Tuesday 7 Jul, 2015

Vietnam Floating Markets – Grocery Shopping Along the Mekong

Bob is a Tour Consultant at EF Educational Tours. Before he came to EF, he taught English in Thailand and traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia. He enjoys good food, good music and good company.

We sat in a very comfortable silence as she pulled back on the two massive oars strewn across the rear of the sampan. With one fluid, and what seemed effortless motion, the oars splashed into the murky Mekong, propelling us forward. Still in somewhat of a daydream, I pensively gnawed off pieces of my baguette, barely noticing the bread build-up accumulating on my shorts. There hadn’t been much of anything said by anyone – she just paddled and we observed. Words weren’t necessary with this kind of ambiance.HousesMy neck craned robotically from left to right, stupefied by the sights that surrounded me. Were they sea gypsies? What happens when it rains? Do they have a couch in there? These were the questions ping-ponging around in my head as we drifted by these aqua-homes lining the shore. In disbelief, I buried my face into my hands in an attempt to lift the fog that clouded my brain, but even after a few blinks, when everything came back into focus – I still saw the same thing. The gentle wake created by our vessel went out toward the shore and into the living rooms of some of these houses! We found out that the people who lived in these river shanties crafted them out of anything they could get their hands on: driftwood, tin … even rubber tires. Adding to their resourcefulness, some of them even created fisheries beneath their homes to provide a meal or a little extra income.

We were an hour into our journey and the sun began peeking up over the horizon. A smattering of sea dwellers sprinkling about in the distance told us that we had arrived. We were at the floating markets in Can Tho, (Can – Tuhhh) Vietnam. These markets are a spectacle that you truly have to see to believe. Hundreds of Vietnamese gather from 5am to 10am to purchase that day’s food items. Anyone new to this situation would probably think it was a floating farmers market run by friendly sea pirates.Floating Market BoatAt first glance, it looked chaotic, but after a few minutes of perusing, we began to comprehend the madness. Rugged wholesale merchants and farmers doubling as sea captains manned their rigs and proudly flaunted their wares. Each boat sold one item – watermelons, pineapples, pumpkins, scallions, fish, beef, etc. – which oftentimes were stacked high and virtually overflowing. Tilting our heads upward proved to be beneficial, as each vendor would fly their produce flag high in the air for all to see, indicating what product they sold on their ship.

Forget about the high school kid asking if you prefer paper or plastic – in these markets, if you can’t catch, you may find yourself swimming for your groceries! To a newcomer, these interactions between the buyer and seller were far short of anything boring. Taking everything in, I watched the customers and vendors banter back and forth, with the conversations oftentimes becoming quite animated. The customer would flail their arms in the air and point at what they were looking to purchase. Then, a mini-assembly line would form as workers on the boat handed the products to the vendor, followed by the vendor heedlessly lobbing the items off the ship into the hands of the customer.
ExchangeWeaving in and out of these larger carriers were mini-vessels whipping up steamy cups of strong, aromatic Vietnamese java and hearty bowls of pho (Fuh), the popular Vietnamese noodle dish mostly consisting of broth, rice noodles, beef and fresh herbs. These people would drive up to a passerby’s boat, latch on, and with a steady hand, pour you a mind-buzzing cup of coffee or a fresh bowl of pho! How they were able to keep such steady hands was quite impressive; even as our boats were rolling with the waves, these nautical baristas didn’t spill a drop. The coffee was hot, strong, and definitely contributed to the sprightly atmosphere surrounding us that early in the morning.

The market abruptly came to an end – almost vanishing into thin air – as we continued on our way down the Mekong. The bustling clamors of the market were replaced with the light drone of nearby boats and the whistling of the wind. Almost like a newborn being put to sleep, the silence was temporary, and the upcoming commotion was expected. When we arrived back at the docks, the hustle and activity picked right back up. Many of the local shoppers had their families waiting for them to help unpack their newly purchased groceries.Vietnam BoatFrom the docks, they loaded everything up onto their motorbikes and puttered along to their family’s restaurant or food stall. The chopping, stirring and sizzling would soon begin and nostrils would flair as the fresh meat, fish and produce from the floating market were prepared. Sitting down for a meal later that night had me reflecting on the day’s adventures. Each bite I took, I could taste the freshness and as I looked around, the silence proved other people were feeling the same way. There was something very satisfying about understanding the behind the scenes effort that made this meal possible. Just as I did with my baguette earlier in the day, I continued to enjoy my meal in comfortable silence. Words weren’t necessary with this kind of ambiance.

Bob Sohigian is a Tour Consultant at EF Educational Tours. Before he came to EF, he taught English in Thailand and traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia. He enjoys good food, good music and good company.