Entering Vietnam I began the usual round of new-country chores that need to be completed. A new sim card for my phone, currency exchange and familiarisation, new words to learn for the most basic verbal interaction and of course deciding on a route. I had already begun the last one while resting in Kep but no real decisions had been made except the obvious one such as visiting Ho Chi Minh City. This was a few days ride away though so a few intermediate stops were needed. Can Tho is the largest city in the delta and boasted the largest floating market which had been recommended to me by a young French couple so I decided to head there first.
Floating markets are one of the multi-sensory experiences that most people visiting South East Asia look forward to. The image of the floating market has been brought into our homes for years. Images of little old ladies in conical hats with big smiles drifting along in small boats selling fruit, vegetables, spices etc in colourful heaps is a beguiling image and one that is played upon to make Can Tho the ‘go to‘ place for a unique waterborne experience. Getting up early to beat the tourist crowds is the recommendation from the tour guides, so there we all were shuffling bleary eyed in the pre-dawn light towards a slippery plank of wood leading down to the landing stage. An armada of tourist filled boats, all determined to beat the rush.
The sun rose as we were cruising upriver, our driver more interested in making animals and bracelets out of reeds. They were in fact very good but they hampered our progress upriver due to the meandering route we took as she concentrated more on twisting and turning the reeds instead of preventing the boat from doing likewise. In order to get to the market you will have had to motor for about 30-40 minutes upriver. At this time of the morning the river is a cool place to be, not just for the breeze created by the boats progress up river but also for the diversity of boats and people starting or going about their daily lives. The Mekong truly is the lifeline of this area.

So there we were rocking gently in our boat, three tired tourists and one boat driver. We looked around the market at the number of boats doing business. There weren’t many. The reality is that this market is mostly for wholesale traders rather than housewives doing their daily food shopping. Instead of the little old ladies bringing their goods to market we saw large commercial river barges loaded with perhaps hundreds of tonnes of produce. Barges display their wares by hanging an example from a pole. Pineapples, water melons, tomatoes, cabbages and onions were plentiful. But these barges dwarf the other boats that move among them. Most of the small boats on the river are the ones carrying tourists or an occasional noodle soup vendor providing overpriced breakfast to the tourists who had to be up too early to grab breakfast ashore. It was at this point that you are able to see just how many tourists are willing to get up early in order to beat the tourist crowd.
As all of the tourists are getting up early to beat the crowds you are participating in a self-defeating excercise. Instead of little old ladies in little old boats the only people I saw that were taking an interest in what was happening were tourists with cameras. The number of tourist boats easily equaled the number of trading boats and possibly outnumbered them. This of course is exactly what we were trying to avoid. Perhaps the buyers and sellers have come to realise this and have done all of their deals pre-dawn or are instead waiting until all of the tourists have passed through before coming out onto the water. We were then taken on an extra portion of the tour, 'just for us'. A visit to a noodle factory, where we saw many of the tourists that were at the market at the same time as us. This was in fact the most interesting aspect of the morning on the river. However the boat driver became very friendly and talkative when at the noodle factory and kept repeating how hot it was and how thirsty we must be. What a surprise that the next stop was along the bank to a restaurant. The ploy was so obvious that we told her we were not interested in drinking coffee and that we would rather be on the river. She kept asking us why we were not drinking but soon gave up when she realised we had brought our own water and were not lying down suffering from dehydration.
Once we left the noodle factory the boat driver told us that we could take a backwater route on the return. This was a lot more interesting as we could see everything that was going on around us on both banks and in many places into the huts and houses that were lining the river. People were going about their business as normal. Small rickety bridges crossed over our heads as we made our way upstream and children called out and waved as we passed. This was much more interesting. Until the banks became barren and the people were left behind. It was now a meandering journey through dirty smelly backwaters.

What did we see at the market ? The result of a well oiled marketing and touting system aided by Lonely Planet and Rough guides. I didn’t see any buying and selling from locals nor were we steered close enough to many of the boats so that we could take a close look at what was on offer. It would appear that buying and selling is for locals only, if in fact it happens at all. For all we know the market could be a charade of boats milling around with no purpose except to draw the tourists out in number and provide an income for the tourist boat drivers.
Total trip time 4.15

Time spent at floating market 30 minutes of which 15 were spent eating noodles.

Time at noodle factory 30 minutes

Time spent at cafe until she realised we werent buying drinks 10 minutes

Total time spent in an open boat with no cover while the sun climbed higher taking the temperature with it  3.30

It was with this disappointment in mind that I decided to skip my other planned stop in the delta at My Tho and head straight for Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This involved a long afternoon in the saddle, an overnight stop and an early morning blast along Asia Highway 1. Although the region is a mass of people moving in all directions HCMC takes the prize as the most ludicrously congested, chaotic city I have experienced in the region so far. Scooters appear to outnumber all other traffic by at least 50:1. The traffic is a constant flow of undisciplined, unregulated and unsegregated mayhem.
And I love it.
As an ex London despatch rider I just couldn't stop myself from diving straight in and tackling it head on. One roundabout has seven roads entering it with no control whatsoever. Traffic enters as quickly as it can, pushing and inching forward until the road ahead becomes clear again. It's total mayhem but it works. And so far I have not seen one accident in all of my time in Asia.
I'll tell you more about it later.


09/04/2013 02:14

looks awesome


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