The floating markets of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta is the breadbasket of Vietnam and the floating markets around Can Tho are one of the best places to experience this fascinating region.

The Mekong River and its many tributaries have been, and continue to be, the main source of transportation in the Delta. As such, these rivers are the primary marketplace where locals sell and buy food and other goods.

If you’ve never witnessed a floating market, you’re missing out on a colorful cultural experience that ranks very high on our list.

How to see the floating markets

If you like to bargain for prices, you’ll like Vietnam. Haggling is like a sport to the Vietnamese, and as long as you take it all in stride, you’ll have a lot of fun when shopping in the markets. Tours prices can be less negotiable.

When we first arrived, a woman came by our guesthouse and offered us a tour. We thanked her for her offer, but wanted to try our luck down at the riverside seeing if we could find a driver who would give us a deal, which we did.

However, when we arrived for our tour the next morning, the same woman who had met us at our guesthouse was waiting for us with the driver and informed us that we had to pay the same prices she quoted (although she did throw in a couple of extra side trips).

Welcome to Vietnam (and the floating market boat tour cartel); these are very smart people and when it comes to commerce, good luck tangling with them.

My advice is don’t waste your time trying to find the best price, focus more on what you get for your money.

We saw a couple of medium-sized boats that had 30 big Westerners squeezed in. Whereas our boat, way smaller, we had all to ourselves. The size also paid off as we were able to get close and personal in the markets instead of just watching from the distance.

Phong Dien Market

Woman on her way to Phong Dien Market. The size of her boat is the one you want to get to experience the markets up close.

Boat tour options

Our tour started just before dawn at about 5 a.m. from the town of Can Tho. We did a relatively extensive tour, which included Cai Rang Market, Phong Dien Market , and the canals. These are the biggest attractions and doing all of these did not cost that much more than doing a shorter tour.

Cai Rang Market

Cai Rang Market is a large wholesale floating market on a side arm of the Mekong called Hau River. The boats are pretty big, and most of the merchants live on them. Each of them had fruit or vegetable on a stick (like a flag) on top of their boat advertising the type of produce they sold.

Expect to be overwhelmed as this is commerce in its most primitive form. And as it’s the tropics, it’s also commerce in its most colorful form. An army of  sampans, painted with bright primary yellows, blues and reds, jockey for position as radiant pineapples, taro root, coconuts, pumpkins, bananas, pomelos, longan fruit, jackfruit, mangos, and durians change hands with the speed of light, along with fistfuls of crumpled Vietnamese Dong bills.

While we were busy taking it all in, our driver hailed a small boat, which came over and served us breakfast and coffee. In this country, breakfast is often soup—different cultures, different customs. So we had a hearty chicken soup at 6:30 am and where ready for our next stop.

Floating markets: Cai Rang Market

Sticks on top of the boats tell buyers what produce the merchant sells.

Floating markets: Cai Rang Market

Soup boat at Cai Rang Market.

Phong Dien Market

Phong Dien Market is a much smaller market on the narrow Can Tho River, and in many ways it’s more interesting.

Here the merchants were selling out of little boats like ours, and it was a lot of fun getting right into the mix. Most of the buyers are woman in colorful clothing and dressy hats driving their little boats through the large sampans.

It has an even more frenzied pace than Cai Rang, as buyers hustled to grab as much as they can get at rock-bottom prices.

Even though we were full on chicken soup, there were so many interesting vegetables and fruits for sale, we looked, smelled, tasted, and bought our way through this fascinating market.

Floating Markets: Phong Dien Market

Smaller boats than at Cai Rang Market, but Phong Dien Market was even more bustling.

Mekong Canals

After the market cooled down, and the day heated up, our driver steered us into the shade of one of the many narrow canals that snake through the terrain here like spider cracks in glass.

This is not just an easy way home to Can Tho, it’s also a magical journey through Vietnam’s rural delta life—replete with women doing their laundry and dishes in the water, kids chasing dogs, farmers raising stock, breeding boa constrictors, growing vegetables, and harvesting lotus flowers.

This lazy circuitous cruise, decorated by aromatic flowering water hyacinth and handmade teakwood bridges, eventually brought us to a small cool bamboo shelter on the side of the bank where we ate lunch in a small bamboo pagoda on the river’s edge.

Our driver spoke a little English, and did his best to explain the market and Vietnamese life. He also crafted jewelry and toys out of palm leaves (some of which we still have).

My favorite was a pineapple he prepared and served us on a stick (the best and easiest way to eat one of these I’ve see to date), all while navigating us through the bends of the river, steering with only his foot on the tiller.

Mekong Canal

Farmer harvesting lotus flowers on a Mekong Canal

Mekong Canal

Girl doing dishes along a Mekong Canal

 

A tour like this will be done by noon or early afternoon, giving you plenty of time to explore Can Tho City and its land-based markets.

Whereas the floating markets are mostly produce, be prepared to see almost every typ of living thing known to man in the city markets. All of it is food to these people, and some of it is still alive. So, if you’re squeamish, this might not be the place for you.

Even if you only have limited time in Vietnam, a tour of the Mekong River and its floating markets at dawn is an absolute must-do. Buses leave regularly from Ho Chi Minh City (alias Saigon) and it takes about three-and-one-half hours to get to Can Tho.

To see more pictures of the floating markets and the Mekong Canals, and to find out its location on a map, visit our Top Spots in Vietnam site. We’ll upload more info on all our favorite spots in Vietnam here, so keep checking back for updates.

Have you experienced the above mentioned floating markets or other ones in Asia? Share your impressions and thoughts in the comments below!

Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.
Posted in Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Replies

About Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

5 comments on “The floating markets of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

  1. Paige

    Sounds wonderful. Went to a floating market in Thailand. One of the highlights of our trip. And going in a private boat was well worth the price. Brought back great memories.

    Reply

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.