The Cai Rang Floating Market is just one of dozens that may be found across the length and breadth of the vast Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, a trading network that helps buoy the most populous region in the country. Yet year by year, the number of boats dropping anchor before sunrise and displaying their wares on a tottering bamboo pole is shrinking.
The market is found twenty minutes by motor boat east of the Mekong capital of Can Tho. The ride isn’t a particularly challenging one for a veteran of these coursing brown waters – indeed, our captain was happy to settle back and enjoy a smoke as his son, who couldn’t have been a day over eight, crawled over his lap and took the wheel, steering the motley assortment of European tourists, and a token Australian, towards the distant cluster.
Drawing closer, it is undoubtedly a spectacle; dozens of spluttering motor-boats siddle up to anchored steel beasts lying low in the water with hulls laden with expiring cargo, screaming out the parameters for yet another deal. The boats distinguished by the whip-lash of camera shutters rather than the hollering of prices in the tens of thousands of dong are quickly dismissed by the genuine sellers, but they’re quickly beset by row-boats manned by middle-aged ladies in peaked hats offering doses of black syrupy coffee and a breakfast of ready-made rice noodles.
The markets have existed for hundreds of years, essential middle men in the local economy. Barges sweep up and down the rivers, stockpiling fresh produce, from bananas to piglets, from the waterside farms, and bring them to market, where the local business owners with storefronts in the myriad of villages throughout the region can resupply for the coming week. A glimpse of the steel canopies erected over the barge’s helm, shading a small patch of the deck that’s been lined with blankets and overhung with clothes drying in the morning sun, gives a sense of the lives of these aquatic vendors. They, and their families, toil the majority of their lives on the boat, living quarters confined to that patch of shelter on the deck, whilst their pineapples rest snug and secure in the hold below.
Whereas boats usually advertise their wares by hanging a sample of the goods for sale from the top of a long pole, visible to the approaching droves at dawn, a boat for sale is marked displaying an empty coconut shell. There are an awful lot of coconut shells surveying the push and pull of the markets this year. It is not the first year, either. Vietnam’s floating markets are slowly dying out.
The markets are increasingly an anachronism. A century ago, the rivers and tributaries were the most effective source of fresh foodstuffs for land-bound retailers, and a morning foray onto the river a necessity. Today, however, the Delta is increasingly lined with a web of paved streets, highways and kilometre-spanning bridges – all the better to transport Vietnam’s astronomical rice production to the cities and world beyond, and ferry back all the produce a water-bound town could desire. The local supermarket, therefore, just needs to add their orders for mangoes, bananas and grapefruit to the multiplying roster of the trucks streaming across their district, and awake to a morning palette. And so the captains that ply the Mekong Delta’s waterways shuffle slowly towards irrelevance, watching as their customer-base shrinks year on year.
An uneasy salvation may lie in the ever-increasing swarm of boats bearing foreign faces that ceaselessly circle the morning markets, each emblazoned with “tourist” in hastily applied blue paint. Facing the extinction of their famed floating markets, the Thai government has begun to subsidise them under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism, applying a little life support to a flat-lining piece of regional heritage. Vietnam may indeed follow.
Being subsumed into the tourist trade, however, is its own kind of death for any cultural practice. A floating market that feeds the local people is an ongoing concern, a way of life. A market that limply paddles along to the sound of shutter clicks and tourist gawks is but a curiousity. How long is it before the markets trade less in melons and pineapples and more in the dime-store kitsch that plague shanty after shanty erected outside any relic of note in Asia? Time will pass, and the trucks will roll on and on, fanning out into new corners of the Mekong Delta. The people will have access, one imagines, to more food, and receive it faster too – so how does one measure the loss?
Perhaps the riverside scenes we see today – frantic bids, scampering across steel decks, boats steered by babes – indeed reflect the last of the floating markets. Even if they are only the shadows of past glories, they remain vivacious ones. Those of us merely passing through cannot demand that practices and places be kept alive for our curiousity alone, although we must never be eager to see such unique vestiges of heritage pass on. Visitors can delight in the markets while they last, and bite down on a freshly-cleft pineapple with an almighty grin, but nonetheless it is the residents of those waterfront homes perched precariously on stilts who will determine whether to anchor their motor-boat away from the pier and tie a coconut shell to a swaying bamboo mast.
First Published 14 August 2013 at Now, Voyages