Stores on the water

No 3, Vol.8 ,July – August 2015

 Cai Rang floating market, Can Tho City. Photo: To Hoang Vu

The floating market is a typical cultural feature in south-west Vietnam, a.k.a. the Mekong river delta. Here, because there are multiple criss-crossing canals, convenient for travelling by boats, the locals came up with the idea of trading right there in the water. Floating bazaars became vital for the people, who spend most of their life on water. The bazaars always gather people, despite all the shopping centres, supermarkets and land bazaars that appear in multitudes. Today, they are not only a trading place, but also a tourist attraction.
In the 1990’s, land transport in the delta was very inconvenient; cars and motorcycles were a luxury and the South-Western people only used boats for travel, visiting a friend, going to a function, going to work or for errands. At the age of seven, I went to the bazaar every day with my mom. Actually, in the countryside, travelling on water with children was not widespread, but my mom had to take me with her because there was nobody to watch over me, and I was a good swimmer besides. We went mostly to Cai Be bazaar in Tien Giang Province, which was five kilometres from our house. Before dawn, dad had to load baskets of oranges, limes and mandarins onto the boat. Then he went to work the fields for pay. Mom carried me, still sleeping, to the boat and we went to the bazaar in the morning cold fog. Mom was a strong and skilful rower, so five kilometres was no big deal to her.

Phong Dien floating market, Can Tho City. Photo: Ly Hong Van

The kilometre-long bazaar gathered along the Tan Phong isle, where the Tien River bordered Tien Giang, Vinh Long and Ben Tre provinces. People traded mostly agriculture and food products. This is a famous trading hub between the three South-Western provinces. Each boat was a shop. They hung what they sold on a bamboo pole for a sign. It was a convenient way of doing business, because the people in this area were mostly illiterate. This custom is preserved until today. If longans are hung on the pole, it’s where to buy longans. If it’s bananas, the boat is loaded with bananas. But sometimes the thing hung there is not what is sold. If it’s clothing, it’s hung just to dry after being washed. Once I asked ‘Mom, whom do they sell coconut leaves to?’ Mom laughed, ‘Silly you, they sell boats, but it’s too big to hang on a pole, so they hang the leaves instead.’
At the bazaar, food was what I loved most. To know what they offered, one had to come near to see in the hold. Mom used to leave me on a food boat of an acquaintance, so I could enjoy noodles and sweets and she could do the buying and selling without me distracting her. Her work done, she would come and take me home. Life nowadays is much easier, but she still goes to the bazaar every day. The bazaar changes every time I come home and go there with mom. Cai Be floating bazaar now is so modern, the goods so diversified. Everything traded on land is also traded here. They even have many tourist packages that take tourists to the bazaar to see, watch, photograph and buy things.
There are many other floating bazaars, no less attractive, such as Chau Doc of An Giang Province, Cai Rang and Phong Dien of Can Tho City and Phung Hiep of Hau Giang Province. They really add unique and colourful features to the trading culture of the West of Southern Vietnam.n
*The article originally was printed in Van Hoa Phat Giao in issue 161

Selling fruits at Phong Dien floating market, Can Tho City. Photo: Ly Hong Van

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