Bến Thành Market: A Wonderland of Everything

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.

I’m looking at you, Anthony Bourdain.

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.

A main alley leading off from the center of the market.
A main alley leading off from the center of the market.

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.

Me holding a pair of boho pants – something I fell in love with there and will wear at every opportunity henceforth. Photo by Ricky on his blog.
Fan display with masks and other assorted goods.
Fan display with masks and other assorted goods.
Woman selling her fresh fruit.
Woman selling her fresh fruit.
Plump dragonfruit - just one of many foods we indulged in at the fresh produce section.
Plump dragonfruit – just one of many foods we indulged in at the fresh produce section.

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.

Colourful lanterns and mobiles hanging from a stall.
Colourful lanterns and mobiles hanging from a stall.

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.

Couple bargaining with a vendor.
Couple bargaining with a vendor.

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.

So much for sale to be bargained for...
So much for sale to be bargained for…

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.

Lychees.
Lychees.
Mandarins.
Mandarins.
Mangosteen.
Mangosteen.

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.

Egg noodle and beef ball soup.
Egg noodle and beef ball soup.

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.

Coconuts ready to be cut open and served with bendy straws.
Coconuts ready to be cut open and served with bendy straws.

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.

Seating is along the kiosk seen here.
Seating is along the kiosk seen here.
Fresh fruit and cold drinks galore.
Fresh fruit and cold drinks galore.
Menu at one of the food kiosks.
Menu at one of the food kiosks.
Pickles, preserves, and prepared foods ready to be consumed at the affirmative incline of a head.
Pickles, preserves, and prepared foods ready to be consumed at the affirmative incline of a head.

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.

This woman saw I was taking a picture of the noodles and posed for me :)
This woman saw I was taking a picture of the noodles and posed for me 🙂
Our spring rolls with chilli dipping sauce and Saigon beer.
Our spring rolls with chilli dipping sauce and Saigon beer.
Cups and cutlery with paddy hat hung on the wall seen from food court seating area.
Cups and cutlery with paddy hat hung on the wall seen from food court seating area.
Woman preparing food at her kiosk.
Woman preparing food at her kiosk.

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.

The girl in the front served us our food; here she is waiting between customers.
The girl in the front served us our food; here she is waiting between customers.

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.

Elderly vendor selling her wares.
Vendor selling her wares.

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.

My favourite person at the market.
My favourite person at the market.

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!


7 thoughts on “Bến Thành Market: A Wonderland of Everything

  1. ghod what an experience. Nothing like the outdoor/indoor markets in Mtl. The humanity in such proximity reminds me only of xmas shopping in dec.
    Its midnight here and reading and looking at all this food make me hungry.
    Coincidently I saw familiar Heinekin been in the stalls in your photos and reminded me of the same brand beer I was developing structural displays for last week. And only half a world away.
    I’m not surprised you picked the GREEN boho pants. And avocados sell for slightly cheaper than here. Good on you for practising your bargaining skills.

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    1. Small world indeed! Although if we could get Vietnemese or Cambodian beer in MTL that’d be awesome. It’s surprisingly tasty. Amd yes the green…they’re beautiful.

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  2. Some GREAT pictures Marta! How ever did you manage taking them with such little elbow space? Your description does remind me of the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. And you’re right, it is overwhelming at first: sounds, smell, hustle and bustle….
    But the most extraordinary experience I had was that of Phnom Penh’s Central Market. The outskirts are exactly as you describe, yet when you reach the centre it is as if you were caught in a blaze. Your eyes are assaulted by billions of semi-precious to precious gems- and quite a few fake! – sparkling in the artificial light of this covered market. If I could put a picture here I would because you cannot imagine so much jewelry all in one place! Unfortunately I do not like crowds and though it is not at an “illness” level, I don’t like to be caught in small spaces so although I wouldn’t go without wandering in such markets at least once – because that is where you can witness a part of regular people’s every day lives – I rather quickly wander out as well, especially if they are covered and dark.

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    1. I actually was going to do a write up about the Central Market in Phnom Penh! 😀 it was spectacular, that high domed ceiling and all those jewelry cases…just splendour. I also went to the Russian Market but it was closed that day and we never had a chance to go back…such a shame. But yes, Ben Thanh was very much the same only less clean and without the breathing space in the middle or around the edges lol

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  3. When I was pregnant with you, Betty and I went almost daily for a meal and 3 bean drink at the Hoai Huong Restaurant that had opened down the street. It put the nearby Vietnamese restaurants out of business. I took you there when you were little and YOU loved it. No wonder you love the food on this trip 🙂 (25 years later, I still love the place, and the children I watched grow up there now run it)
    “On Montreal Restaurant Hoai Huong Chef Deck says:
    P.E.T.A activists like pho fur, some women like pho nails, some men like pho hair, and some Brett Michaels like pho breasts, but Chef Deck is tired of only Pho Vietnamese Restaurants popping up on every Montreal street corner. For this reason Vietnamese restaurant Hoai Huong is one of my all time favorites in Montreal (don’t get me wrong I love Pho Bang but I need a little change). Though Hoai Huong does have delicious soups their meals are what make them truly spectacular. I adore their lemongrass chicken, perfect imperial rolls, bird nest, the pancake meal, and just about everything they have to serve. They remind me of a restaurant in New York called Saigon Grill that never disappoints. So pho sho sho I will frequent Hoai Huong until the day I’m to fat to get out of bed (unless they start to deliver)!”

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      1. I brought Robyn, Enoch and Lily there last summer…they LOVED it. Enoch and Lily are Chinese…but Enoch knew all these foods, even things I’ve never had he ordered, and it was fabulous. Lily had been craving Asian food as Western food gives her problems…SHE loved it alkso…we all left SO happy. Robyn brought Po there later. It’s easy to get to…right close to a metro. Not expensive.

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