Cai Rang Floating Market in Can Tho is a colorful early-morning bazaar full of memorable sights, sounds and tastes.
As a student of mine advised me, no visit to the Mekong Delta is complete without stopping by a floating market. The student, Pham Viet Ngoan, is from Can Tho, and his hometown boasts Vietnam’s most famous floating market, Cai Rang. We made plans for an outing, and at dawn of the next day, a group of five students and I arrived at Ninh Kieu Harbor to set out for Cai Rang Floating Market by small boat.
The river was sprinkled with floating patches of algae and a buzzing boat traffic passed in both directions. After 30 minutes on the lively river, our boat reached the floating market, set on a river bend that was around 300 meters wide and one kilometer long and full of boats and canoes of all sizes, colors, shapes and styles, carrying both market-goers and vendors.
Trung Dong, another student, explained the market’s name to me: local legend has it that in ancient times a giant crocodile crawled out and sank its teeth into the riverbank, thus the name “Cai Rang” (which means “the teeth” in Vietnamese). However, according to scholar Vuong Hong Sen in his Analyses of Southern Dialects, Cai Rang was actually derived from the Khmer word karan, the traditional kitchen god. Khmer natives in Tri Ton (An Giang) specialized in terracotta pots and karan statues and loaded them on boats to sell along this river bend. Gradually, the word “karan” became commonplace for the vibrant trading boats seen everyday, and the Vietnamese in the Southwest modified the name to Cai Rang.
Whatever the origin of its name, Cai Rang Floating Market today is a wholesale market specializing in fruits and vegetables, local staple commodities, merchandise and delicacies that characterize the region’s cultural identity and enhance the market’s distinct charm. The captain skillfully maneuvered the boat to carry us around the hundreds of other boats, ferries, coracles and vessels that filled the market. None of us could count how many boats were gathered that day; however, the driver said that there were 400 to 500 boats on ordinary days and up to 700 trading boats during the run-up to Tet holidays, when a colorful variety of flowers are on offer.
Pointing out bamboo poles planted on prows on which fruits, tubers and other little items were hung, my student Dong Yen explained that these are called beo poles, and are used to promote goods for sale. The students further explained that the poles were also used by locals to hang out their clothes to dry, while a coconut leaf hung on the beo pole advertises that the entire boat is for sale.
Our boat continued deeper into the market to explore further delights: merchants tossing watermelons from big ferries to smaller boats; women piloting oars with their feet to transport fruits for sale; coffee vendors who steamed coffee in Chinese medicinal kettles on glowing braziers. Piercing cries advertising goods, murmured words of bargaining and exclamations of joy over delicious foods mingled with noise of boat engines to result in the daily concerto of sounds of the floating life on the Mekong.
Last year, I also had a visit to another province in southern Vietnam, Kien Giang and got to the island Nam Du, and this floating market reminds me of the fishing village.
Minh Thu, the youngest one in our team, stood at the prow and waved her hand. A boat selling kuy teav, vermicelli with grilled pork and soup rice cakes, promptly approached our port side. Immediately another boat selling drinks reached our starboard side. We chose our favorite foods and coffees to enjoy a floating breakfast together.
No sooner had the food boats left than fruit and souvenir ones arrived. Reasonably priced tropical fruits that had been collected last night (to retain their colors, fragrances and tastes) enticed many of us. Souvenirs included coconut-based products, local striped scarves and Southwestern confections and specialties.
At 9am, boats started to spread apart, as the Cai Rang Market grew quieter and dissolved. Our boat headed back to Can Tho. Departing from this unique and fascinating market, I was reminded of some verses by Huynh Kim about Cai Rang that I had once read somewhere:
The market has floated since midnight
And I sink into endless dusk
… Urban girls and guys from afar
Wander aimlessly throughout the floating market
Reaching the merchant boat they just squirm
A durian deepens their sorrow.