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Life lived on the street

VIETNAM | Sunday, 20 April 2008 | Views [1490]

Cantho and the nearby town of Soc Trang are the source of some of our strongest memories of the country: being turned away from every hotel because they just didn't have a policy on what to do with tourists who fronted up at the front desk; when we did finally find someone who let us have a grotty room, the Police turning up two hours later and telling us we couldn't stay there; the waterfront and it's market were just stunning, the river being covered in rowing boats powered by a friendly curious people easy for a laugh and happy to take us out on the water; swarms of children running after us wanting to tug my curly hair and to just gawp and laugh at me.

Just stunning

After so many years we knew much would have changed and prepared for swarms of tourists, so it was with some delight that Cantho has managed to surprise once again. The lively ramshackle market we remember with boats strewn along the river banks had been pulled down and been replaced with tourist restaurants and boats. A few largish tour groups whiz through, bit otherwise there seem to be very few tourists and a bare handful of independent travellers, which is pretty amazing really for such an incredible place.


But a wander up the road a short distance reveals the new replacement market, still on the river, still with loads of boats (although most are motorised these days) and a loud, vibrant and chaotic market as ever it was. Here the sun is too strong after about 10, so you need to start early. Very early. I was up at 5am and at the market by 5:20 and the place was abuzz, as you can see from the video.

Skinned and beheaded frogs still jumping trying to escape from their fate, ducks bound in a basket and plonked on the scales oblivious to their fate, women slicing banana flowers for the famous salads of this area, and hoses and water and buckets and shouting ... all somehow operating together despite the apparent chaos.

If you make it to Cantho, try this: instead of travelling up-river to see the floating markets, just take the ferry across the Mekong (VMD500 each way) with the other daily commuters and wander along the alleyways that meanders through lively local communities. To judge from people's reaction this isn't something that is done very often yet provides a fascinating glimpse into their lives. Babies asleep in hammocks, candles not electricity for lights, dogs growling & scavenging, men lounging about gambling, and cafés with low red plastic stools everywhere. Every village and dusty street is littered with them but they make truly excellent coffee, which I'm supposing is one of the few benefits of French colonial rule. Expresso on ice-cubes gives a kick start to the day and is probably the best iced coffee you are going to get anywhere in the world.

You can start early one day, but not every day, not with children in tow, so our planned day trip back to Soc Trang didn't make it as far as the bus station, and we spent the day at the weird Cantho Water Park and trying to work out our last days here: Phu Quoc island is easy enough to get to, but hard as hell to connect back to Saigon since everyone has the same idea and all the flights are full.

So the fading French colonial Cantho we knew is fast disappearing, making for some peculiar sights: they think nothing of taking a classic two story French Colonial villa, buying up one half of it, demolishing their half and building a 6 story half width family villa in bright pink instead. Well, it might not pass our European aesthetic, but at least it is theirs. Similarly with the French Colonial terraces. I wonder if anyone here has figured out rarety value yet?

A kilometer or so up the river front was a spectacular but dilapidated French Villa in it's own grounds.

I wonder if it will survive?

Tags: boats, cantho, markets, mekong, memories


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