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In Vietnam, the difficult turn towards tourism in the floating markets of the Mekong

Ⓒ AFP – Roberto SCHMIDT – | The Cai Rang Floating Market, Vietnam in Vietnam, July 17, 2017

In the floating market of Cai Rang, Vietnam, boats filled with fruits and vegetables make pretty souvenirs for tourists, but the merchant-boatmen struggle to get by.

This market was born under French colonization, at a time when the canals traversing the Mekong delta – some dug by man, other natural ones – were strategic transit routes for goods.

But since then, the road network has grown considerably and has caused the volume of goods traded in Cai Rang to drop over the years. And the supermarkets have multiplied.

Ⓒ AFP – Roberto SCHMIDT – | View of the floating Cai Rang market in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, July 17, 2017

A mutation undergone by Nguyen Van Ut, a repairman for thirty years of mechanical scales, which are still used here to weigh fruits and vegetables.

“I do not have a lot of customers now, but it used to be, but today, a lot of boats left the floating market … Many of those who were passing cars on land,” laments Ut on his small boat house, which also serves as a repair shop.

Only those who have saved can migrate to dry land. This migration accompanies accelerated industrialization in the Mekong Delta in recent years. Since 2006, the number of employees in construction and industry has doubled, reaching 570,000 employees in these sectors.

Ⓒ AFP – Roberto SCHMIDT – | A merchant-boatwoman and her granddaughter on the floating market of Cai Rang in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, July 17, 2017

The poorest can not leave the river. “It’s just a dream for me, because I do not have any money, I dream but it’s unlikely that will happen …”, adds, in tears, Ut who would be well open a small cafe or sell lottery tickets, away from here.

Today, only 300 boats remain in Cai Rang, compared with 550 in 2005. The site continues to be a wholesale market with pineapple or watermelon stocks filled with whole boats, where wholesalers from the region come ‘supply.

– Village museum –

To advertise their load, the boatmen use a rudimentary means: they hang a fruit or vegetable on the prow of their ship. This participates in the exoticism of the place, far from the monotony of the heads of supermarket gondolas …

Ⓒ AFP – Roberto SCHMIDT – | A vegetable marketer on the floating market of Cai Rang, Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta, July 17, 2017

The communist authorities are now relying more on tourists, which are millions to return to the region each year, than on wholesalers to keep the village afloat. Since 2016, they regard the floating market as a “national heritage”, listed as such.

“Local authorities are trying to keep the floating markets alive in order to preserve the culture and attract more tourists,” says Nguyen Thi Huynh Phuong of Can Tho University, who wrote his thesis on floating markets and tourism.

In the middle of wholesalers, today we see many tourists trading pineapples or watermelons to the piece. They also stop to eat traditional noodles or drink a coffee in the stalls.

Ⓒ AFP – Roberto SCHMIDT – | A vegetable seller offers his products to the inhabitants of a boat house on the floating market of Cai Rang, in the Mekong Delta, July 17, 2017

“Without tourism, this floating market would disappear, because business is not doing very well,” says Ly Hung, who has been selling fruit and vegetables here for nearly thirty years.

He has no illusions about the return of his boat by one of his children: his two elders have already left for work in factories.

Some boats remain moored at all times here, others just to sell their cargo.

“Young people do not want to be like their parents and sell products on the floating market, because this job is not very stable and it is very difficult to live on a boat,” says Phuong.

Nguyen Thi Hong Tuoi, 34, works on the family boat since she was a child, like her mother and grandmother before her. But she dreams for her five-year-old daughter. “I want her to study and have a real job,” she says.

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