Can Tho sits at the confluence of several rivers, including the major Hau River, an offshoot of the even larger Mekong River. The city, Vietnam’s fourth largest, is considered the capital of the Mekong Delta and while it has a charming enough waterfront, the city itself is not the reason tourists flock there. What tourists come to see are the floating markets. There are several floating markets in the vicinity of Can Tho, but one market in particular draws the majority of the tourist activity: Cai Rang, located about 30 minutes away from Can Tho by sampan on the Can Tho River. But, is Cai Rang floating market all it is cracked up to be?
If you walk along the park where the pier is located, you will see multiple tour companies selling combination tours that include a boat ride to Cai Rang, a stroll down smaller canals, some include a noodle-making factory, and nearly all include a fruit farm tour. The photos on the posters look inviting and the idea of experiencing Vietnam’s largest floating market clearly draws enough people to sustain several of these businesses. But neither the tour companies nor the photos tell the reality of Cai Rang, the canals, and the tours in general. But I will.
Let’s start at the beginning. Get a drink, this is going to be a long one!
The Visitor Experience
I was one of the tourists drawn to Can Tho by the floating markets. As someone deeply interested in food and foodways, not to mention photography, I actively sought out floating markets in Vietnam and made the trip from Ho Chi Minh City specifically to see Cai Rang and Phong Dien. Most of the information on the internet about floating markets near here is, in fact, about Cai Rang, which creates the impression that it is THE floating market to see. Even Gordon Ramsay has covered Cai Rang. The reason this market is so popular with tourists and with tour operators is that it’s the closest one to Can Tho. Not only is it quicker to get to than any other floating market in the area, it’s also a wholesale market, with big motorized boats, which means tour operators can take bigger boats full of tourists rather than the small sampans with one or two people that would be required for smaller markets like Phong Dien, about another hour further away. Small sampans do come to Cai Rang, and I was on one of them, but they are outliers. Bigger boats, more people, more profit. Here lies the first problem.
Because of the way the tours are operated, and the wholesale nature of the market, the image you have in your head of a floating market is not what Cai Rang looks like. Instead of small boats rowed by a single person, stocked with piles of fruit and other produce, Cai Rang is a maze of large boats, fully enclosed, where you don’t actually see much of the business being conducted. The majority of the boats are not in fact merchant boats, they are large boats containing uncountable numbers of little orange life vests, each one enclosing a tourist. It would not be a stretch to say that the majority of the boats are tour boats. There are some small boats, and those are the ones selling coffee and noodles to tourists. I am not the first to make this observation. An article from November, 2022 explains that since tourism picked up, vendors have actually left, changing the way business is done and upsetting both tourists and merchants at the same time. Whereas before the market would see 500 to 600 trading boats a day, today it’s more like 40 on a good day. As a result, the number of tourist boats has decreased, which is a wild observation considering the sheer number of tourist boats I experienced. I can’t imagine what it was like before tourism began to decline.
The city of Can Tho launched a program several years ago to ensure that both tourists and merchants kept coming to Cai Rang as a way to preserve the market. But even that is not working, at least from the tourist angle. Rather than experience a floating market, tourists are unceremoniously rowed to a boat selling noodles, then to a boat selling coffee, and finally back to Can Tho, and they are, understandably, dissatisfied. To add insult to injury, the food from these boats is mediocre at best and definitely not worth the money or the numb butt cheeks it takes to get there, just like the rest of the market. This is not the floating market experience anyone is looking for.
This was certainly the case for me, but I am one person, so let’s hear someone else’s opinion, even aside from the worried residents of Can Tho who have a stake in the market. In Da Nang, I met a Vietnamese couple who have been living in California for 40 years. They had the same reaction to Cai Rang that I did. It was underwhelming and unexciting. These are real-life people with whom I spoke, real experiences, fresh in their mind.
And it’s not just me and this couple. VN Express, a Vietnamese newspaper, published an article about the slow demise of the market. In it, a tour guide from Can Tho explains that more than 70% of the people booking tours with his company request to visit Cai Rang floating market. But, he laments, most of them come away disappointed and don’t enjoy the experience. It wasn’t the experience they expected. It wasn’t the experience they were sold.
So why, then, is there so much more out there about Cai Rang than any of the other floating markets in the region and why is it all so positive? This goes back to accessibility. People write about the places they’ve been, and most people visiting the markets in Can Tho just go to Cai Rang, which, again, creates the false narrative that it is the best. After all, isn’t what is popular also what is good? We are primed to think that the places people flock to are the places worth visiting and so the popularity of the place is perpetuated regardless of the actual experience of visiting.
But if lack of beauty, authenticity, charm, or whatever was the only issue with Cai Rang, it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, it is a working market and while tourists, hordes of tourists, get to watch, it ultimately does not exist for us. Though maybe it does. There is also the issue of trash and water pollution. I wasn’t naïve enough to expect pristine waterways, I had already seen other parts of Vietnam, but I was not prepared for what awaited me at the smaller canal that is part of most of these tours from Can Tho. The Can Tho River itself, while certainly not free of garbage and plastic, which you can see even at the pier in Can Tho, looks like something out of the Garden of Eden compared to what I saw when my sampan made the right turn into a canal that backed into people’s houses.
The scenery that unfolded before my eyes was supposed to be relaxing, a beautiful experience with lush backdrop and serene surroundings, never mind the sound of the sampan’s motor. Instead, what I saw was plastic, Styrofoam, garbage, pill blister packs, and even shoes floating everywhere. The banks of the canal were piled high with trash, some of which no doubt became dislodged from the big mass and made its way to the water.
I had seen photos of similar canal rides, presumably elsewhere, with no trash and I was truly shocked by what I experienced here. Are tour operators so blind to the conditions of the waterways that they in good conscience believe this is a worthwhile attraction for tourists? Are they aware of the conditions but are still trying to capitalize on the hype of Cai Rang anyway? I don’t know what to think, but I will tell you this, the person manning my boat kept asking me if I liked it – the canal . I didn’t know what to say so I just nodded while every fiber of my being recoiled against my own lie, against my own deception. What I really wanted to say was “please, get me out of here!” but I didn’t want to cause offense. And those same guides contribute to the water pollution. On the way to and from Cai Rang, plastic bags got caught in the rudders twice and the operator had to remove them. Rather than keep the trash on the boat to dispose of later, they just threw it back into the river. Make it someone else’s rudder problem.
The issue with the trash, too, is something Cai Rang and Can Tho officials know is a problem, and tourists have been complaining about it. So at least the people who run the market and have an interest in its preservation are not blind to the situation. But the bigger problem is that they can’t agree on whose job it is to keep the waterways clean, especially around the market. As the Tui Tre News article linked above explains, the conservation project was not clear about who was charged with cleaning. Because Cai Rang is deemed an intangible cultural heritage site, people assumed that trash removal fell on the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. However, because the market is a trade business, others assumed that it was the job of the Department of Industry and Trade, but they deny this. As a consequence, there has been no working cleaning initiative in place, which resulted in the current squalid water conditions.
To be clear, the issue with trash in the water is directly related to Cai Rang to a large extent. Most of the garbage on the river was in the vicinity of the market, where the small canal also was. On a different day I went to a different market further away, past Cai Rang, and while the trash never disappeared entirely, it did diminish. On that ride, too, the boat person threw the plastic bag wrapped on the rudder back into the water. This is all disappointing for a site that is supposed to be the star attraction in the area, and more so, a designated cultural heritage site.
Cai Rang’s Side Attractions
There is one more problem still, which has to do with the other two places that are commonly used as attraction points for this tour: the rice noodle factory and the fruit farm. Both of these stops are misrepresented. There is nothing inherently wrong with the noodle making factory (mine was near the mouth of the small canal), but there is nothing exciting about it either. First, to call it a factory is taking serious liberties with semantics. The factory I visited consisted of two people making rice paper over a burner. There was no interaction, no explanation, no anything. Some groups did have a guide, I did not, and neither did some of the other people I encountered in sampans (rather than larger boats with bigger tours). To be fair, the process of making the rice paper seems like an interesting one, and the fact that they were doing it the traditional way was great to watch, but I felt like I was obstructing their process the entire time. The lack of any sort of interaction gave the impression that visitors are a nuisance. I don’t know how or if the owners of these rice-paper and noodle-making operations get compensated by tour companies, but tourists don’t pay them anything directly, which is not the case at the fruit farm, my next and final stop on this tour.
The fruit farm I was taken to was on the opposite site of the river, not far from the canal. My boat tied up so I could get off and I was directed to climb up to the river wall and cross into the fruit farm. As I tried to walk in, a woman stopped me very abruptly by putting her arm in front of me. She asked me to pay 30,000 Vietnamese Dong to enter. I tried to explain to her that I was with a boat tour, which I assumed included entry to the fruit farm since it was listed as a part of the tour. A different woman came over and told me that no, even though I had paid the boat tour I still had to pay to enter the farm. The boat tour company said nothing about this. I was led to believe that my payment for the tour, 400,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $17 USD), included this too but alas, it did not. In the end, I chose not to pay to enter the farm. It wasn’t about the cost, which is negligible, at about $1.26 USD, it was on principle. Plus, by that point the disappointment of the market and horrific scene of the garbage-laden canal had taken everything out of me that morning. As such, I can’t tell you what the experience at the fruit farm was, but I can tell you that this, too, left me a bit jaded and discouraged with the whole Cai Rain tour experience.
There are countless blog posts by travel bloggers waxing poetic about the wonders of Cai Rang floating market and I am forced to wonder whether we visited the same market. Or maybe some of us are living in an alternate reality. Or maybe, just maybe, travel bloggers generally don’t like to talk about the bad and have the tendency to look at everything, and write about everything, through rose tinted glasses. This is not only disingenuous but also borders on the unethical. It is OK, good even, to admit when a place is not what it is cracked up to be, to assert that perhaps some places have issues that negate their “must-see” status, and you can monetize that too, if that is what you’re doing.
I do understand that everyone’s expectations and preferences are different. It is also entirely possible, likely even, that some of the issues with Cai Rang have intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic, so I choose to give people the benefit of the doubt on their praise of this market. But I can’t do the same for tour companies and the people who are in charge of the operation; they know the situation and still misrepresent it. Ultimately, I can’t tell you what to do, and I haven’t made up my mind about whether visiting the market is unethical or not, things are complicated. What I can give you is the information you need to decide for yourself whether you still think Cai Rang floating market is worth a visit. And if you do decide to go after reading this, at least you know what to expect.