The Colorful Floating Markets of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
An integral part of life on the Mekong Delta, floating markets are not to be missed on any Southern Vietnam Journey. Our travel expert James Pham offers a closer look at their colorful life.
About the Mekong Delta
Starting south of Ho Chi Minh City and extending to the Gulf of Thailand, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is a stunningly beautiful region marked by tropical fruit plantations, endless swaths of emerald rice fields, and innumerable ponds and reservoirs stocked with all kinds of fish and shrimp. The arteries behind the so-called “Rice Bowl of Vietnam” are the thousands of kilometers of waterways that crisscross the region.
In addition to irrigating the land, the dense system of rivers, streams, and canals of the Mekong Delta are a lifeline to its people who have traditionally built homes on or next to the water which is used for everything from cooking and laundry to bathing and transport.
Years ago when cars and trucks were a luxury, it didn’t cost much for a family to buy a wooden canoe (or even make their own) and attach to it a small motor, or for even poorer families, a simple human-powered rowboat. The waterways were the streets and highways of the Mekong Delta, allowing families to take their children to school, go to market, and sell their own homegrown produce, giving rise to the floating markets of the Mekong Delta which historians say have existed since the early 19th century. Not only was water transport cheaper than road transport (with some families even living aboard their boats), it was safer and more adaptable to frequent flooding.
Today, there are floating markets in several regions in the Delta, including the Nga Bay Floating Market (also known as Phung Hiep) in Hau Giang Province (about 30kms from the city of Can Tho), Phong Dien Floating Market (also near Can Tho), Nga Nam Floating Market in Soc Trang Province, the Long Xuyen Floating Market in An Giang Province, and the Tra On Floating Market in Vinh Long Province.
While each floating market has its own personality, they share several common features:
- All sizes of boats and barges laden with fresh produce
- Products strung on a bamboo pole indicating what’s for sale
- Smaller boats buying products wholesale to then re-sell in land-based markets
- Smaller boats selling noodles, rice, and drinks to service the larger boats
- Lots of color and movement as produce is transferred between boats
Two of the most popular floating markets, however, are the Cai Be and Cai Rang markets.
Cai Be Floating Market – Closest to Ho Chi Minh City
Just about 2.5 hours from Ho Chi Minh City, the Cai Be Floating Market is located on the Tien River, where the provinces of Vinh Long, Tien Giang, and Ben Tre meet. There are usually a few dozen boats here, starting at 4 am and tapering off in the late afternoon. What Cai Be lacks in size, it makes up for in convenience, as it lasts longer than typical floating markets and it’s relatively fast and easy to get to via bus or taxi from Ho Chi Minh City. Once there, negotiate with one of the smaller boats to take you around the floating market.
However, with so much more to see in and around Cai Be, a better option is to maximize your trip with side excursions to visit the lush countryside, stop at local workshops making snacks from rice and coconuts, and sample the distinctive cuisine of the Mekong Delta that makes use of the abundant seafood, fruits, and vegetables grown in the region.
Victoria Cruises has several day trip options for visiting the Cai Be Floating Market with or without transportation to/from Ho Chi Minh City. There’s also an option for cycling in the Delta, an excellent way to see the landscape up close, along relatively flat, easy roads. If you’re traveling from Can Tho (the largest city in the Mekong Delta) to Ho Chi Minh City or traveling to Can Tho from Ho Chi Minh City, a cruise to the Cai Be Floating Market is an excellent way to break up the 4-5 hour drive. Traveling deeper into the Mekong Delta allows for visiting unique sites, like a hundred-year-old house that showcases French, Chinese, and Vietnamese architectural elements, and riverine islands filled with fruit trees.
If you have an extra day or two, there is plenty in the Mekong Delta to explore. Overnight right on the river with a 2-day excursion from Ho Chi Minh City exploring the floating market in Cai Be, cruising the Delta’s waterways, and finishing in Can Tho with a breakfast cruise of the larger Cai Rang Floating Market.
Cai Rang Floating Market – The Delta’s Largest and Most Famous
To visit the largest and best-known floating market in the Delta, you’ll first need to get to Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. About 4-5 hours by road from Ho Chi Minh City by car or bus, Can Tho is colloquially known as Vietnam’s “Western Capital”. From the center of Can Tho, the Cai Rang Floating Market is just 6 kilometers away, or a 30-minute boat ride from the downtown Ninh Kieu Pier.
At the pier, you’ll find lots of small boats ready to take tourists out on a short cruise to the floating market. Feel free to join other tourists on a shared boat or negotiate for a private cruise. For a slightly more upmarket experience, Victoria Can Tho Resort operates a breakfast cruise to the Cai Rang Floating Market. Enjoy a beautiful buffet spread on the way to the floating market, finishing just in time to take photos of the bustling scenes of river trading.
As Can Tho is increasingly becoming a destination on its own, with direct international flights, there’s also the option of starting or ending your Delta discovery in this friendly, multi-cultural town. Pair a cruise to the Cai Rang Floating Market with a tour of Sa Dec, known for its flower market and Indochine-era buildings. From there, head east back to Ho Chi Minh City or cross into Cambodia at the border town of Chau Doc, with onward transportation to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Whether on a day trip or a multi-day journey, the colorful floating markets of the Mekong Delta are not to be missed on any southern Vietnam itinerary.
Check out these itineraries featuring Cai Rang Floating Market:
- Ultimate Mekong Delta Experience – (4 Days & 3 Nights)
- Deep into the Mekong Delta – (5 Days & 4 Nights)
- Elite Vietnam – (10 Days & 9 Nights)
Read our Mekong River Cruise Guide to choose the right cruise for you!