Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Can Tho Floating Market: A Community of Food

By Cassandra Kritikos

1_CAI_6409Before the sun had stretched its rays across the horizon, our group was aboard a long boat headed towards the Can Tho floating market. At just past five o’clock in the morning, all of us were tired, and many dozed off as we made our way across the river, the boat splashing against the waves. Too dark to see far ahead, we scanned our visible horizon for any sign of market activity, eagerly awaiting the soon-to-be-seen community drifting in the river. After what seemed like ten-or-so minutes we arrived at our destination, the floating market only populated by a meager fraction of what was to come.

With each passing minute the sky seemed to brighten ever so slightly, allowing us to take in more and more of our surroundings. Almost like clockwork, additional boat-vendors began to drift in, crowding the floating market district. Vendors sold many varieties of fruit, from mango to pineapple, coffees and drinks and even had hot woks and grills ready to cook fresh food for customers. 2_CAI_6440We snacked on bananas and mango while sipping our strong Vietnamese coffees laced with not nearly enough condensed milk. As a new boat would drift into the market grounds, a subconscious connection between other vendors was necessary to successfully guide their boats into the small spaces between the floating shops. Despite the early hour and still hidden sun, smiles were seen stretched across every passing face. The history between boat vendors was evident – years of selling their goods at this market had engrained strong relationships between merchants.

The beauty of the market is its history, one drawn from a time before cars where Vietnamese traveled by boats down the Mekong River. Each major city in the Mekong Delta is separated by roughly 60 km, a distance traveled in a few hours with a downstream current. 3_CAI_6457The location of the market, as explained by our teaching assistant Duyen is a historic stop made during one’s travels down the river. The market has been around for years, and despite the large amount of tourism in the region and Vietnam as a whole, the market seemed largely untouched by tourist activity. Dinh, another teaching assistant to our program, explained to me that the market is often the sole form of income for the vendors, who boat from many parts of the province through distributaries connecting to the Mekong River. This intrinsic part of Vietnamese culture is just for the locals, and those lucky enough to venture down the river at the crack of dawn.

Food, culture and community are synonymous—each culture possesses a unique dichotomy of food, one that brings together every corner of the patchwork-quilt that is life to form community. Food has always been an important aspect of my life, helping me grow in my friendships, my life and show my love to others in an indirect manner. 4_CAI_6448From the way my grandmother would feed me until I was close to bursting, or from the communal dishes spread across the dining table as my friends and I feasted on delicacies while enjoying each other’s company. The ability of food to both express the subtleties of one’s culture while also bringing people together is remarkable, and a common denominator found in all cultures across the world. My excitement to experience the floating market hovered around this central idea of community and culture, the market an outlet of Can Tho to express a deep engrained piece of cultural identity that has embedded itself within the community for ages, just as the taste of sweet Vietnamese coffee sticks to your tongue.

While our time at the market was short, the energy felt and connections seen stretched far beyond our short stay. As we rocked in our boat observing the market activity, sounds of traditional Vietnamese river music echoed in our ears as water lapped against the hull of the boat. We pointed the bow of our boat in the direction of our guesthouse and headed towards our temporary home, sailing past floating fields of vivid green water hyacinth plants rising and falling in the waves produced by our speeding boat.

5_CAI_6467As the sun rose above the horizon and stretched its arms across the sky, our tired eyes finally opened wide with our stomachs full of delicious fruit as we reflected on our experience. Each boat in the market was a swath of new food and goods to shop from; each boat a home and business to a Vietnamese; each boat interconnected to form a community, a community of food floating in the Mekong Delta.

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