When it comes to travel, I’ve always been infatuated with the idea of markets. They’re one of those things that I’ve fantasized about going to since my earliest daydreams of wandering exotic locales. I wondered what they’d smell like, feel like – even taste like as I salivated in envy over street food programs on TV.
Cheongju has a central market which is, to give it credit, quite impressive. I’ve spent a decent amount of time wandering in and out of there (although mostly out due to the fact that the stall owners are quite unfriendly and give me the stink eye). And yet when Ricky and I made our way to the Bến Thành Market for the first time, nothing could have really prepared me for the scale of it.
Teetering stacks of china in the kitchenware section; jade and turquoise gleaming within fingerprint-laden glass cases in the jewelry sector; umbrellas and mobiles and fans hanging and swaying like flocks of tropical birds; tubs of coffee beans and tea leaves right before the overflowing bounty of the fresh produce corner; walls of shirts and dresses and boho pants in the clothing quarter flowing seamlessly into that of scarves and raw material draped luxuriously across the arms of the vendors; and perhaps best of all, the fast food court dead center selling some of the best tasting dishes I’ve ever been blessed enough to eat.
Even that doesn’t capture the feeling of really physically being there though. Ducking inside to escape the direct rays of the sun, you experience a moment of relief before the humidity of hundreds of sweating people begins to condense in your lungs like a swimming pool.
It’s impossible to walk without brushing against others (note: if you have claustrophobia or agoraphobia, this is probably not the place you want to find yourself). The one respite is in the multitude of rusty fans pushing hot air at you; if not for the artificial breezes those created, I likely would have fainted many a time.
Then there’s the clawing painted fingernails of vendors as you try to walk along the narrow alleys between stalls. Several times Ricky and I got separated only to look back at the other and see an ambush of vendors jabbering and grabbing and thrusting forward their wares into our faces. (It was actually a little scary at times). In truth it’s because of these vendors that I didn’t get as many pictures as I’d’ve liked. It was hard to stop anywhere without being surrounded and heckled ceaselessly.
That said, I have to say I got completely addicted to bargaining which left little time for picture taking as it was.
Not to blow my own horn, but I was made for that shit. It took some trial and error, but I’m so ready for the next time we go back to Vietnam (which might be on the sooner side! We’re thinking of teaching ESL there in the next two years or so). I did have to drive a hard bargain though by nature of my having very limited funds, but it was thrilling nonetheless. In the end though I got pretty much everything I came there for except a pair of imitation red vintage Converse (only $15 but alas, I was already borrowing from Ricky for food money and taxi fares).
For bargain insight, 20, 000 VND is about $1 USD. Most things you bargain for shouldn’t be above $5, or 100, 000 VND.
Sometimes the vendors will start their wares at about one million VND. If this is the case, be prepared to fight them down and consider the possibility that you might have to look elsewhere. That said, using the, “Oh, I’m really sorry I just can’t…” [walk away] tactic works wonders. One time we were certain we weren’t going to be able to get something and were walking away for real and they shouted back for us to take it for the price we’d offered. They’ll be angry at you for having got them to go so low, but they really want to make the sale.
As a side note, going early in the morning and around Lunar New Year (both immediately before and after when the shops open again) will get you good deals. There’s a superstition that if the first customer of the day browses and buys nothing it brings bad luck to the business. The same applies to the New Year when they want to begin things in an auspicious state of many sales.
And so in this way we wandered, spent, wandered, spent, and spent a little bit more. There was just so much to see, I feel like my eyes were peeled back for the whole time I was in there, sucking in my gut as I squeezed past other tourists and around overburdened stalls. Our ears muffled as we wound through the material section, the more lively sounds of the market padded by thick cottons and layers of fine silks. Even here though, the calls of, “You need shirt? Miss? Miss? You want pants for you?” followed us around.
The smells were rich and lingering. As we left the dry mothball aroma of the materials, the pungent stink of pickled anchovies and fresh cut durian assaulted our nostrils. Holding our breath slightly, we moved quickly past into alleys that smoked incense and boasted kitchzy souvenirs like fat brass buddhas and plastic dragons (alongside shameless piles of opium pipes).
The best section though, once again, was the food court.
Though we were too intimidated to eat there on our first day, turning down the constant invitations from the vendors to sit at their kiosk and drink their fruit juice and eat their soups, we made this a favourite chow down spot over the remainder of our time there. Salty beef broth wafted tantalizingly (perhaps purposefully?) on the artificial breeze of the fans.
Laminated menus were shoved into our faces so we could glimpse their offers of broken rice, egg noodle soups, bánh mì (baguette sandwiches), and freshly hacked open coconuts with straws to sip the sweet cold juices.
When we did sit down finally on the low aluminum stools at narrow metal counters, we were served quickly and easily by brusque yet kindly waiters. Strange though that combination seems, it meant that we felt we were treated more like family.
It was as we rested here waiting for our food that I had a moment to reflect back on the comparison between Vietnam’s vs Korea’s markets. Where the latter seemed unfriendly and closed off, in Vietnam it seemed everyone wanted you to come look at their wares. The openness and invitation made a world of difference. As soon as the shock of noise and abrasiveness wore off, I felt immediately at home.
Needless to say, we came back every day we were in Ho Chi Minh to wander the Bến Thành Market. I would happily live in Ho Chi Minh if it meant I could make that marketplace my regular haunt.
What was even more brilliant was that the market continued outside so even when the interior had closed for Lunar New Year’s, we were able to wander the temporary stalls set up by the hardworking vendors. Be it clothes, bags, shoes, or fruit, they had it all inside and out.
There were also some interesting characters, like this elderly woman who we saw squatting by the curb melting a plastic bottle over an open fire with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a lighter precariously close to the flames. When we went up to her stall for a coconut to drink, she spat on the ground, slouched over, picked up a machete, and deftly hacked them open with three thwacks apiece.
So there you have it! A (somewhat) concise exploration of the Bến Thành Market. Let me know what you thought of it, or if you have any cool market experiences you’d like to share!