Life on the Mekong as Seen From a River Boat

Visiting one of the floating markets in Vietnam was one of the things I knew I wanted to do on my travels in Southeast Asia (perhaps the only thing I had in mind, really). I think maybe I’d seen a picture of it somewhere, on the cover of a guidebook, perhaps? I didn’t know much about the floating markets, actually, but I had an image in my mind of what it would be like. Because of that, I was sure that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but I thought I had to at least check it out for myself.

I was doing a little research online to find out just where in Vietnam these floating markets were and how one would go about visiting them. I immediately came across a blog post detailing one traveler’s trip to the market. At the end of the post she gave the name of a man (Mr. Sang) and his guide (Lang) and a number to contact to arrange a tour. She had seemed quite please with her tour so I figured, why take a chance on an unknown? I called Mr. Sang and arranged to have a tour with Lang in two days time and then booked a hotel in Can Tho, the main city of the Mekong Delta and the place where our boat tour would depart from.

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Homes and boats along the Mekong in the predawn light.

In order to see the markets, it’s best to get on the water before the sun comes up as the action is already well underway at that point. Mr. Sang had arranged for me to be picked up at my hotel at 5:30am by his nephew who would drive me to the dock on his motorbike to meet Lang. I woke up at 5, pulled on some clothes, and had a quick cup of coffee before my ride came.

As the motorbike reached the river the sky was just starting to turn from black to a light blue grey. Lang emerged from behind a building with a big smile. She led me  through a narrow passage between two wooden structures to the dock where our boat was parked. Pulling into the dock was a boat full of boisterous school boys in uniform laughing and shouting ready to begin their school day. My first glimpse of life on the river.

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Setting off on the boat before sunrise.

From the expanse of river ahead of us I could tell the we had at least a little way to go until we reached the market. The air felt humid, sticky, and surprisingly cool. (Hey, I’m not usually awake so early!) There was a thin grey mass of clouds overhead but there didn’t seem to be a threat of rain. After we had been traveling 20 minutes or so Lang motioned for me to turn around. The sun was just coming up behind us. A rooster crowed from the back of a nearby boat.

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Lang driving the boat. The sun just peeking up above the horizon behind us.

On the long ride to the market I observed all that was happening around me: life on the Mekong Delta. On shore bikes peddled along dirt roads, laundry was hung from both boats and houses along the river, women washed dishes on the ledges of their docks, kids played, people bathed in the river. It was a very intimate and up close look at a very unique way of life.

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As I took in all that surrounded me Lang was quietly guiding the boat and taking in the calm of the morning. Or so I thought. She got my attention and handed me a cricket she had just made from a coconut palm. (I had seen her hacking away at it earlier but had no idea what she was up to.)

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A few minutes later she handed me a bouquet. And then a few minutes after that some jewelery.

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And then a few minutes later she had carved up a pineapple I’d seen sitting in the boat.

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I was so completely absorbed in my surroundings that I had no idea any of this was going on behind me and was surprised each time Lang handed me a little present. I guess it’s one way to pass the time on the ride to the market.

By 6:30am it was apparent we were approaching the market area. There were suddenly many boats filling the width of the river, some idling in place, others slowly paddling through. A small boat approached and offered us coffee or other beverages. All around us boats were piled high with mostly vegetables but also house goods and even some cooked food.

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floating market-28Waiting for a sale.

floating market-10Loading pineapples from one boat to another.

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floating market-27Money being exchanged between two boats.

There were a few other boats with tourists but for the most part what we saw was pure and authentic. Life on the Mekong as lived by the locals; they certainly weren’t out there on the river for us tourists.

floating market-26An Italian couple and their guide.

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Another guide chatting with Lang as we were parked in the market.

After visiting both the larger Cai Rang market and the smaller Phong Dien, Lang led our boat down a series of narrow canals until we reached a small dock where a production of some sort was underway.

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Other tourists we had seen that morning were also there either getting out of their boats or back in. Lang led me to a building where there was a small “factory” producing rice noodles.

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Pouring the rice batter and then laying the rounds carefully to dry on bamboo stretchers.

floating market-17Feeding the dry rice rounds through the cutter to make the noodles.

Finally we started making our way to a local restaurant for lunch. Actually, it was only 9:30am so I guess it was technically breakfast but I’d been up so long that it FELT like lunch. Before we got to the restaurant Lang had me get out of the boat a bit early to walk along the bank of the river and get a closer look at the agriculture and houses along the way.

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Lang on the boat without me.

After a short break for lunch it was time to head back! At this point we were about an hour and a half from Can Tho. I was enjoying the boat ride back but also starting to get a little sleepy from the motion of the boat and the early morning start. Lang noticed that I was starting to doze off and put up the sun shade and gave me a life jacket to use as a pillow and said, You sleep!

Well, don’t mind if I do.

I slept for a short while and woke up in time to catch a bit more of the scenery, including these happy little guys enjoying an early afternoon swim.

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When we finally reached Can Tho it was just before one. (I’d already had a full day and yet there was still time for another full day ahead!)

Visiting the markets really exceeded my expectations. I had worried that it would be really touristy but I was so happy to discover that, while there were other tourists around, we were definitely in the minority and definitely just there to observe everyday life rather than a show put on just for us.
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I really enjoyed my tour with Lang, though from what I could see you would do just as well with any guide really. We kept seeing the same few boats of tourists and guides at each of the places we stopped, and all the guides seemed to have Lang’s talent for creating works of art out of coconut palms. If you do want to book a tour with Lang, you can contact Mr. Sang at 0918 058 794. I paid $20 for a private tour that lasted about 7 hours.

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4 Comments on “Life on the Mekong as Seen From a River Boat

  1. Lindsay, you are a poet with your camera. Thanks for sharing. Absolutely gorgeous.

  2. Pingback: Mekong Delta: Welcome to the Jungle « Mister Mo

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