No trip on the Mekong Delta is complete without a visit to Cai Rang Floating Market, 6km by small boat from Can Tho. This is the largest wholesale market on the Delta, literally floating in the middle of a large river confluence far from the riverbanks. It starts around dawn each day and runs until about midday, and the earlier you arrive the better. It’s a truly amazing early morning spectacle of traditional boats of all sizes packed with exotic fruits and other local produce for trade. In fact, everything your average villager could need is on sale, from haircuts to coffins, even lottery tickets! Vessels advertise what they sell by hanging their product from the top of a long bamboo pole at the bow.
The Mekong Delta’s busy floating markets have long shaped an ethnically diverse “water civilisation”. As many as a dozen floating markets still remain along major waterways around the delta, where boats and houses bob upon the maze of rivers and canals that criss-cross the landscape like arteries. No one knows exactly how old they are, but they have certainly flourished since the Nguyen Dynasty in the early 19th Century. In pre-Colonial times diverse groups of people migrated to the Mekong Delta from various parts of Vietnam, China, Cambodia and the Malay Peninsula, and through trading interaction gradually blended their different cultures together. In both costume and cuisine, this cultural fusion offers a delight to visitors.
Today’s visitor to Cai Rang has a chance to see a way of life that is fast disappearing in the name of progress. A survey revealed that in 2005 there were 550 boats in Cai Rang. By 2017 that number had fallen to 300. Urbanisation in the delta is happening at a rapid pace, with new roads and bridges connecting up the region and proliferation of modern supermarkets selling goods in air-conditioned comfort. Living on the river is a tough way of life and many families who have been there for generations are “going ashore” in search of a new life. Nevertheless, the markets are an important part of the economy through tourism, and there are positive community-based initiatives to preserve, protect and improve conditions so that the markets will continue to have a place in the Mekong culture. But whether trips to markets like Cai Rang will still feature in travel itineraries in ten or twenty years time remains uncertain.
Make a trip to Cai Rang a must-do on your bucket list. As early as 4am hundreds of big boats and sampans come to anchor along the riverbanks, forming a line stretching up to two kilometres. Business begins at the crack of dawn, when it’s still cool, and by sunrise the markets are clogged with the sampans of marketeers and customers. Shoppers come by land and water, hopping from boat to boat, often stopping to enjoy a bowl of noodle soup in fast food sampans, maybe get a haircut or buy a lottery ticket. It’s frenetic, it’s fun, and it feels like a festival. Unforgettable.