“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.
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.