“For as long as humans have walked the Earth, where there has been water, there has been civilisation. Originating in Tibet and cutting a stately presence through six countries, Mother Mekong is the lifeblood of the region and the heart of Vietnam’s floating markets. Over 60 million people live in the Mekong River Basin, relying on its water for drinking, irrigation, transportation, fisheries and energy.”

– By Sam Anna Lee

Mother Mekong gives, just as she takes. At times known as Mae Nam Khong (‘mother water’), and others as Lancang Jiang (‘turbulent river’), this noble river has birthed a distinctive water civilisation in Vietnam. Day after day, countless boats congregate in the golden misty light of dawn and drift apart after a hard day of merchantry. The water bazaar shape-shifts as the boats glide and sputter about at their own pace, with wares brandished proudly on bamboo poles and saleswomen paddling leisurely in Áo bà ba (traditional garments). This has been a way of life for generations of Vietnamese inhabitants.

As you float down the waterway, transport yourself to a simpler time and delight your palate with your pick of local specialities. Leave your carb-free diet at home, for breakfast is a heavy affair and considered an essential meal to provide sustenance for a hard day’s work ahead.

One way to spot a noodle soup boat amongst the sea of sampans is to follow your senses — look out for the smoke and sniff out the smell

Slurp Your Noodles

Nobody should leave Vietnam without having had rice noodles. Follow the wafts of steam to the sight of freshly-cooked noodles on a little wooden sampan. Some of these boats even take it up a notch with plastic chairs to create makeshift restaurants. Clamber on and try some bún thịt nướng (grilled pork with noodles), bún cá (fish rice noodle soup), hủ tiếu (rice noodles with pork stock and toppings) or bún riêu cua (served with tomato broth and topped with freshwater crab).

Don’t be surprised if any of these dishes taste faintly familiar yet distinctly unique. Operating as a hub for trade, the floating markets have over centuries become a miscible fusion of cultures, apparent in many classic dishes like bún nước lèo, a rice noodle soup with fermented fish, roast pork, and seafood — a concoction of three recipes from Vietnamese, Chinese and Khmer cuisine.

Photo credit: Whats4eats

Bánh mì is a sandwich made with a single-serving baguette stuffed with grilled meat, fresh or pickled vegetables, and cilantro leaves

Stuff Your Bread

The deceptively simple bánh mì is defined by its wide selection of savoury fillings and intricate condiments. Take your pick of chua lua (pork roll), thit nguoi (cured cold cuts), ga nuong (grilled chicken), ca moi (packed sardines) or gio thu (pig’s tendons, ears, and skin) encased in the bread, which is light and crisp on the outside, and pillowy on the inside (one of the best touches inspired by the French).

Vietnamese hot coffee (cà phê sữa nóng) or iced coffee (cà phê sua dá) is made with coarse ground locally-grown dark roast coffee filtered through a small metal drip filter

Stay Caffeinated

Sip on coffee as going slow doesn’t mean you can’t stay caffeinated. Vietnamese drip coffee is notorious for its fragrant kick, and is served with a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk.

Boats stacked with all sorts of vegetables and fruits paint the floating markets in splashes of vibrant colour

Sticky Fingers

The gorgeous swathes of colourful fruit will do more than make a beautiful photograph. Navigate your way through the greens, yellows, reds and pinks. The sinfully sweet mangoes, the fragrant pineapples, the plump bananas, the bold dragon fruits, the prickly rambutans, and the mountains of watermelons with inviting ripe flesh. Better yet, try the exotic fruits of the region, like the Nam Roi grapefruit, Vinh Long pink kiwi kumquat and the Cai Mon durian.

Photo credit: CBS News

The cuisine of the Mekong Delta reflects the characteristics of the way of life here — at first glance modest and unassuming, but when you get deeper after that first bite, you’ll discover a trove of surprising richness from simmering in centuries of culture. Sadly, with the threat of rapid urbanisation and pollution to the waters, the floating markets of the Mekong River are fast fading. If you’re making the journey here, we urge you to take the conscious steps to support the local communities, and to protect the health and eco-diversity of the waters.

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