Life on the Mekong River: working, shopping and bunking on the water

By Austin Bailey

October 3, 2019

Last Updated: July 23, 2020

Life on the Mekong River: working, shopping and bunking on the water

In This Article

  • The Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is flooded and crisscrossed with rivers, tributaries and canals.
  • Boats have long been the primary means of transportation here.
  • Life is shaped around the river, with many people living and working on the water.
  • Traditional floating markets are a big draw for tourists, and for good reason.

The Mekong Delta at the very southern tip of Vietnam is not quite land and not quite river, but a soupy mix of the two. With its highest points still less than 10 feet above sea level, the entire delta sees annual floods that swallow towns and villages, regularly and to no one’s surprise. The river and tributaries, along with manmade canals and flooded rice paddies, shape the land and the lives of all inhabitants. Elevated roadways are built to peek just above the annual floodwaters, and rice farmers rely on the huge nutrient-rich silt deposits brought in by the river to keep Mekong Delta soil productive enough to keep churning out enough rice to feed the entire country, plus some.

Women gather in front of a statue of Ho Chi Minh to exercise early in the morning in Can Tho City, Vietnam.
Women gather in front of a statue of Ho Chi Minh to exercise early in the morning in Can Tho City, Vietnam.

Boats have always been the main means of transportation in this region. But more than that, boats are, for many, home. Waterways bustle with houseboats where multiple generations of families live and work. Toddlers learn to paddle and swim at the same time they’re learning to walk.

A group of vendors handle their goods with a boat sitting nearby on the water.
Vendors and their families live on boats and sell their goods on land and over water.

The water is also a source of food, livelihood and waste disposal, although the government is working to curtail the latter. Visitors crowd in to see the interplay of all of these elements come together the Cai Rang Floating Market.

A young man chops fresh pinapple at a booth.
Fresh pineapple is a hot seller at the floating market outside Can Tho. This vendor's storefront is also his home, a standard set-up for these floating entrepreneurs.

Passenger boats launch throughout the morning from the boardwalks of Can Tho City, under the gaze of a giant golden statue of Ho Chi Minh. From 5 to 8 a.m., this section of the river splashes with parades of western tourists packed into canopied motorboats for the 45-minute commute to Cai Rang.

A woman smiles while holding a kettle and a cup of coffee near her boat storefront.
In addition to the wholesale floating food shops, women in flat-bottomed boats sell noodles, snacks and excellent coffee.

Traditional grocery stores and markets in Can Tho City are beginning to squeeze out the floating wholesale bazaar that clogs a half mile section of the river each morning. The market is much smaller than it was even a decade ago. But it still bustles with boats piled high with pineapple, mangos, durian and other tropical fruit. Vietnamese women in traditional conical hats paddle canoes-turned-cafes to customers eager to buy bowls of steaming noodles for breakfast. Other floating snack shops offer coffee and rice cakes.

Vendors display their goods atop tall bamboo poles on their boats.
Vendors display their goods atop tall bamboo poles, making it easy for shoppers to find what they're looking for.

By 9 a.m. the sun and heat drive the vendors away, and the tourist boats head back to Can Tho City.