The alarm did not wake me up kindly. Despite the unique experience of a true floating market awaiting me, the prospect of a few more hours resting my head on the pillow sounded too perfect. Sure enough, I wrestled myself out of bed, picked up some breakfast on the street (usually never too difficult a task as Asians begin their mornings quite early by welcoming their day before the sun has even bothered to get its lazy behind above the horizon). We were driven to the pier where we saw middle aged and above women were doing some sort of aerobics/tai-chi in the nearby park. After ambling into the simply done wooden boat, our non-English speaking captain churned the engine and rowed on occasion as we progressed down the river to the Cai Rang Floating Market (known as the largest in Vietnam as far as I am aware). The river was still quiet but enough action was already beginning with men fishing from the riverside and floating petrol stations (someone has to refill these boats’ engines) arising to action. After the sun fully peaked its head past the surrounding towns that lined the river, we rolled or skimmed into the Cai Rang Market which had by know turned into a full blown traffic jam. Although the river is fairly wide, the boats found a way to cover the space quite thoroughly. The mass producers holding singular vegetables or fruits in their storage shifted little by little their stock to the opposing boat who would eventually take them to the markets to be sold on an individual basis. This market was not a place to go do your Sunday afternoon shopping but rather a place where serious wholesale business went down. The first boat would usually toss watermelons (two a piece) to the next boat that momentarily inspected the fruit before continuing the lengthy process until most of the original boat’s stock had been drained. Just like any Asian market, hawker boats, instead of stalls, moved around to cater to the individual basis of a cut up mango or pineapple and especially teas and coffees for this all too early morning affair. Whole families were there whether they got involved or not. Some chose to nap off the early morning while others were cleaning dishes and laundry as if this were just another day land-side, which to them it was. Although tourist boats come through carrying 20 plus passengers it is still very local in its authenticity, a far cry to the shows put on by the Bangkok versions. Sadly, these time capsules into the Asian world will be falling to the wayside with more convenient approaches to commercial exchange but for now I can take a peek and appreciate the daily life of these people and how seemingly odd yet efficient they have made this into. It is just another example of their hard working lives. As for why they would conduct this market so damn early in the morning, we soon began to find out. Although it began to approach eight a.m., the sun made us realize who was kind as the first beads of sweat trickled down my forehead. We approached our second floating market of the day which was not nearly as crowded as the first. While still retaining the genuine feel of the market, we were able to more close immerse ourselves into its more toned down energy as we watched them exchanged produce and crumbled dong. It was so bizarre seeing them essentially transfer the entire content of the boat mostly due to the drawn out time to pull off such a feat. We checked into a noodle factory (with factory being a very, very relative term). From an already heated kettle, they transferred the ultra smooth and silky batter onto a circular hot plate. After letting the batter solidify to form and lose its translucent properties but still retaining its warm stickiness, they rolled it with a large hallow bamboo baton halfway to pull it off from the piping hot stone. Upon rectangular bamboo sheets, they gently unrolled the circular rice sheets for drying. Each of us got into the act as well while hoping to avoid making mess of things. Those same sheets once cooled are taken to another machine that once rolled through will turn the sheets into noodle strands that are bunched up together for sale. I love to see that these food products are still produced without the highly mechanized industrial machines devoid of the much needed TLC. We walked along the banks through smaller villages amongst the peace and serenity of the greenery around us no longer paranoid of motos ready to attack us when we least expect it. We passed banana trees ripening before our eyes, men working on their farming equipment, and young boys swimming in the brown dirty water. At one point we had to cross over a bridge to the other side of the now much more narrow river to rejoin our boat driver. This bridge was as handmade as a bridge could possibly be. In a way I wonder whether it was made by a motley crew/band of monkeys. The bridge was actually a bamboo tightrope held together by string and rope. The bridge did have a railing but this bamboo railing bowed side to side depending on how you were titling (or rather falling) in one direction or the other. Crossing such a bridge required the utmost belief in something that did not deserve it. One fateful misstep would have led you splat into the muck of the muddy water below. We all crossed thanks to our best attempts as trapeze artists. After seven hours touring the waters of the Mekong Delta while thanklessly basking in the supreme heat of the sun, we made it back to Can Tho. All of us went back to the hotel to take a nap thanks the sun sapping whatever reserved energy we had from the limited night sleep. When supper rolled around we reconvened for a street food tour to our liking after passing through the Can Tho ghetto that no right-minded white person would choose to immerse themselves in. Back near the water near an adjacent oval roundabout many stalls aligned themselves circumventing the entire space. We each looked around for whatever caught our eye. In particular, I enjoyed banh trang nuong street tacos/pizzas which are made with thin circular rice paper sheets that are grilled while adding a mixture of pork, spring onions, quail eggs, and spicy sauce upon other mysteries until the rice has become crisp with those lovely grill marks similar to a panini. I didn’t realize heaven tasted so delicious. On top of this college student favorite, my detective eye and tastebuds still needed to do some more investigating. Around the circuit, I also ate grilled eggs, what I can only assume was a deep fried banh bao meat and quail egg pie, and a grilled betel leaf wrapped beef roll called bo la lot. Street food incorporates what I love most: the ability to sample a variety of dishes. Asia trumps all street food. The western world doesn’t know it yet. We just have shitty representations of street food thanks to our festivals that live by the gyros, greasy fries, cotton candy, and elephant ears, a far cry from the foodie heaven of Asia. After relaxing with some beers at a beer garden, we got distracted in our efforts to make it back to the hotel by a street side stall. A few guys were drinking a beer neither the Irishman or I had ever seen. A group of three Vietnamese wanted us to join them which we did. They knew as much English as we knew Vietnamese so it was mostly a confusing array of hand gestures. Just smile and nod! Either way, we drank for free while clinging our glasses together in the form of cheers ‘yo!’ Tomorrow I would already be leaving Can Tho taking Irene along with me to Ben Tre for a night as a stopover to HCMC and to get another feel for the Mekong Delta.
Riding Vietnam Day 148: Floating Markets and My Own Street Food Tour / Mind Blown!