The best floating markets of Mekong Delta

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

The floating markets of Mekong Delta are an essential part of any tourist itinerary in South Vietnam, often the focal point of it. The rustic, distinctly Asian appearance, the reflecting waters of rivers and canals, and the multitude of colors also put them on the "must-do" list for most travel photographers. But while the big floating market in Can Tho city sometimes spots more boats carrying tourists than selling fresh farm products, the smaller, more local, and way more photogenic ventures are easily missed. Nam Nga in particular, quite likely the best such event in the area, remains virtually undiscovered, partly due to its remoteness. But even in the immediate vicinity of Can Tho two more floating markets take place daily. 

© Mark Levitin

Life on water

Consider South East Asia in medieval times. The main beast of burden is a buffalo: powerful, but slow. Horses are hard to come by. Roads are pretty bad to start with, and during the monsoon season, which lasts for a third of a year, they become impassable. It is a small wonder trade and transportation shift to the water. River estuaries are suited for this purpose especially well. Once the innumerable branching streams are connected laterally with artificial canals, this creates a system on par with modern road networks. In the absence of mechanical powers sources, engines of any kind, the difference in transporting loads of heavy cargo on land and on the water is crucial. And then it simply makes no sense to go through the extra hardships of mooring and unloading the goods when both the sellers and the buyers arrive by boat. Hence, floating markets. And with the Mekong Delta being the largest in the region, this is where you get to see the most of them and the best of them, up until now.

© Istock/Jangnhut

Cai Rang floating market

This is by far the most popular destination in the area. The sellers assemble on Can Tho River, just a few km south of the namesake city. The famous photos used to illustrate the quintessential floating market are taken from a nearby bridge. One advantage here is the river's width, allowing massive barges to converge for wholesale business, while smaller vessels sneak between them plying their own retail trade. The downside is that the boats drift, and the bridge only provides superior panoramic views at sunrise. Such proximity to the main city makes an early morning visit perfectly feasible but also ensures you will not be the only traveler here. Tourists arrive by busloads, hop into boats, and often eventually outnumber the sellers. Activity dwindles to nothing before noon, like in most floating markets.

© Mark Levitin

Phong Dien floating market

One of the many morning markets in this part of Vietnam, Phong Dien seems to be deliberately set up for a photographer. The venue is much smaller than Cai Rang but incomparably more rural and private. Again, there is a bridge providing panoramic views. The background is green and leafy, perfect for a shot. Quite a few tourists make it here as well, but since they inevitably arrive on tour stopping in Cai Rang first, they come pretty late. Get here at sunrise, and you will have the place to yourself. Boat hire in Phong Dien seems to be outrageously overpriced for no obvious reason, but the river is small enough to see everything from the shore.

© Mark Levitin

Nga Nam floating market

This one is undoubtedly the best floating market in Mekong Delta for a traveler. First of all, it is far from anything. It is not a  tourist destination, so you can be almost sure you will be the only foreigner here. Second, it is vast. Nga Nam literally translates as "five-fold junction", and this is exactly what it is, in the aquatic sense - a confluence of a river and two canals. Farmers and salesmen come from all over South Vietnam. A number of bridges offer good views of the vicinity and the busy boat traffic, yet none of them gets you a good panorama of the market itself. However, a local cafe situated right next to the confluence allows access to its third-floor balcony for a small fee - and this is where all the best shots of Nga Nam are taken from. And finally, unlike every other floating market in Vietnam, Nga Nam is not a morning-only affair. Activity on water continues all day, with its own tides and ebbs, reaching its peak, surprisingly, at night, just before dawn. If you have time, it may be a good idea to stay overnight and observe the river trade throughout the day.

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