At 4:30 am the alarms in our room went off and my three roommates and I groaned as we peeled ourselves off of our beds, away from sleep to begin the day. It was still dark outside and campus was eerily quiet as we all shuffled out of the dormitory and into a taxi. Half asleep, we embarked on a boat ride down the Mekong River to experience the famous floating market, Cai Rang. Probably seeing the tired in our eyes, our tour guide first informed us that we have to go to the market so early because it begins at 3 or 4 am so that the vendors can make their initial sales of the day before taking anything leftover to the inland markets.

We were on the boat for just five minutes before it began to rain. I welcomed the cooler, breezy air of morning on the Mekong coupled with a heavy rain, as it was a nice change from the usual 90+ degree temperatures we have grown accustomed to. Riding down the river, we began to pass houseboat after houseboat in clumps of three or four anchored in the middle of the expansive river. Sticking straight up into the sky were ten-foot tall poles with hanging fruits or vegetables denoting the items that each boat had for sale. We passed boats selling sweet potatoes, oranges, watermelon, bananas, and countless other goods.

Perking up now by the excitement of seeing something so new and unique, we decided to make our first purchases. As it was still before 6 am we all needed a nice cup of highly concentrated Vietnamese coffee with a splash of condensed milk, a treat called cà phê su’a da that we have all come to love. As we were still a little chilled from the now lessening morning rain we decided to skip the ‘da’ (ice) and get a much-needed cup of hot coffee. At that moment, a woman on a small boat began trailing us. Gaining speed, she pulled up next to us and hooked her boat to ours. With the help of our beloved classmate Lan, who is from Vietnam and now studying at Hollins University, we ordered five of the drinks for a total cost of about $2.

With the strong caffeine swiftly kicking in, we were all ready to get off of the boat and start exploring the different house boats trying the different fruits and vegetables they had to offer. Our boat driver hooked up to one of the larger barges and we all climbed off of our boat and onto the vendors. The inside of this boat was very large, home to a family selling large quantities of a multitude of fruits. A semi-circle of baskets outlined the room containing oranges, rambutan, longan, papaya, mango, star apple, and many other unidentifiable tropical fruits grown in the area. Behind the pyramids of fruit laid a man in a hammock watching television. A woman in the corner sat tending to a boiling pot of sweet potatoes. Family members facilitated the many purchases happening all around. Our group bought star apple fruits, also referred to as milk fruit (vu sua in Vietnamese) because out of all of the fruits for sale it was one that we still had yet to try. Our translator and friend Nhan also brought with her two of the deepest magenta dragon fruits that I had ever seen from her garden and offered us a taste.

Sipping our hot cups of sweet Vietnamese coffee, snacking on delectable tropical fruits and taking pictures of all of the sights surrounding us, my classmates and I could not help but continuously make remarks about how incredible our morning was. Before jumping back onto our boat, we bought a bag full of the boiled sweet potatoes the woman was tending. I had never seen a purple sweet potato and it blew my mind.

As we peeled our snack, savoring each bite, we each had permanent smiles on our faces. Lan, Michelle, Johnnie, and I laughed, practically nonstop, at the absolute perfection of the events of our morning as we the boat drove us back to shore to begin the rest of our day.

→ River Ecosystems and Environmental Ethics Semester Program in Cambodia