The Floating Market in the Delta

30th October, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Ian writes:

You've seen one floating market, you've seen 'em all. Well, that might be the first assumption you'd make - it was certainly mine. We had been to Thailand's most famous market on the water in Damnoen Saduak just a couple of weeks ago, but here we were at 8am making our way up one of the Mekong Delta's numerous channels to see the Cai Rang floating market. Thankfully, my earlier assumption was wrong. Sure, people were selling their goods out of their boats, but unlike Damnoen Saduak, they had not pandered to the tourists. It was definitely a market by the locals for the locals, and not a sign of any tourist tat/souvenirs.

Another difference to Damnoen Saduak was the size of the boats. They were not the small boats that could just about fit one person and a few bunches of bananas and squeeze down the narrowest canals, as in Thailand, but were large, family-sized house boats. As we understood it, these were very much places of residence and business. Looking at some of the boats, fully laden as they were with pineapples or melons, it was clear that some of them would have to sell some more stock before they would have anywhere to rest for the night! To make it easier for people on other boats to see exactly what stock they had for sale, they would tie examples to a bamboo pole, removing items from the pole as that item sold out:

A family sells its fruit and vegetables at the Cai Rang floating market.

We spent around 15 minutes slowly making our way through the market, not buying anything - like I said, it's a market for locals, nothing here for tourists other than sight-seeing. After that, we continued on to a factory where they make vermicelli. I say factory, but it was a very small operation - more of a cottage industry. Just a few people were there spreading the mixture, laying the pancaked mixture out to dry before cutting into the thin vermicelli noodles that you would normally have in a soup. If it appears that my description is a little lacking in detail, that's probably because I was paying more attention to the cute little dog who was following everyone around, tail permanently wagging. I tuned out while making a big fuss of this little dog.

Back on the boats once more, we made our way down ever more canals to go see some monkey bridges. These are very simple bamboo constructions that span the river which have mostly been replaced by more practical concrete footbridges - more practical, but lacking somewhat in character. We were asked if we wanted to try out the monkey bridge, and about half of the group gave it a go. It's not an easy thing to work your way across - a few bamboo poles strapped together that wobble furiously under the weight of a westerner and a small hand-rail to steady yourself with. I was one of the first across, and was glad that the others following me held back a little; I wasn't convinced that the bridge would hold out with a few people on it at the same time.

Ian sat on the hand rest of a wobbly monkey bridge.

Once over the other side, we carried on on foot to a village, while those who had not braved the monkey bridge found their way there by boat. We called in on a house where a mother and daughter were busily creating a mat using some kind of giant loom. Very quickly the mother added fresh strands to the mat, while the daughter moved the block back and forth to ensure the strands were pushed tightly together. They made it look so easy, and at that speed they probably managed to create a few mats a day.

Elsewhere in the village, a group of people was preparing for a wedding that was due to take place the following day, and all the locals seemed very happy. Our group of 19 were all invited to take a seat where we were offered a tasty plate of ... pig's blood. You know, like 'black pudding', but without it being pressed into some neat little shape; this stuff looked like blackened entrails. While I'm partial to a bit of black pudding with a greasy fried breakfast, I didn't feel quite up to trying this. I did have a wafer biscuit and tried some of the rice wine while the locals all stood behind us, taking a break from the wedding preparations to look bemusedly at these strange light-skinned visitors.

The village people: they would leave doing the YMCA until tomorrow at the wedding.

Finally, we visited a rice husking factory. Or at least I think that's the term for what we were watching. Either I missed the explanation of what was happening or there never was one, but we spent the briefest of times inside this factory watching a machine jiggling the rice about, channeling it somewhere hidden behind the rest of the machinery, only to see it come out through a spout in the front of the machine into the waiting rice sack. As far as I could tell, the two people working there spent their day pressing a button to release the rice and running an automatic stitching machine across each finished bag, and so on. Meanwhile they must be thinking to themselves: "Jeez, this is a dull job ... and to think that these silly tourists want to come and watch us. And they even take pictures!". We took some pictures then made our way back to the boat ;-)

With our morning's boat-based activities well and truly done, we returned to the hotel we had stayed at last night for some lunch and then tried to work out what bus we needed to get on. Every day there is a fair amount of shuffling of people as some continue their journey onwards, while others head back - there are 1-day, 2-day and 3-day itineraries. We were ushered on to a very nearly full bus, and none of the occupants looked familiar. Were we on the right bus? We were told that it was indeed the Saigon bus, but we were expecting to make one more stop on the way back, to a place called Rung Tram forest. The long and short of it was that they were no longer going to stop there. The reason lay somewhere between 'it's rainy season', 'it would take too long to get there', and 'we can't be bothered and we just want to get home early'. The last one was not offered as a reason, but it got my vote for most likely explanation.

Manda and I were not too bothered, though - we had our concerns about that location in terms of malaria risk (remember, we're not taking the anti-malarial treatments and are relying on covering up and repellant). However, it did annoy us that they put that on the itinerary if they had no intention of going there. And to be honest, had they gone there it would have likely added significant time on to the day; it seemed like they had been a bit ambitious including that. We had chosen that tour company because of the Rung Tram forest trip, but after an early start and many hours under the fierce sun, we were quite happy to sit back and relax instead!