Floating Through Traditions
“Floating Through Traditions” by Michelle Harkins
The alarm went off at 4:00 in the morning, which is early for anyone, but that’s the time you have to rise when you want to experience the floating market in Can Tho, Vietnam. We loaded a boat when it was still dark outside and set off down the river.
The pre-dawn light gave us just enough perspective to see the market from a distance as we floated toward it, and at first it didn’t look like much – just a bunch of boats gathered together. A small boat, serving market-goers and tourists, sold us coffee, water, and soft drinks just as the sun was rising, and we motored toward the market under the soft light of a tropical morning with fresh drinks in our hands. As we approached the market, the river became a maze of countless boats packed with local fruits, vegetables, and other crops.
The process is as follows: between 12:00 and 2:00 A.M., the farmers who actually grow the produce gather to sell their goods to the people who work on the boats that comprise the floating market. Around 3:00, the boat workers all congregate in one area on the river to resell the goods they have just bought to people who work in local markets around town. From 4:00 until around 9:00 (with most of the action complete by 7:00) the floating market is buzzing with commerce between the wholesale-level floating market workers and the retail-level land market workers.
The sellers at the market advertise what they have on their boats by hanging a sample on the top of a long post, called a “promotional pole.” That way, buyers have the ability to see from a distance what is available for purchase on each boat and choose what they want and where to buy. The amount and variety of items on the boats was incredible, including some items that either are not available or are very rare in grocery stores in the US.
After the rush is finished in the river outside Can Tho, some of the boats continue to float down the river and sell what goods they have remaining to other communities. Historically, canals are the easiest method of transportation in the Mekong Delta, and the waterways are still heavily used today. Floating markets traditionally acted as trading channels between communities, and even as cars and motorbikes (and, increasingly in Vietnam, planes and cargo liners) have provided different means for potential sales and trade, the floating market remains a heavily used model.
One aspect of the floating market that I found very interesting is that, while some people use their boats solely for the purpose of selling goods, there are also houseboats that serve as both floating market storefronts and family homes. Several generations can live and work on these houseboats. When the children grow up, it is very common for them to work on the family’s boat or another boat to save money until they have enough to buy their own boat to start a business. A boat in Vietnam can be bought for around 50,000,000 Vietnamese dong or roughly 2,500 U.S. dollars.
The floating market process, while initially appearing very foreign to me, actually has a lot in common with retail systems in the US. People make or grow goods, which they then sell to a middle man, who either sells the product to the consumer or sells it to a store. While the two may have a similar structure, the experience itself was very different. By visiting this cultural site, we had the opportunity the view a tradition that has been with Vietnam for centuries and that still strongly works for this region. I found it interesting that we had the opportunity to see a form of commerce that has been going on for centuries relatively unchanged at its core, even while it has changed a great deal in the sense that you are now seeing boats powered by engines and motors buzzing around, instead of being rowed by people. In a way, the floating market is representative of Vietnam as a whole, because the country is often in the same sort of tension between holding onto its past traditions but also modernizing. The market was so interesting largely because it preserves the cultural essence of historic Vietnam but exists as a motoring example of how new technology can be added to old scenes.