slipping and sliding we made our way up the muddy bank. Upon reaching the top we began wandering along a rough dirt path that snaked along beside the canal as we chatted away with Chicken.
A very leisurely pace was set and after the franticness of the floating markets it was lovely just to relax and take in the simple charm of the rural way of life of these backwaters.
After passing by rice paddies, papaya trees, mango trees, small huts under construction and even a 3 metre long snake holed up in a backyard cage (!) – we arrived at a ramshackle looking wooden restaurant where I was –finally – able to eat breakfast. Poor Will had be forced to deal with a ‘hangry’ version of myself for the previous hour or so before this so to say that he was relieved that my hunger was going to be abated would be a slight understatement!
During the wait for my spring rolls and chilli lemongrass chicken (breakfast of champions!) to arrive I was entertained by Chicken’s aforementioned tales of the delicacy of dog meat. Whilst assuring both Will and I that it was delicious and the dogs that are used are bred specifically for it – we remained unconvinced. I think I’ll need to try a lot of other things before I ever feel tempted to try dog!
The entertainment continued as the resident drunk from the village wandered into the restaurant armed with a full bottle of sweet homemade Banana whisky. With shouts of ‘Mot, Hai, Ba – YO!’ (1,2,3 – CHEERS!) he wandered from table to table, persisting until someone at the table finally acquiesced and agree to do a shot of the sweet potent liquor with him. It was 10am!
Will proved more hard-core than I and managed to down two of the shots with his vegetable noodles, perhaps this was an even more hearty breakfast than my own! The impromptu show didn’t stop there as the drunk – fuelled by the 10 or so shots we’d just witness him down – picked up the microphone and began wailing away to the karaoke tracks being played across the screen. To say he was tone deaf would be the understatement of the century!
The music became much more bearable when none other than our trusty driver waltzed in front of the television and snatched the microphone from the hands of the resident drunk. I’ll have to admit my knowledge of Vietnamese pop songs is fairly poor but I definitely didn’t need to know what was being said to know that the singing was far superior! After belting out a solid few songs our driver relinquished the microphone to Mr Banana Whiskey and then insisted on giving both Will and I back massages as we sat waiting for Chicken to finish his meal. She truly was a woman of many talents!
Soon it came time for us to leave the rickety restaurant and its wailing drunken karaoke singer behind and we made our way towards our trusty little wooden boat. We hopped aboard for the final time that day and began to slowly motor our way back towards Can Tho. It was hard to believe that at the tender hour of 10.30am – an hour where I could quite easily still be in bed – we’d managed to see so much.
Perhaps Vietnam will make an early-riser out of me yet?!