Travel & Life - March 3, 2018 | 09:00 am PT

Once thriving floating market gasping for air in Vietnam's Mekong Delta

Plans are in place to revive Nga Bay Market, but critics say it's too late to save the floundering vendors from drowning in a river of bureaucracy.

Business in Nga Bay quietly begins at the break of dawn. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

It was around 5 a.m. when a dozen boats emerged from the dark, quietly paddling over the chocolate-milk surface of the Ba Ngan Canal in the Mekong Delta province of Hau Giang. Loaded with bananas, watermelons and coconuts, and some laden with steel pots with steam floating up into the air, the small wooden boats came to anchor along the banks where Ba Ngan meets the Kenh Sang River.

A floating market opened in near silence, with vendors standing patiently on board, sometimes turning their heads at the sound of engines of other sampans waltzing by, uninterested in joining them.

The floating market at its busiest time of the day. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

The once famous hustle and bustle of Nga Bay, one of the biggest floating markets in the Mekong Delta, has diminished to a minor gathering place where only a few traders are trying to cling on in the narrow waters of the Ba Ngan Canal.

Before its slow demise, the market was a thriving hub for decades along the maze of canals on the southern side of the Bassac River. Floating upon the confluence of seven canals running from the Delta's capital, the market stretched for miles, and a whole town prospered from it, growing into a commercial hub in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic region.

Map of Nga Bay Floating Market (orange pin) and its new location (yellow pin) in the Mekong Delta province of Hau Giang

Wooden boats jostled for position, bumping into each other all the time, one local recalled. Farmers and traders from all over the regions paddled in to sell, eat, chat and sing folk songs together.

An archive photo of Nga Bay Market in its heyday on Hau Giang's offical website.

The history of the famous Nga Bay market dates back to the early 1900s, when the French in their intensive efforts to tame the Mekong Delta dug and dredged arteries of canals, tributaries and water grids to create major lines of transportation in the new frontier land. Among those excavation projects was Nga Bay, the convergence of seven canals designed by the contractor Sté Francaise Industrielle d’Extrême – Orient and completed in 1908, according to the late Vietnamese writer and historian Son Nam.

Settlers from different regions and ethnicities in the Delta followed the excavators, clearing land and starting plantations along the new canals.

"A map of Nga Bay (known as Phung Hiep – Phong Dinh) that shows the typical traits of its canal civilization," wrote Son Nam in his 1959 book "Tim hieu dat Hau Giang," (About the Land of Hau Giang).

"The dark thick lines represent houses and residential areas on the banks."

"Houses quickly packed in, squeezing for space on the bank," Son Nam described the first frenetic days of Nga Bay. "The newcomers were mostly from Soc Trang, My Tho and Tan An, who were known for their bold and agile business characters."

The waterway intersection gradually became a commercial hub for newcomers in 1916, and flourished into one of the main floating markets in the Delta, along with Nga Nam and Cai Rang.

The fusion of cultures grew into a distinctive trait of the new community, identified as the "canal civilization", where rural and urban lifestyles on land mixed with the floating nomadic way of life.

"Aside from rice cultivation," Son Nam wrote, "the settlers earned their living from selling food and coffee, and providing barber and carpentry services."

The floating market gained international fame in 1994 when it was featured in the TV series documentary "Cousteau's Rediscovery of the World II" by the late French explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau.

As a local guide for the French crew during the documentary shooting in 1992, Nham Hung, a Vietnamese cultural researcher and Mekong Delta local, recalled: "At the time, Nga Bay was clogged with over a thousand boats - both vendors and customers. It was the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity in the Delta region."

Phung Hiep market, locally called Nga Bay market, appeared bustling in "Mekong: Gift of Water (1994)"

The hectic scene, however, started to wane at the beginning of this century when waterway traffic was restricted by local authorities. In 2002, the government decided to uproot the market from the town it brought into being, and move it three kilometers away to a smaller confluence along the Ba Ngan Canal.

The deputy chief of Nga Bay Town's Information Cultural Center explained his predecessors’ decision in an interview with Hau Giang's provincial newspaper in 2004. "In 1996, the government issued a decree to reduce inland waterway traffic across the country. Local authorities enforced it by relocating the market to resolve the constant waterway gridlock at the confluence."

The narrow Ba Ngan tributary mouth, where the floating market has been relocated. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Nham Hung worked for the local culture department at the time, and remembers the plan causing a major public backlash. "I told them [the authorites] that the market was formed in the first place because of its unique open location," he said. "It had developed there for nearly a hundred years; they couldn’t just simply apply something new and bureaucratic like the traffic decree to review the market and its value to the area."

The decision was made regardless, and cost Nga Bay its buzzing orginial marketplace.

The new premises built to house the market following its relocation has been abandoned for years. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

"Since we were moved here in 2002, most traders have abandoned the market," Nguyen Ngoc Bich, who has been selling coconuts in Nga Bay for 17 years, said. "It’s too far away from the town center and on a narrow canal. It's dificult to find customers here."

"Back then, we could sell as many as 600 coconuts in one day," the 33-year-old said. "Now it takes us a week to sell the same amount."

Her family is one of only two coconut-selling boats left in the former wholesale fruit market.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich and her husband, Nguyen Ngoc Ninh, are among the few coconut sellers left at the market. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Le Thanh Le, one of the first tour guides in the floating market, recently sold his fleet of eight boats to other agencies as far away as Ca Mau Province after years of struggling to fill them with tourists. Without the buzzing market and colorful boats crammed full of fruit, Nga Bay has lost its magic in the eyes of tourists.

"I was so angry when they [the authorities] moved the market," said the 60-year-old man. "We used to have tourists flocking in from everywhere, America, Sweden, Japan, Australia, you name it. They cherished everything that was happening around here: our noodles, the lively atmostphere, we even took them to visit nearby fruit orchards. And we paid maintaince fees for the market."

His business died out as visitors turned to the adjacent Cai Rang and Tra On markets.

A look at the Nga Bay confluence today, where the floating market thrived for decades. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Thirteen years after its relocation, a $1.6 million plan was announced in 2015 to revive Nga Bay market, subsidized by the local and government budgets. Moving it back to the old address, the project is "aimed at re-enacting more peddling scenes of the river market and its bustling milieu, and harnessing the area’s green tourism potential," as reported by local media.

With the slice of the money invested in a new wharf that can harbor up to 10 tourist boats carrying around 200 passengers each, authorities are looking to copy a scheme adopted by Cai Rang market in Can Tho City.

The project to revive Nga Bay's floating market is underway with (another) new center under construction. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

But Nham Hung believes the revival plan should instead focus on drawing the boat traders back to Nga Bay as they are the key element to keeping the market alive. This has become more crucial and urgent than ever in the face of the outpacing expansion of the road and bridge networks.

"Every year, Cai Rang floating market loses around 10 to 15 boats," Hung said of the current trend of traders moving to dry land. "If nothing is done, I fear we may lose all our floating markets in the next 15 years."

PHOTO GALLERY: Cai Rang Floating Market in Can Tho Province.

"After the French crew finished their aerial shots of Nga Bay in 1992, Jacques turned to me and said, 'You must preserve this one-of-a-kind floating market at all costs'."

"Years later I stood in tears on the Phung Hiep Bridge, looking over where there was the once busy market."

Trucks vs. boats: the Phung Hiep Bridge, a part of the expanding infrastructure network in Nga Bay Town.

Thanh Nguyen, Nhung Nguyen