A Rocky Boat Ride
by Annie Trieu
5:30 a.m. I woke up to the sound of the alarm clock. I slowly opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling of our Airbnb for the weekend at Can Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta region, called Mien Tay by the locals. I’ve never been to Mien Tay although I’m from Saigon, which is just a four-hour drive away. Being Vietnamese, I can’t help but sometimes feel embarrassed that I haven’t explored Vietnam as much as my other Vietnamese friends or even foreign backpackers. When I hear about Mien Tay, I imagine chants of the signature melodic phrase “ho oi,” images of a colorful and busy floating market with the locals selling food, palm trees, and fishermen making their way out to the river every morning.
6:00 a.m. I stepped outside of our Airbnb and took a deep breath of the fresh morning air. I was extremely excited to visit the floating market of Cai Rang. My sister, mom, and I slowly walked to Ninh Kieu harbor to meet a boatman who would take us to Cai Rang. I had mixed emotions at that time. I was excited because I finally had the opportunity to experience the floating market I’ve only ever seen through Google Images. The image of the colorful and lively floating market suddenly appeared in my mind and I was curious to see how different life was on water than life back in bustling Saigon. At the same time, I was afraid of getting disappointed (y’all know how Instagram can trick you with filters) so I tried not to have any expectations.
6:15 a.m. We met the boatman at the harbor and headed out to Cai Rang river as he started the engine. The sun was slowly rising, casting its light onto the water. It was chilly. One side of the river was full of palm trees and coconut trees, while on the other were houses, tall buildings, and hotels. Water was splashing on the sides of the boat. Far ahead were other wooden canoes with other tourists in red and orange life vests. Ten minutes passed and the sunrise guided our boat closer and closer to the floating market. From a distance, I could see the big letters “Cho Noi Cai Rang” attached to the side of the bridge to welcome visitors.
6:45 a.m. The boat ride took 20 minutes. The early morning tranquility was replaced with chatting, engine sounds, and people yelling across the boat trying to sell whatever they had on board: durian, mangosteen, ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee), watermelon, you name it. By this time, the sun was so blinding that it couldn’t be seen. It was beating down on the water and radiating its heat. I looked at the bustling and chaotic scene in front of me. The small wooden canoes zigzagged through, each with a hook to clamp down on tourist boats so the vendors can try to sell fruits or drinks. I bought a cheap banh mi and some hot soy milk to start the day. Eating breakfast on a rocky boat ride was anything but peaceful. More boats arrived at the floating market. The place was packed with tourist boats.
20 minutes passed. I suddenly saw black smoke coming out from the boat engine. It was heartbreaking to look at and the smell of gasoline filled the air. Suddenly, I felt guilty to be on this boat. I was a consumer unknowingly contributing to the environmental issues facing the Vietnamese tourism industry. I felt bad that the natural characteristics of this floating market were slowly disappearing. It used to be just an ordinary way of life for the locals in the Mekong Delta, and they have been able to sustain this practice because people from all over the country and the world flock here to experience the floating market.
Has this turned into an artificial experience for them? I don’t know, but one thing I knew for sure was that these locals were just trying to survive and make a living. It’s becoming normal for these locals to expect tourists every morning.
8:00 a.m. We went back to the hotel. The floating market was not what I imagined or expected it to be. I hoped to see a colorful floating market just like the pictures on Google. The discrepancy between reality and Google images is old news, but I’m still disappointed nonetheless, and sad that the floating market operated based on the demands of tourism. It was a sea of tourists, myself included, wearing bright orange life vests.
Cai Rang floating market is one of the things shaping the image of Can Tho city. After this trip, I hoped to build a sustainable Can Tho, so that this lifestyle is preserved appropriately for those locals who depend on it to make a living. It can be as small as helping these boatmen and boat women replace their outdated boat engine with cleaner ones.
November 11, 2019. I was sitting in my apartment in Seattle and submitted my written proposal to Voyage UW. Hence, the reason you’re reading my story. To whoever comes across this article, don’t let this article discourage you from visiting the place. Just like any other big cities, sustainability in tourism has been an ongoing issues. However, discussions of environmental issues are becoming more prevalent in Vietnam and I’m hopeful that one day, there can be a sustainable Can Tho, where there will no longer be black smoke coming out of tourist boats and no more hard-selling to tourists, but rather a journey back to finding tranquility.
"What’s the cost of sustaining this lifestyle through the demands of tourists who find this lifestyle exotic?"