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A Floating World

By | January 30, 2015

“Everything is negotiable” became the smiley refrain of our tour guide, Huy, as he explained how things operate here as we winded our way down the S-shaped of Vietnam. This phrase suggested a fluid attitude and a flexible mode of interaction in a place where the word for “country” is literally nước (“water”).

This method of maneuvering became strikingly visible to us upon arrival to the Mekong Delta, deep in the southern part of the country. Appropriately, this fertile constellation of waterways is named after the most powerful, mysterious, mythical and serpentine-shaped creatures related to water—dragons. Sông Cửu Long (“Nine Dragon River”) is a liquid maze of winding tributaries welcoming all kinds of travelling characters—tourists like us, locals, traders, merchants, workers—drifting or cruising on this vessel or that. Early in the morning, many of the boats are on a mission to the Cái Răng wholesale market, passing rampant clusters and colonies of lavender-blooming water hyacinth and endangered mangrove forests on the sides protecting the banks of the river from erosion. 

The Cái Răng market floats close to Vietnam’s fourth largest city, Cần Thơ, which, following its name—an abbreviation of  “River of Poems”—has a rhythmic and romantic personality. As the Vietnamese saying goes: “Cần Thơ, white rice, pure water. All who come, wish never to leave.” Rice and water are the basic substances of life here.

Here at this liquid marketplace, one could funnily say that networking is also a sort of “wetworking.” Through all the animated exchanges and negotiations occurring, the market epitomizes and elucidates the interconnecting flows of matter and material existence in the country. Food vendor sampans cozy up to vessels offering passengers breakfast soups and stews to slurp, coconuts and fruit drinks to sip and tasty snacks to swallow.  At the same time, merchants on other crafts unload bushels and tons of wholesale fruits and vegetables and locally made goods onto buyers’ boats, some of which will head to distant places.

Many of the boats here are painted with pairs of protective eyes that also attract customers with their openness and humanization.

Boats have eyes.jpg

We witnessed in awe and amusement how the vegetable sellers advertised their goods by suspending clusters of their specific product high into the sky on bamboo poles. Despite the constant movement and exchange of products, there is also a lot of hanging out going on here. 

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Nina Hien is a cultural anthropologist with expertise in media studies, visual culture, and art of the United States and Southeast Asia. Nina has a special interest in Vietnam, the country where her father grew up, and has conducted ethnographic research for many years in Ho Chi Minh City. There she focused on the use of photography as a modern practice and technology and sought to understand how the Vietnamese comprehend visual images. Nina earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her most recent publications include two essays in the Trans Asia Photography Review about documentary photography and digital photo retouching in Vietnam. She has also written about Vietnamese food, culture, and globalization, in such publications as a book chapter in Food: Ethnographic Encounters, edited by Leo Coleman. She currently teaches at New York University at the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought and at The Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

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