Vietnam floating market struggles to stay above water

CAN THO (Vietnam) • Fixing weighing scales used to be good business on Vietnam's Cai Rang floating market, but the last repairman on the river now makes just a few dollars a month as modernity pushes traders to land.

Surrounded by dusty old scales on his cluttered houseboat, 71-year-old Nguyen Van Ut says vendors are giving up their boats for better lives on land, where supermarkets draw the traders who once thronged the waterway.

"I don't have many customers now. In the past, it was all right, but now many boats have left the floating market... People on vessels have switched to vehicles," he said.

He got into the repair business 30 years ago on the Can Tho river to support his surviving children after his wife and two of his sons drowned in an accident. These days, he relies on handouts from his children - three of them work in nearby Can Tho city.

Once reportedly 2km long, the Cai Rang market is a shadow of its former self. There are about 300 boats now, down from 550 in 2005, according to the local tourism office.

It has fallen victim to the economic rise of the Mekong Delta. Industrial and construction sectors have created nearly 570,000 jobs, hauling many from poverty.

Even vendors making a decent wage from the tourists who flock to the market yearn for the perks of living on land: better housing, better jobs and modern amenities.

Ms Nguyen Thi Hong Tuoi, 34, started working on the water when she was a child, just like her mother and grandmother before her.

Though she earns decent money, she does not expect her daughter to carry on the family tradition.

"In the future, I will let my daughter live on land so she can study and have a proper job," she said.

It's a common aspiration for young people in Vietnam, where more than half the country's 93 million people are under the age of 30 and eager to work in the city.

The origins of Cai Rang market reach back to when Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia and Laos were occupied by the French, who readily exploited the natural resources of the colony previously called Indochina. The Mekong Delta's web of canals - both natural and man-made - were used to transport goods and people in the absence of a reliable road network.

There are about a dozen markets left in the Mekong Delta today, but like Cai Rang, many have shrivelled.

"The local government is trying to keep the floating markets alive to (preserve) the culture and attract more tourists," said Mr Nguyen Thi Huynh Phuong, a lecturer at Can Tho University who has researched the market's history.

It still functions as a wholesale market but its charm draws millions of visitors each year, making it a well-established pit stop on the Mekong tourist trail. Recognising the market as a tourism hot spot, the government designated Cai Rang as a national heritage site last year.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Vietnam floating market struggles to stay above water'. Subscribe