5:30 AM is probably my least favorite time of day. It’s clearly past the “stay up all night” hours of 3 and 4, but still ahead of a reasonable time to get up (noon, if I have anything to say about it). 5:30 AM is a forsaken hour. Nobody should be up then. So when the alarm rang at 4:45 because I had to be down at the docks at 5:30, my mind took a few moments to figure out why on Earth I would willingly agree to get up so early. Then I remembered. The floating markets of the Mekong waited for no man.
It was still dark out, not that I could tell in the windowless room my friend and I had rented in Can Tho, a delta hub south of Saigon. But it was definitely dark when we emerged into a light drizzle and met our guide for the day, a man named Hinh, whose brother Minh had sold us the tour the night before. Minh was one of the many touts who patrolled the river at Can Tho, asking every traveler if they want to see the floating markets. And the floating markets are why we came to Can Tho, so we said yes.
The sun rose enough to turn the world blue by the time we reached the first market, where women sold fruit from boats with their wares suspended on high poles, so everyone could see what they had to sell.
The first boats to approach us weren’t selling fruit, instead piloted by thin men who offered hot coffee in the morning chill. Hinh said the coffee wasn’t good on the water (and expensive, two dollars for a cup, if you can imagine), so we pulled off the river into a small canal and stopped at a cafe that doubled as a rice paper factory.
Here they are cooking the rice paper, pouring it onto skillets like a thin pancake, cooking it and laying it out on bamboo mats to dry. It usually dries in the sun, but the rains last a long time in the lower Mekong, and when it began to shower everyone scattered, grabbing up mats and pulling them back inside.
And here’s our guide for the day, relaxing while it pours outside. He was a very chill guy, though his English left something to be desired.
After that we went further down the river, following others on their way to our second market, a smaller one with fewer big boats and more noise, now that the sun had come up enough to show off the soaking land. Everyone lives by the water here – or just flat out on it.
When we left the second market, we broke from the river and went up the canals, into the myriad tiny channels that twist through the Mekong delta, interlacing and wrapping the green water with leaves.
In the delta, the outside world seems to fade away, leaving only a wall of green around you and your boat. And of course you have a boat – everyone here does – some rickety old wooden thing that glides easily through the water and leaves little trace behind when it passes.
And that was the way we left it, when we finally wound our way back to the world, snaked our way up the river to Can Tho, and bounced off the dock with an old sea dog’s step. Muddy, broad and beautiful, the delta has to be seen to be believed, and I just hope, someday, that I will come back.