Life on the Illegal Floating Markets of Saigon is Under Threat

Floating Market

Life on Saigon’s illegal floating market has never been easy, but now it’s set to get harder.

Mekong Delta natives are, without exaggeration, born on the water and live by the water. Even as a diminishing economy forces many of these people to move to urban centres like Saigon, they still seem unwilling to relinquish their traditions. Amid the bustling river-forked city, between the high-rises of D7 and D4, a floating market churning with boats coming in from provinces like Long An, Vinh Long, and Bac Lieu persists, despite the ban by the Urban Order Committee.

Floating Market

After buying fruits from the orchards in Mekong Delta, families travel by boats all the way down to Te Channel that splits D4 and D7, where they set up stalls in the morning and retire to the safety of their boats at night. Days go on like this, with everyone living in the same cramped spaces connected to the city’s infrastructures by flimsy wooden planks. Children either get separated from their parents or have to miss out on schooling. There’s a severe lack of clean water, all rationed for cooking and drinking. For other purposes, like bathing or dish-washing, the river murky with urban pollution will have to do. Yet the vast majority have lived like this for so many decades, their hometown seems like a hazy memory.

Mr. Muoi, who used a false name and declined to be photographed, recalls his first days trading here, some 30 years ago, as being filled with hardship. “I had no clientele then, so I had to move the fruits to the large markets on land to hawk.” After a few years, with some money in his pocket and a few loyal clients, Muoi rented his own vehicles to transport the goods directly to these wholesalers. “This market sustains us, but also gives those back home the opportunity to increase fruit production.”

Floating Market

Boats laden with fruit against the backdrop of Saigon’s soaring skyline.

All tropical fruits; jackfruit, bananas, coconuts – you name it – the Te Channel floating market has them.  For the health-conscious city-dwellers haunted by the fear of chemical-laden Chinese fruits, the cheap Mekong Delta produce seems like a godsend, especially as the market is only 15 minutes away from Phu My Hung. Certainly, for busy city folks, driving a few minutes down here for authentic Delta fruits beats 4am sojourns to far off wholesale markets or risk buying counterfeits in neighbourhood’s market.

The flourishing business has attracted a mounting population of Mekong Delta traders with no land for an orchard and no other means of making money. People settle in by decorating their boat-interiors, putting flower pots on the deck for sunlight, and sometimes plugging into the grid of their land neighbours for electricity and WiFi.

Floating Market

Decorative flowers adorn the boats at the illegal floating market.

However, unlike the idyllic Delta’s rivers, the Te Channel is rife with complications. Drug addicts, petty criminals, and other desperate souls regularly harass the traders by asking for money, threatening robberies, smashing the fruits, and even getting into altercations with the men. “At night, we have to pull our boats together in order to protect each other.” But these unsavoury individuals are not the only ones keen on making life difficult for the Delta natives. During a raid by the Urban Order Committee, fruits for the entire month can be confiscated. From time immemorial it seems, the market has been illegal, but the enforcement has been lax as the urbanization projects have not yet reached this part of the river. No one knows how long this limbo will last.

Floating Market

Some doubt that the end will come soon. “They have been saying they’ll relieve this market for ten years, but nothing really happens.” Still, some fear that the day isn’t far away when they will have to pack up to make room for other constructions. “I have no idea what to do next.” Many people share the same gut-wrenching sentiment, as back home the old manual jobs have increasingly been outsourced to machinery. Even the famous floating markets entrenched in the Delta, in Can Tho for instance, will soon disappear as landslide-embankments get built. In recent years, the old floating market in Ca Mau has already vanished. An entire culture, along with these markets, will vanish too, like they never existed.

Floating Market

Going, going, gone. © HOT TABLE. Photography by Thuy Ca.

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