Floating market in Mekong Delta

The Floating Markets of Can Tho

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No trip to Vietnam would be complete without spending a few days checking out the Mekong Delta.  Easily accessible by bus from Saigon, the towns and villages on the Mekong River and its tributaries give you a glimpse of a way of life largely unchanged for centuries.

To get a better picture, however, you need to leave the safety of the shore and spend some time on the river.  One of the best places to do this is in Can Tho –  the largest town in the delta – by checking out its well known floating markets.

There are a number of ways to see the markets, with vessels of varying sizes and degrees of comfort, and trips ranging from four to eight hours. As seems often the case in Vietnam, the more organised the tour, the more expensive and less enjoyable it is for the independent traveller. There are large, powerful boats providing a sanitised experience to the package holidaymaker, but for something a little more interesting (plus the ability to traverse the small waterways on the way back to town), opt for a trip by sampan instead.

You will undoubtedly get a hard sell from your hotel manager for a trip of some description, but you can also try to book directly with the guides down by the docks. I had limited success doing this — anybody who spoke enough English to bargain with at the time seemed to be quoting the same price as the hotel. After getting the price down from a ridiculous $40 to an only slightly less ridiculous $20 for an eight hour trip, I agreed – with a wince – to be in the lobby at 5.30am the following morning.

Vinh, Can Tho tour

After a short walk from the hotel to the docks (most accommodation in Can Tho is clustered around the river), I boarded my sampan with a couple of other guys and the driver/guide, Viet. If you end up taking this trip, I’d highly recommend trying to get onto Viet’s boat one way or another (see the update below for details).

His English is limited, but absolutely good enough to get his point across, and he has a wicked sense of humour. Whether he is fashioning pineapples into ice-cream-like sculptures, weaving bracelets / ear-rings / horns / swords out of plant leaves as he guides his boat along the river, or leading a fruit fight with another sampan driver, you can guarantee that he – and you – will be having plenty of laughs among the sightseeing.

The trip out to the first of the two markets wasn’t particularly exciting, as the river is especially polluted this close to town and there isn’t much to see except other river traffic and a few shanties dotted along the banks. Once you get to the market, though, you start to realise what all the fuss is about.

I’d expected a lot of the activity to be aimed at tourists, but other than a few people on sampans trying to sell you drinks, it really wasn’t. The selection of fruits, fish and other food being bought and sold was quite incredible, including plenty of things you’ll never see on the supermarket shelves in the western world.

The second market is further down the river, and probably even larger than the first. Vendors advertise their wares by way of fruit and vegetables stuck on tall wooden poles, and potential buyers paddle from boat to boat to choose the best offerings. From sampans packed to the brim with mangoes to larger vessels selling up to half a dozen different options, this is a produce stand with a difference.

We stopped for an impromptu lunch there, and hacked slices from various delicious fruits until we were too full to take another mouthful. Of the things we bought and tried that I actually know the name of, jackfruit was the standout favourite – it’s a large, brightly coloured fruit that looks a little like durian, but doesn’t resemble it at all in taste or smell. It has a rubbery texture, and tastes like a chewy combination of banana and mango. Fantastic.

Between the two markets was a side trip down one of the small canals, to take a look at a working rice noodle factory. Typically I would have expected this to be about as exciting as a trip to the box factory, but was pleasantly surprised. The ‘factory’ was more of a large shed, with the various stages of production taking place in different areas.

One man was up to his elbows in a barrel of rice ‘paste’, for want of a better word, stirring away gently. The rice husks were being used in a small furnace to heat a couple of circular elements, onto which a woman was pouring the paste and smoothing it out with what looked like the bottom of a saucepan into a thin, flat circle. While one of the rice circles was briefly cooking, another woman was expertly scooping the other circle off the element and laying it out on a long woven tray.

The next step in the production process was a man gathering several of the trays and carrying them out to dry in the sunshine, before the final dried product was loaded into a mechanical slicing machine and turned into noodles. Nothing was wasted, and the process seemed to run like clockwork. Who would have thought noodle production could be so interesting? Not me, that’s for sure.

Rice factory, Can Tho

The trip back from the markets was in many ways the most enjoyable part – and the piece left off the shorter or more luxurious tours, due to lack of time or oversize vessels. Leaving the main channel to head into the canals and small waterways that flow throughout the delta, it was easy to see how the river dominates life in this part of Vietnam.

While us germ-phobic Westerners on the sampan were trying to avoid too much contact with the polluted water, locals were swimming in it, washing clothes, bodies and food with it, pulling fish from it, and often living only slightly above it.

When the river floods – as it does every monsoon season – the impact can be devastating, yet it is this seasonal pattern that allows the Mekong Delta to feed vast swathes of the country. To see life lived in such close proximity to – and such symbiosis with – the natural world is a sharp reminder to us all of our place on this planet.

Sadly, however, such dependency on the river’s bounty doesn’t seem to stop people polluting it at a micro level, and politicians considering damming its upper reaches at a macro level. Both have potentially catastrophic consequences for the future of the Mekong, and one can only hope common sense prevails before either of these two threats causes irreversible damage.

So overall, despite a numb butt and the occasional dull moment as we slowly meandered our way along the river to and from Can Tho, the trip exceeded my expectations. If you find yourself spending any time in the southern reaches of Vietnam, I would highly recommend seeking out the services of Viet and booking yourself on an eight hour exploration of the Mekong and famous floating markets of Can Tho.

It will show you a side of the country and the region you’re simply unable to experience anywhere else. Oh, and when you get to Monkey Bridge? Be prepared for something rather different to what you may have had in mind. That is all I have to say about that…

I stayed at Hotel 31 and ultimately booked my trip through the manager there after a hard sell, but if you’re able to get hold of my guide (Viet) down by the docks the afternoon before, try to book with him directly. You’ll get a cheaper trip, but more importantly the money will go straight to the person providing such a great experience rather than simply lining the pockets of middle men.
UPDATE: A lovely reader ended up on a tour with Viet, and sent through a copy of his business card. Thanks, Pete! So, if you want to get hold of him directly, here’s how to do it!

Vinh business card

Main image via Shutterstock

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  1. Dave, being on a boat is one of my favorite things to be doing, and since I’m now only four months away from Southeast Asia, I’m putting this on my list of things I absolutely have to do there. Fresh mangoes from a river market, sounds like an experience that I would never even thought I’d get. The boat driver looks like a nice guy.

    Thanks, Eli

    1. Thanks for that Eli – it was a great way to spend 8 hours, so I hope you do get the chance to do the same thing in a few months time! 🙂

  2. Hi Dave! In a week, I will be arriving in Can Tho in the evening (9pm ish) and would like to have a tour the next morning. I really want to book directly with the guides at the riverfront but I’m scared I’ll be too last minute. Should I try my luck that evening (will there be anyone?) or the morning of around 5:00 am? What do you think? Thanks!

    1. There’s no harm in trying your luck at the waterfront, but I’m not sure whether you’ll find anyone there that late at night. If not, you’d definitely be able to arrange something just by showing up at 5am — or, if you’re really worried about it, I guess pay the extra to have your guesthouse owner do it for you.

      1. Hi Dave
        Just wanted to thank you for the recommendation to use Viet. We called him and arranged a tour for the family this morning – it was absolutely what I wanted for the teens with us to experience. Viet was exactly as you’ve mentioned and we were very pleased we opted out of the hotel tour. Thanks again.

  3. actually Viet has now become a business manager and outsources to his one or many wives! 😛 I listened to your advice and booked a tour with Viet but he passed us on to a lady at the dock just as we went there to board the sampan with him. no time to react . he claimed she was his wife. she didnt speak english much and i was very disappointed.

    1. Thanks for the update, Maria! Sad you didn’t get the tour you were expecting, though. I wonder whether this is a regular thing for him now, or if he was just double-booked that morning.

  4. Hi Dave. Thank you for your review of our traditional markets on the rivers. I read the story of Maria K in the comments and I am sad for her. Maybe she expected a local friend who goes and can share information with her. For your friends in Vietnam, I am open to say hi to them and go with them on any trips if I can. I am doing a photo project in the whole country now. I also want to support some foreigners who are considering to come back to Vietnam after a bad experience last time.