“COFFEEEEE?” The lady in the conical hat and garish shirt lets loose her trademark shriek. Sleepy as we are, in need of caffeine as we are, parents as we are, all we can do is nod mutely.
She replies with a curt nod and gets to work, expertly grinding, brewing and blending Vietnamese beans with obscenely sweet milk to make the perfect cà phê sữa đá. But we’re not in Brooklyn or Broadway market. We’re on a boat in the middle of the Mekong Delta. And so, for that matter, is she.
The Mekong has always been high up on our travel bucket list. It sounded mysterious, dark, wild. Full of stories and histories, surreal plants and unknown communities. So we had embarked on a three day tour, a combination of buses, boats and home stays, kicking off in Ho Chi Minh City and winding up in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh where we would meet my parents. But for now, it’s just the four of us and Lori’s mum, or ‘Nonna Izia’ as she’s come to be known. It’s day two and we’re out on the Delta to see the iconic, chaotic Cần Tho floating market in full swing.
It’s an epic sight, hundreds of vessels out in force, dancing an aquatic ballet that narrowly avoids becoming a game of bumper cars. The traders start early here, gliding through the silty murk, hawking their wares before the heat hits too hard. There are, after all, deals to be made and livings to be earned. Now you could let yourself be overwhelmed by the shouting, the sun and the questionable safety. Or you could sit back peacefully in your boat and just watch.
Because despite the mild hysteria, there is logic. 99% of the boats, we notice, have the product that they sell hoisted up onto a stick at the end of the vessel. A kind of rudimental, life-size advertisement. No filters, no small print, just knots of purplish puce onions, or ripe papayas speared like trophies. The watermelons might not be ideal candidates for hanging, but they pile up high and heavy on the decks, so it’s pretty clear who’s selling them.
The majority of traders at Cần Tho might deal in wholesale, but it’s tough work and they need feeding, as do the legions of tourists who rock up daily to see the spectacle. So there are coffee boats, banh mi boats, rice noodle boats, charred and skewered meat boats, pineapples-carved-into-lollipops boats, all vying for the appetites and wallets of those who’ve come to visit. Our coffee lady does brisk business, bobbing from crowd to thirsty crowd in her little vessel.
It’s hypnotic and it’s fascinating, but it’s time for a break. As we pull up to the shore, things are noticeably calmer. A man crouches over the water, washing some kind of eel. Two boys jump in and out of the brown Delta soup, swimming, splashing, playing, crashing. A baby swings in a hammock under a tree, her young mother napping on the ground below.
We rent creaking bicycles, pedalling further inland past shacks with x-ray kitchens, every utensil visible through their gaunt wooden skeletons. Towpaths are plant-fringed and quiet with only the hum of bugs to break the silence. Houses stand empty, knockoff Disney fleeces pegged to nylon washing lines, laundry crisping in the sun. Toy cars and tricycles lie abandoned mid-play and chickens potter around, ruling the roost with their owners gone for the day. Everyone’s out and we know exactly where they are. Out on the water, hustling and hollering, selling hard and shopping harder. Because in the Mekong, the Delta is life.
As we hand our bikes back and our bus pulls away from the river, its market still at peak crazy, we joke about it being pretty different to a trip to Tesco on a Saturday morning. But it does makes us think. About community, or lack of it. About how we used to do a food shop back home, clicking and wheeling our way through anodyne aisles and endless websites. So we promise ourselves that next time we find ourselves in a supermarket, reluctant toddlers in tow, muttering about an unexpected item in our bagging area, we’re going to put the basket down and get the hell out of there. Ditch the shelf wobblers and the BOGOFs. Shop somewhere more interesting. Track down the wet market. Make friends with our fishmonger. Explore the Caribbean grocers and let our kids choose the vegetables. Brave the Asian supermarket with 35 types of rice vinegar and our new favourite miso. Talk, try, learn. Wherever we are, we’re going to find the life. We’re going to find our Delta.