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2 May, 2010
For several generations, these markets have kept afloat rural livelihoods, a way of life, and a distinct culture
Floating markets are great tourist draws.
Found only in Southeast Asia, the sight of boats as shops and food stops, the colors of the boats and the produce, ranging from flowers to fruits and vegetables to everything else found in on-land markets, never fail to impress.
However, if you were to tarry a while, the markets have interesting stories to tell, stories of those whose families have been clothed and fed for generations by them, of those who have met their life partners there, and those who cannot imagine their lives without it.
When the first rays of the sun spread their light, thousands of boats of different sizes have already converged along the Tien and Hau rivers in locations that have remained the same for centuries, whether it is Cai Be (Tien Giang Province), Tra On (Vinh Long Province), Phong Dien (Can Tho City) or Thoi Binh (Ca Mau Province).
Not only have the boats gathered, but the markets are already in full swing at dawn. The scene of sellers skillfully throwing and catching goods from one boat to another with the skill of jugglers is one that stands out, but there are many other chaotic scenes where the underlying method is not immediately apparent.
Unlike shops and stalls in ordinary markets, sellers cannot cry out their wares since it is impossible to be heard amidst the noise of running boat engines. So samples of goods are hung on bamboo poles that can be easily seen from afar.
Floating markets draw people from everywhere, and a boat’s initials, like registration plates, identify where it is from. A boat marked “TG” is one that comes from Tien Giang Province, for instance.
Among the big boats are small ones darting in and out selling cooked food and drinks to market-goers and visitors. These swimming canteens skillfully draw alongside boats ordering food and drinks, but there are also occasions when the big boats make a food stop by the side of smaller ones.
One would expect that a floating market is no place for a service industry, but these days, they also offer several “modern” services like installing ringtones and wallpaper for cell phones and cell phone repairs.
Repositories of culture
Floating markets are also living museums of the southern traditional culture that has been fostered by the Mekong Delta’s interlacing waterway systems.
With the advent of several new road networks and bridges over many rivers, as well as the setting up of supermarkets on the mainland, the indispensability of floating markets has been dented somewhat, but the waterways still offer the only route to several rural remote areas in the region.
But many locals still prefer floating markets which have been a part of their daily lives and livelihoods for generations
The floating market has helped Van raise her three children and send them to school
Lam, a merchant from Hau Giang Province who drives his boat to Can Tho City’s Cai Rang Floating Market, one of the biggest in the south, says: “My whole clan lives as vendors on floating markets. We own more than ten boats.”
They have an advantage in working together because they can easily exchange information about prices and demand and supply in market, Lam adds.
Di Ba, as she is called by everyone at the Cai Rang Floating Market, is probably the most famous name among food sellers here. For more than thirty years, the woman whose real name is Nguyen Thi Ngoc Van, has taken her small boat to the market, serving bun (noodle) to the locals.
Her family was very poor, Di Ba says. “Like other poor people, my husband and I have to go “down” the river for a living since we don’t have any job or land.”
However, this 60-year-old woman has not only raised her three children well, but also given them a complete education that has changed their lives.
Her children don’t want their mother to continue selling noodles at the floating market at her age, but Di Ba cannot quit. “I am so attached to the market that I feel uncomfortable if I am separated from it.”
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