Over 500 students representing universities across the globe set sail on the MV World Odyssey this January for the Spring 2016 Semester at Sea program. Their floating campus will take them around the world to 15 cities in 11 different countries in just over 100 days. Among these world travelers is Paula Pecorella of Stony Brook University, who will serve as a correspondent for The Statesman this semester.
Picture shopping for groceries while riding a canoe down a brown river surrounded by palm trees on both sides. That is part of the daily routine of the people living on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
The Mekong Delta stretches across 13 provinces in southern Vietnam, making boats the central form of transportation and floating markets the preferred method of grocery shopping dating all the way back to the 15th century.
Hundreds of boats anchor in the delta and display their wares on long poles so that buyers can browse from a distance. Smaller boats selling drinks often latch on to the side of tourist’s boats and provide customers with various drinks, including coconut water and juice.
For Mr. and Mrs. Sau, who make their living selling sweet potatoes on their family’s boats for over 30 years, life is very simple.
“This one family has 5 boats,” Quang Nguyen, who helped translate their story, said. “One holds the sweet potatoes, the other boats they use to go buy the sweet potatoes, and one to live on.”
Mr. and Mrs. Sau are 58-years-old, and even Nguyen did not know their first names. Nguyen explained in an email that in Mekong Delta and the Vietnam countryside, younger people are not allowed ask the older people for their names.
Every morning at 4, Mr. and Mrs. Sau drive the boats down the delta to purchase sweet potatoes wholesale from other floating vendors. By 5 a.m., businessmen buying smaller quantities begin arriving at the Sau’s floating stand to bargain for the potatoes. This continues all day until the sun has set and then, “We relax,” Mr. Sau said as he lifted a cigarette with the satisfied grin on his face.
In just one day, Mr. and Mrs. Sau said they sell anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 kilograms of potatoes, which is roughly 2,200 to 8,800 pounds. The largest boat of the fleet, the one on which they live, features two decks: the bottom one for sleeping and the top for relaxing during meal times. Aside from the fire-burning stovetop on board, no other appliances are necessary.
“No fridge because everything is always fresh — they buy the food fresh every day,” Nguyen said. They have a variety of fruit, candy and loose-leaf tea on board for their personal consumption. While Mr. and Mrs. Sau’s son and daughter have grown up and moved off the boat into other professions, the grandchildren do not attend school and instead assist in running the family’s business.
The Mekong Delta has become Vietnam’s most productive agricultural region and is also home to over half of the country’s fish output. However, with the rise of modern trading industries and foreign direct investment, the floating markets have begun shrinking in recent years.
“Today bridges are built, towns are built, markets are open on land, so the floating markets are not busy like before anymore,” Nguyen said. “Before, about 20 years ago, everything was sold in the market just like in the land markets, but it is for wholesales fruits and vegetables only nowadays.”