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Day 70 – Coming to America (Floating Markets and Rice)

May 12, 2010

Dateline: Can Tho and Cai Rong & Phong Dien Floating Markets, Vietnam – Thursday, May 12, 2010

There’s something about the waterway culture that appeals to me. Perhaps it’s just natural. My ancestors were from the Philippines, a country where you were never more than a coconut’s throw from the ocean. Those who could not adapt to the water were selected out. If you didn’t like the water you were always in a dour mood what with all the surrounding sea. This disposition made you less attractive as a mate and less likely to breed. I mean, would you want to have kids with a person who was always upset that there were no deserts? Consequently, as aquaphiles got it on more than aquaphobes, each successive generation became more enamored with water. Fast forward a few million years and you get to me, a man who has an irrational fascination with water.

My island blood naturally prefers scuba diving over snowboarding (what is this “snow”?). My culinary mind doesn’t think of fish as meat but as just another vegetable albeit with eyes. I find boats romantic. I feel more at home here in river and ocean riddled Southeast Asia than I do in California’s high desert. I’ve always known that I need to live near a lake, ocean, or river. My blood flows with more water than most.

All this partially explains my fascination with floating markets. I can wander regular markets for hours looking at vegetables, fruits, meats, snacks, nuts, or whatever. I enjoy watching the hustle and bustle. People haggling, examining produce, asking whether there’s another shipment coming in. It’s constant energy and it all centers around food.

Take this culinary zoo and put it on water and, well, I’m smitten.

Today, I finally got my floating market. It’s not Thailand’s version, but I got it. It was pretty awesome.

This morning, our tour group crawled out of bed at 6 a.m. and scarfed down the hotel’s free breakfast. I fortified myself with a cup of delicious iced coffee.

From there we boarded a boat for the day’s activities. First up, the land-based fish market. While it was by the river, it wasn’t just fish. There were vegetables, fruits and an assortment of meats. Beef, squid, chicken, and pig ears. They had it all. I even saw a less cooked version of last night’s dinner: snake. Looking at the carcass at the market, it looked like my dinner had been butchered into smaller strips. Unless I’d had a tiny snake.

Bah, who cares. Looking at it in the light of day didn’t change the fact that it tasted good.

We took a break at a small Chinese temple. Nothing remarkable. As per normal there was a lot of red and gold.

We walked back through the market, got on the boat, and headed out to the floating market. By now it was well past 8 a.m. Our guide informed us that the market opened at dawn and didn’t run past noon. We’d missed the initial rush, but the market would still have a lot of activity.

Proprietors from the areas surrounding the Mekong Delta would load their boats up with local produce and goods and head down to one of Can Tho’s floating markets. They’d dock there for three or four days until they’d sold off their wares. People row smaller boats out to the big boats to shop, going from seller to seller comparing products and prices. They’d offload their purchases and bring it back to land to sell. The floating market was basically a water-based wholesale market.

Once a seller ran out of goods, the seller would head back to its hometown upriver. Rinse, repeat.

It’s not just wholesalers and buyers. A whole industry supports the market. There are floating food hawkers, boats selling drinks, and even floating lottery ticket salesmen. Capitalism’s going strong.

The big upriver boats are a maze. They stretch for as far as the eye can see. The landscape is also constantly shifting as boats come and go. It’s as if your local supermarket made the produce aisle hundreds of yards long and rearranged shelves on a daily basis. If you wanted yams, for example, you’d have a hell of time finding the right boat. No one wants to row from vessel to vessel asking if it has yams, especially not in the tropical heat. It was only 8 a.m., but I was already sweating under our boat’s canopy. I couldn’t imagine power rowing aimlessly around the river.

The sellers had, of course, come up with a solution. There’s no need for the buyers–who for whatever reason all seemed to be female—to wander. That’s because each proprietor mounts a few samples of their goods onto long poles and posts it on their boat like a tall skinny sign. If you were selling shoes, for example, you’d hoist a couple of shoes up your makeshift wooden flag pole and wait for business to come to you.

I could have spent a few hours just people watching. Sadly, it was over all too soon and we were motoring off to our next destination, a rice paper and noodle manufacturing operation.

Actually, a “manufacturing operation” is really an oversell. It was really just a small family business. A few people pounding and grinding rice into flour, mixing it with tapioca, and cooking it up and drying it in the sun. The makers used rice husks to fuel the fires that cooked the rice paper. They’d then feed the circles of rice paper and tapioca through a roller device that cut the discs into noodles.

As an American, I’ve grown accustomed to thinking that most of my food comes from big operators that use big factories. Other than small-time farmers or specialty food providers, I assume that my staples come from large-scale operations. Seeing staples like noodles and rice paper being made by a small-time operator made me realize that the rest of the world hasn’t caught up to America’s food industry. This is not a bad thing.

We next visited a “monkey bridge” that was built over a water-filled bomb crater. There was no need for the bridge other than to give tourists a chance to try one out. It was, though, a rather fanciful way to retool a bomb crater. From there we walked through groves of tropical fruits to a rice field.

Let me take a break here to recognize the beauty of this. My family still owns a family farm in the Philippines. If my life had broken differently, I could be planting rice for a living. My parents came to the U.S. for a better life for themselves and their children. They’ve succeeded. So much so in fact that I can now play tourist to rice fields instead of worker. Instead of being stooped over in the field shoving rice seedling into the ground I can stand up straight, smile, and wave to a camera. Thanks Mom and Dad. If your son dies from food poisoning next week in Hanoi know that he appreciates what you’ve done. And that he died a happy, adventurous eater. (Mom and Dad, that’s also my way of saying that I will keep on eating things that will make you question how I was raised. My questionable judgment is a related risk to having had me in the land of opportunity and freedom—I might just go out there and exercise my rights.)

We headed back to the dock through an afternoon rain storm. We pulled down the shades on the boat for shelter. Half an hour later, the sun was back out and once again beating down in earnest. Typical.

We had a quick lunch near our hotel. The menu offered a particularly adventurous option, but I opted out. I’d had enough from the day before. Plus there are places even I’m not willing to go. At least not without seeing a local eat it first. You never know if they’ve put stuff on the menu as an inside joke just to see how far they can push tourists. Not that I’d ever do this. Ever.

From there our motley crew of tourists split up. I joined a few people on a bus back to HCMC (Saigon) while the rest stayed on for a third day in the Mekong Delta. As we made our way slowly back to Vietnam’s largest city, we crossed a large, modern suspension bridge. Once again, groups of locals gathered by the side of the road chatting, eating, and enjoying the view and the breeze.

Ah, tropical life by the water. I can’t fight a millennia of genetic engineering. And I won’t. Maybe one of them can save me a spot somewhere in the shade. Next chance I get, I’ll be right there with them.

GALLERY: Click through to see today’s gallery, including pictures of Mervyn smiling in a rice field, a “monkey bridge”, stuff that’s good to eat, and more things that sell and float.

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