Mekong Adventure III – Floating to a market

22.11.2018

For a change I didn’t have to get up, packing my bag and getting back on my back. No, this morning I had to be ready at the reception for 5am (!!!! ) – I repeat, 5am in the bl00dy morning!!!! Well – it was my idea to do a tour to the floating market, so I had to blame myself.

As we booked the private boat with the hotel at least we didn’t have to go somewhere else. Instead we walked from the hotel to the pier, waiting for 5 minutes, just to led to another section near the market. And voila – our little boat including the lucky (or unlucky) woman who was our captain for the morning. It was a standard little boat with enough space for maybe 4 passengers. Our captain was standing in the back, and my sister and I made ourselves comfortable as much it was possible on the wooden bench – though we got a pillow.

And off we sailed, I mean rowed – OK, using the engine towards our first destination of the day – Cai Rang Market. It was just after 5:30 that we left, so we had a bit time to enjoy the sunrise from the boat. And it was not too bad I must admit. Maybe getting up so early is not too bad in the end (sorry, cannot keep a straight face even writing this!!!). Besides the sunrise it was nice to see how busy the Mekong already was at that time of the morning. Boats of all sizes on the river, cars, motorbikes and bicycles on the road next to the river, and locals out of their own houses. It is said very often, but it doesn’t mean it is not true – but the Mekong is the life for this region. And you really do not realised it so easily being on a boat yourself.

After around 45 minutes we finally arrived at Cai Rang market – one of the largest floating market in the region. I visited the market nearly 4 years ago, though thanks to a quite bad hangover I did not really enjoy it as much as I should. This time it was different.

The market is actually in the middle of this rather large arm of the Mekong, though with still enough space for boats to easily pass the market. Here you could spot boats of all sizes filled with a variety of fruit, vegetables and even fish and meat. The buyers also differed a bit, some seemed to be wholesaler (considering the amount they bought) others bought for private consumption. I found it rather fascinating watch the various transactions on such large river. And while watching this organised chaos some interesting facts became clear. For example there most boats had a little pillar (or Cay Beo) on the front with fruits or vegetables hanging on it. This was a sign to indicate what you could buy from this specific boat.

It was just fun to sit back and watch the spectacle. I love people watching, and this was a perfect place to do so. And of course, like on any other “normal” market in Vietnam you can treat your belly there. For me the most important little boat was the one serving ca phe sua da. It really is something different to watch anyone preparing my favourite drink in Vietnam on a river. It is something different. I offered our captain a coffee as well, but she was happy just to have her little jar filled with ice tea. My thirst being sorted our Captain then stopped net to a rather large boat and suddenly we had some fresh-cut pineapples in your hand. What a great services. And it was insisted that the fruit doesn’t require any paying – I assume it was already  covered in the fee we paid. There were also some “soup” boats floating around the market, but I thought I could wait for the second market so didn’t buy one. I was to regret that decision once again.

After enjoying this feast to the eyes, ear and nose we continued west towards the second market for the day – Phong Dien Floating Market. This was a great opportunity for two things – a) to relax and b) to enjoy the scenery and the view of the life along the Mekong. Both were welcome exercise. You could not help yourself looking full of fascination to things that most likely is the most typical view for locals. There is a fishing boat throwing their net into the water. Along the riverfront is a small wooden house with nets lying in front of it. Next to boat full of trees is a small boat rowed by a woman. There was a boat unloading enough bananas that would last a year for me. All so normal but for us foreigners something special. The two of us really loved it.

Though after a while the journey felt a bit long, it stretched quite a bit. And my decision to wait for the breakfast seemed a bit silly, as we approach 8am. Our captain was very careful, while other boats had to stop on a regular basis to remove plastic from their underwater engine, we never had to stop. However, we certainly moved slower than any one else.

After over an hour we turned into a smaller canal and I recognised the section I visited the market 4 years ago, but while I could see a restaurant / café on land, there was no market. We actually had to follow the canal even further. Great. It seems a I am not good with changes! Another 15 minutes and we arrived at Phong Dien Market.

And I must admit – I was underwhelmed. The market was certainly smaller now. Before at the entrance to the canal boats were really close to each other, with soups, fruits, coffee and other things offered. Now there was probably two handful of boats. And the fact that the market was in a rather larger opening made it looks smaller as well. It was still a b it colourful and busy with the tourists boats, but just different. One factor might also have been is the time – it was already after 8am when we arrived.

Anyhow, we paddled around to view the contents of the different boats. This time I did see any Cay Beo to indicates what is on sales. I guess due to the size of the market it really is not necessary. Our Captain bought more fresh fruit for us – which was once again so fresh and so tasty. I just love fruits in Vietnam and I really should eat much more here. However, to my horror I did not see any soup boats. Not a single one. I was hungry, and no soup. I world crashed down. I saw one boat trying to sneak away, but when asking we were informed “Sold Out”. Dam…..

After seeing everything it was time to return to Can Tho. Back via the small canal, into the larger river, seeing some by now familiar sight. But as expected (yes, I still do remember the trip back in January 2015) we turned into a small canal and it was clear that we would do a detour via the canals on the way back to Can Tho. I was certainly happy, as this is the perfect way to spot the local life in the Delta. You could see houses along the canal, locals using the easy access to the water to wash their cloth or dishes, some kitchens outdoors at the back of the house. On both sides small roads followed the water, with several bridges connecting both sides. It was actually very peaceful here – so quiet. The only noise came from the other boats passing us (with the passengers often waiving at us or shouting Xin Chao).

The other benefit was that the trees along the canal provided some welcomed shadow, so it was easy to sit back, relax and enjoy the show. At some time we saw some strange-looking fruit – I was advised since then that these were water coconuts. I tried them – and I prefer the real coconuts.

Another hour on the boat we arrived at our third and final stop of this trip – a small homestay called My Thuan along the now slightly larger river (though still small in comparison to the other ones).  I did not complain to get off the boat for a bait, and we were lucky getting our own little “hut” next to the river. Over time more and more people arrived, and some had to sit in side the garden of the homestay. I preferred the river view. The homestay actually offered a wide range of dishes, but I took the opportunity introducing my sister to one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes, which by coincident is very popular in the Mekong Delta: Banh Xeo (or Vietnamese pancake). It is a pancake made from rice batter friend in a hot pan, and then filled with bean sprouts, prawns and other items. Often you get it served with lettuce and you roll part of the Banh Xeo inside a lettuce leaf. It can be a bit messy. I must admit it was a very good one. The outside was crispy, but the inside was not under or overcooked. Just delicious. it certainly made up to the fact that I was unable to eat soup on the boat!!! Oh, and the summer rolls we ordered were good as well. So far so good.

After finishing our breakfast (it was nearly 10am) our Captain showed me a little bit around the homestay. They have a lovely garden with pond full of rather large cat-fish, palm trees, small parts where fresh vegetables and herbs are growing and a little stream with stunningly beautiful lotus flowers. This place was a photographer heaven. If you want to experience some rural Vietnam, the My Thuan Homestay would be an interesting option.

It was then time for the final trip back to Can Tho. It was nice to enjoy the green and rural looking area along this little river, before we were back on a much larger part of the Mekong. Suddenly you could spot large boats again, with plenty of houses on both sides. Unfortunately for me a decision was made by my sister not to erect the sun roof over our heads. her reason was it would block the view!!! I did not want to argue with that logic. But being on a river without any shade during the hot period of day was not too pleasant. It was hot. Very hot. Far too hot. But being a good brother I stayed quiet (or was I too afraid???). So for the next hours frying in the sun (forget about frying an egg – you would have a well done steak in 1 minute on my head) I tried to enjoy the view on the river for a while longer. Seeing our suffering our Captain then provided us her jar with straws to drink the ice tea. It turned out she didn’t buy it for herself, but for us. Remarkable. We passed the Cai Rang market again, but hardly any boats were left, I guess no sane person would be travelling on the river during this heat (or being out with any sun protection). The Can Tho Bridge in plain view it was clear we were nearly back “home”. And yes, after over 6 hours we left the boat and stand on solid ground in Can Tho.

I must admit it was a lovely trip. When booking via the hotel we were advised that we will cover two floating markets (which we did), a canal area (which we did) and would return after 5 hours (which we did not – it more than 6 hours).   Our Captain was superb. Hardly any stop for removing plastic bags from the engine, all felt very safe. And even though she did not speak any English we had quite a few laughs. In the end she followed my example and called my sister “Chi Baaaa” as well. She was just great. So if you do a trip, spend a bit a more and get a private boat. And please do not forget to tip them…they deserve it.

It was already 11:30 and we both felt a bit tired (could had something to do with the heat and sun!!!), but instead of heading for a quick nap I quickly freshened up and then joined my sister in a café called Quynh Coffee at the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Ngo Quyen. It has two floors but she got a nice seat next to the entrance with a great view of the street and the pier. So making myself comfortable and enjoying a fresh cool smoothie (the emphasis was on the cold). Oh, yes. That was good. I then spotted something else on the menu which certainly interested me – Banh Tam Bi. It is thick rice noodles with herbs and grilled pork, finished with a thick coconut cream. I read about this speciality and as breakfast was already 3 hours ago I decided it was ok to order it. Obviously for research reasons only so I can report if it is worthwhile to try the dish. My verdict – it is delicious. The dish might not look beautiful, but it was full of flavour. I was very happy. After the meal we just sat back, chatted, looked at some photos we took and enjoyed the lack of traffic out on the road. It was actually very quiet – it was very hot though, so this might have been a reason for this.

While I was interested to visit a little museum near the hotel the lack of sleep got the better of it and I headed for an hour nap and planned to meet my sister for exploring Can Tho. Well, the 1 hour nap turned into 3 hours, as I got a call at 17:30 asking where I was. Well – still in bed.

So instead of exploring Can Tho for a second time I headed straight to the Mekong Restaurant next to the hotel to have a late afternoon beer (well, the tradition of drinking beer can be independent of riding a bike!!!). And as we both were a bit lazy stayed there for a second beer and even decided to have dinner here. Fried pork for my sister, and fried fish. I think we both were quite happy with the food. It was certainly cheaper than the previous night. And it was nice to sit opposite the massive Ho Chi Minh statue.

After beer and dinner we actually decided to stretch our legs a bit and started to walk off our food. I really like the riverfront section here. With all the locals around it has a lovely atmosphere, and it doesn’t have such a touristy feel as it should have with all the hotels here. Walking towards the north we arrived at the boat restaurant that leaves every night for a little cruise while the passenger enjoy a buffet. And here was another obvious change. Nearly 4 years ago you had to walk 10-15 minutes to get to a nearby bridge to cross the little river. Now there is a new bridge connecting the two waterfronts. And it is not just a normal bridge, but rather a footpath connecting two lotus flower statues, that are lid during the night. It looks actually quite nice – and very popular for locals to take selfies. On the other side there are quite a few restaurants to sit outside, so this could have been another option. Seeing the path not lid we did not walk too far and turned around to head back towards the hotel, crossing the bridge one more time.

I was in the mood for a beer or cocktail, so ignoring the nice looking café next to the bridge stopped at a bar Tien An at the corner on Hai Ba Trung. It was opposite the very nice looking Viva café, with tables outside to enjoy some fresh air and a cocktail while having a chat. Next to our table was an elder German couple (even older than my sister…). We shared some stories, though I was slightly annoyed that they complained that the staff in this region did not understand them, and that they should speak much better English as this is important for tourism. Besides the fact that their English was probably not very good either, I bit my tongue and asked how good their Vietnamese was…

But this did not ruin the relaxing evening, and as we have planned to continue riding our bike it was time to go to bed for a good night sleep – though I could not resist having another beer while sitting on the balcony in front of my room. It would have been a shame if the benefit of the hotels are not fully utilised. But my second trip to Can Tho was completed. And I once again enjoyed my time in this lovely city. But I was looking to see some new provinces the following day.

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