41 Photos from the Mekong Markets at Dawn

I posted a few photos from the Mekong markets when I wrote about my very fun soup angel rescue mission in Cai  Rang, one that finally resulted in a bowl of steaming hot bun rieu. It was hard to choose the photos for that post. A mere handful of pictures insufficiently conveys the glory of all that technicolor at dawn. I’m not even remotely a morning person, something that can be confirmed by just about anyone who has met up in the morning hours. Until I get a cup of coffee I’m fairly intolerable, my brain cobwebby and clunky. But there is one exception: morning markets. With swarms of people bustling about, gorgeous piles of fruit and vegetables and more food to eat than I know what to do with, I fly out of bed in anticipation of a market visit.

Tourists head to the Mekong specifically for the floating boat markets at dawn, among other things. In recent years, however, new suspension bridges and rebuilt roads have meant that market wares available only by boat are now accessible by land. While the floating market exists, I found that tourist boats closely numbered the local market boats in Cai Rang; what used to take up a huge swath of the river had narrowed considerably. In its place, the land markets ** were growing quickly, with residents buying a motorbike instead of a boat. According to Theu, who ran the guesthouse I stayed at (more about her soon!), a boat and a motorbike were roughly the same price in this part of Vietnam, and families were opting for motorbikes due to practicality, resilience and ease of use. It made sense, then, that the markets would shift with demand.

[** A small note on terminology. The land markets in Cai Rang are still referred to as “wet” markets because they comprise a wet part (for fruit, vegetables, meat and other produce, where the floor and stalls are literally doused with water to keep them clean) and a dry part where spices, dried goods and other foods and household products are sold. When people refer to a wet market in Asia, it is usually on land, whereas a floating market would be on a boat.]

What follows are a series of photos from the floating market at dawn, with soup sold boat-side and boats skewering their wares on spiked poles to indicate what they had for sale. In addition, there are photos from the Cai Rang wet market, a place most tourist boats skip on their return to Can Tho. Given that the land market was relatively untouristed, people were surprised to see me meandering around, buying dragonfruit and desserts and eating, eating, eating.

This photoessay is a small taste of the deliciously overwhelming, unique feeling of standing in the middle of what seems like total chaos and watching it move around you unperturbed. I know these markets are a normal part of life for people in the Mekong, and having seen similar versions of them during my travels, I am no stranger to their beauty. But no matter how many times I venture to the markets at dawn, I always find myself with a silly grin on my face, spinning in all directions to take in as much as I can.

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Wet market Can Tho Mekong Vietnam

One of the first things you notice from the wet market boats is how they are effectively housing for long periods at a time. Clothes hanging, kitchens on the boat & the makings of general routine, floating on the water.

Wet market Can Tho Mekong Vietnam

Woman and her baby looking on as a boat drops off water near Cai Rang.

Wet market Can Tho Mekong Vietnam

Melon transaction on the Ong Tim river. Note the bright “eyes” on the front of the boat. Legend has it that they were to ward away creatures of the sea, though every person I asked had a different explanation (including “it’s pretty”).

Wet market Can Tho Mekong Vietnam

Boatside breakfast soup.

Wet market Can Tho Mekong Vietnam

Boatside breakfast soup, part two.

Wet market Can Tho Mekong Vietnam

One of my favourites: note the hands behind the hats — this kid was giggling madly then we waved at him and he dove behind the seat, cracking up the whole time.

Market Cai Rang Mekong Vietnam

Houses along the Ong Tim river on the boat ride to Cai Rang’s markets.

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Approaching the land market in Cai Rang.

Cai Rang, Vietnam

On the bridge spanning the Ong Tim river.

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Greens at dawn.

Market Cai Rang Mekong Vietnam

The land market at eye level.

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Vegetable negotiations.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

Daikon never looked so good.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

Nor did carrots, straight from the soil.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

Fish aplenty.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

I thought these were cuter than all the rest.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

Ready for cooking.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

Betel nut has two varieties used in Vietnam. One – piper betle – is for chewing (as a mild stimulant) and the other – piper sarmentosum (la lot) is used in cooking, great wrapped around beef and grilled.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

Chicken, stamped, plucked and ready for sale.

Cai Rang Mekong markets Vietnam

Dried fish. Why choose one when you can buy them all?

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Interrupting her breakfast for a photo. How cute is she?

Market Cai Rang Mekong Vietnam

Breakfast number two (after that great bun rieu soup). Bun thit nuong, grilled pork served over vermicelli noodles.

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Breakfast number three, stir fried noodles with pork and bean sprouts.

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Sticky rice, an excellent snack.

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Glutinous rice balls filled with sweet mung bean.

Cai Rang Market Vietnam

Mini black chickens, used for ga tan.

Market Mekong Vietnam

Sawing through ice blocks to distribute to vendors in the market.

Market Mekong Vietnam

Banh bo, a light, sweet cake made with rice flour (and sometimes tapioca flour) and sweetened with honey.

Market Mekong Vietnam

The banh bo vendors were two women, pointing to these gentlemen and saying “look at our husbands, eating while we make money for them”. (This is why the men are all cracking up while eating!)

Market Mekong Vietnam

Fish and chilli, a perfect pair.

Market Mekong Vietnam

No shortage of duck, quail and chicken eggs, including fertilized duck eggs, a popular snack in Vietnam (and in the Philippines).

Market Mekong Vietnam

Crispy pork, extremely enticing but sadly no room in my belly for breakfast number 4.

Market Mekong Vietnam

Tofu in woven baskets.

Market Mekong Vietnam

Loved the banh bao tin with its great typography.

Market Mekong Vietnam

Pig grooming 101.

Market Mekong Vietnam

Requisite up close pig grooming shot.

Market Mekong Vietnam

This woman had cooked pig heads and wanted me to take a photo of her with them. Laughing and smiling, she got serious the second I started to take the shot, wanting to seem business-y for her close up.

Market Mekong Vietnam

A transaction occurs….

Mekong Vietnam

…. while the men looked on right next door.

Mekong Vietnam

It’s not all fruit and vegetables, however. This was the trash piled into the water right next to the land market where we got on and off the boats. Bags, food, plastic and more.

Mekong Vietnam

After 3 mornings of market eats, I was able to relax on an evening boat ride around the Ong Tim river, seeing the same canals that brought me to the markets, but at dusk.

More to come soon about the Mekong, including  the fabulous story of how the couple that ran my guesthouse met each other in Vietnam.

-Jodi