Tucked into Vietnam‘s southern tail, the lush Mekong River Delta layers one iconic scene upon another: rice paddies glassy with standing water; orchards laden with exotic fruits; farmers and fishermen in classic conical hats. The mighty river defines life here in every conceivable fashion, and the only way to see the Mekong at its most alluring is to get out on the water. You could make a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s better to overnight in the area, as we did. A visit to one of the famed floating markets is a must … and they start early.
Just as the sun cleared the horizon, we boarded a flat-bottomed sampan from our home base in Can Tho and motored toward Cai Rang, the region’s largest waterborne market. Though Cai Rang is popular with tourists, it’s not a tourist attraction. Locals flock here to buy produce and other staples from wholesalers, who advertise the day’s stock by dangling samples from tall bamboo poles. (Many of them live on their vessels full-time, as evidenced by the laundry lines and the occasional TV antenna.) Hundreds of boats bob and weave in a chaotic ballet as melons, pineapple, dragonfruit and more are tossed from stem to stern amid shouts and banter. Floating bakeries, bahn mi vendors, makeshift noodle shops and coffee bars do a brisk business as they row along, a fascinating twist on the Mekong Delta’s water commerce tradition.
That said, the real joy is getting off the river and puttering through the small, shady back canals that fan out through the countryside. Inaccessible by larger tourist boats, they feel a world away from Cai Rang’s bustle. As we glided past mangrove thickets and rustic homes propped on stilts, we watched women set out pans of leftover rice to dry and foragers harvest water lilies by the fistful. Curious kids rushed to the banks and called out a friendly “xin chào” (hi) as we waved — a heartwarming note to cap off an extraordinary morning.
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