HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, November 19, 2010

Market Central

One of the things that I've found very fascinating about Southeast Asia is the abundance of markets everywhere you go. These markets range from cavernous buildings the size of aircraft hangars to rudimentary stalls that ramble down a stretch of a given street or alleyway. Markets present excellent opportunities to view locals going about their daily routine - the seafood shop owner haggling with the fishmonger, cooks buying sacks of spices, food cart operators loading up on baskets of baguettes, and women simply buying food for their family. Of course, food isn't the only thing for sale at many markets. The big ones sell all kinds of clothing items, household goods, souvenirs, pirated DVD's, fake Ray-Bans; basically whatever your heart desires.

My first experience with an Asian market happened by chance, in Phnom Penh. One day, after eating lunch, I stumbled upon one of the major street markets in the city. The market was the definition of chaos, with motorbikes wiggling their way between the hundreds of shopping locals and gawking tourists. A row of tarp-covered stalls flanked the road like two walls of commerce. Vendors selling jackfruit, dragonfruit, and bananas sat next to people selling cuts of raw meat displayed in gruesomely anatomical detail. At other stalls fish and crabs hauled out of the river two blocks away writhed in agony, their final breathes just a few minutes away. Towards the end of the market came rows of shoes and shirts, an odd sight after walking past so many varieties of fruit and species of animals in various stages of wholeness.

That first market visit, however accidental, fully piqued my interest. Open markets are very rare in the U.S., and the few that exist are sanitized, perfectly safe snoozers. Here, meat sits out in the sun unrefrigerated, open to flies and whatever other pests may fancy some raw animal protein. Women with grimy hands and filthy fingernails cut the fruit. Surely you would get sick from eating this. But then I realized that this was what the locals ate, and they certainly weren't all vomiting in the gutter. I started to realize how ridiculous some of the food regulations of the West can be, when sometimes the simplest, least-fertilized food products are the best.

The other Phnom Phen market that I visited was the Russian Market. This was a far different experience when compared to the street market. Set inside a huge tin building, this market burst at the seams with clothing, electronics and shoes, as well as more raw meat, fruit, and vegetables. At this market I noticed a design theme that is common at indoor markets - absurdly narrow aisles. Walking between and amongst the different stalls is like walking through a Grand Canyon of Clothing, with pant legs and jacket sleeves trying to wrap themselves around you. Things get really difficult when you have to pass other shoppers, since there really is only enough space in the aisles for one person. Needless to say, you will get very up close and personal with strangers if you go to an indoor market. You also have to watch out for vendors napping in the middle of the walkway, since sleeping seems to be the favorite activity of market workers. Well, along with trying to get visitors to buy whatever it is that they are selling. All of these makes for an interesting trip whenever you go to a market; an experience that is far more fulfilling and enriching than visiting the anodyne malls of America.

The markets in Saigon are fairly similar to their bretheren in Phnom Phen, although they are definitely bigger. Ben Thanh, which sits at the geographic center of the city, is impressive, although its location guarantees that it is always swamped with tourists. The vendors are also quite aggressive - they will grab your arm and try to get you to at least look at whatever they have for sale. There are also food stalls where you can order a cheap, delicious meal as well.

A much more interesting market is Binh Tay, in District 5. Its location means it isn't on the agenda of many tour groups, so the experience is much more authentic. Binh Tay's gargantuan size also makes Ben Thanh look pathetic in comparison, so there is a lot more to look at. Weaving my through row after row of toothpaste, cookies, helmets, welcome mats, cooking oil, jeans, frying pans and hats made me realize just how many essentials you could get at this one place. I honestly felt like I could've arranged to purchase an aircraft carrier, if the mood had struck me.
Do you need some cookware?

The barely organized jumble that is Binh Tay

Given all of the good for sale inside, it is no surprise that the streets surrounding Binh Tay are heaving masses of humanity.

I think they need some more shoes.
All of these consumer goods were very interesting, but what really caught my eye was the food. In the back of the market was the usual gory butcher section, and one whole half of the building was dedicated to food products: dried fish, vegetables, fruit, spices, nuts, sauces, etc. It made for a kaleidoscopic display of colors that was constantly stimulating.
Mmm, animal parts

A dazzling array of veggies

Sweets and spices

Dried fishies

Sacks full of tiny, dried prawns
As you can see, Binh Tay puts Wal-Mart to shame, and the social degenerates that so regularly populate those stores are thankfully missing. There are several other street markets I've wandered through, since they are much more numerous than covered markets, but I think this post is long enough already. So, in closing, markets provide yet another experience that is different than almost anything you'll get in the West. That's now two pieces of travel advice in the past week: if you visit Asia, do as the locals do and eat street food; and be sure to visit the various markets of whatever city you are in..

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