ben thành market

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Ben Thanh’s early morning wet market.

As we land we can see the urban sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City. The city is huge, uncontrolled in its breadth and even from the air we can see the narrow cookie cutter houses that pervade Saigon as far as the eye can see. The narrow blocks, some stretching as far back as 60 metres are the result of taxation on the width of buildings and as such, many homes in Saigon are almost windowless and a common sight are hotels that are as wide as one window.

Windows or not, our hotel’s location is hard to beat. We are a a short block away from Ben Thanh market which is filled with everything from fruit, cobra laced whiskeys to freshly slaughtered pork and lively frogs.

Though the market was officially inaugurated in 1912 there has always been a market of sorts on the actual location. Any time of day yields a diverse, wonderful, in-your-face experience. I just couldn’t get enough. One early morning, I sneaked away to get a glimpse of the wet market.

 

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The flower market in full swing.

The colours of the market’s flowers are hard to miss. Orchids, roses and chrysanthemums are assembled into grandiose fans and wreaths. The clicking of shears is followed by the flutter of petals on the market’s cobblestones and the finished bunches are soon whisked away by the ubiquitous Vietnamese transport of choice, the motorbike.

As the traffic noise fades away, the wet market is revealed. Locals in flip flops inspect produce that’s spread over the floor made slick by melting ice, bargaining, prodding and chatting away. I get a few odd looks being the only tourist out and about.

 

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Hot mornings see the ice machine working overtime.

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Catfish cleaned to order.

 

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Pig entrails. Brains, maw, large intestines, small intestines, liver, tail, kidney, nothing is wasted.

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Butchery section.

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Left: Large intestines are nearly always sold cleaned and cooked. Right: Pork butcher.

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Picked shellfish, ready for noodle soups.

Everything pertaining to the Vietnamese kitchen is sold from live to slaughtered to piecemeal, then in prepared and cooked forms. The market isn’t for the squeamish, with fish flapping about and no shortage of intestines. The shaded stalls are segmented into specialties. There’s a section for pork with all the cuts displayed on hooks, ready to be cleaved on worn chopping blocks. The beef stalls are identified with boney segments of oxtail. There’s even a section for noodle-ish supplies like prepared and picked crab, fish balls and tofu.

Everything is unrefrigerated and sparkling fresh.The market exists only for a few hours every morning – by lunchtime, everything is packed, hidden and shuttered away while the interior slowly wakes up and readies itself for the tourist trade.

 

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Everything green on the left, everything alive on the right…

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Left: Thin, slippery eels for sale. Right: Baguette rolls perfect for banh mi.

Mornings are also the best time to eat in Ben Thanh’s modest food court. (Doubly so when the food is at it’s freshest.)  Competition is fierce – linger too long and a stool will be pulled out and a picture menu thrust in your hand in a manner that is hard to refuse. Most Vietnamese favourite dishes are served including I hear, good pho.

 

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One of the many stalls in the food court.

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A dried goods stall selling mounds of dried shrimp. To the upper right, sea cucumbers (or trepang).

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You’ll smell it before seeing it. Pungent but gorgeous, the pickle stalls are not to be missed.

As the heat of the day descends, the fruit, pickle and household item stalls open for business. The nation’s love of fruitsis on display with sapodillas, longans, rambutans, mangosteens, green and ripe mangos, guavas, hot pink dragonfruit, jackfruit and durian lovingly arranged under the dim lights. The durians were a highlight! Split, tasted (for quality) and packaged into boxes, they were snuck into the hotel room a couple of times. Tip: go for the smaller durians as the huge ones tend to be quite bland.

 

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Stalls within setting up for the day’s trade.

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Fruit stalls are ubiquitous in Ben Thanh. Once chosen, the fruit is prepped, sliced and packaged. Too easy.

Just before lunch the market is in full swing, selling bags, sneakers and lanterns that are as cheap as their quality (don’t even think about buying that $5 t-shirt – it will shrink before you can say rip off).

If you don’t care for hippie/backpacker fashion, there are some good finds, though they are few and far between. My pick are the light wool scarves, big tribal bags (once tribal goes out of fashion they’d make fab pool or beach bags) and men’s cargo shorts. Kitchenware, textiles and itty bitty souvenirs like magnets are also fool proof. Weasel (civet cat) coffee is a popular buy, however buyer beware – most of it is maybe 2% to 3% actual civet cat coffee.

 

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One of the many coffee and tea stalls. However, buyer beware…the labels don’t always reflect what’s inside the tin.

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Night markets spring up as the indoor market closes down.

At night the markets shut down and the streets on either side come alive. Where scooters and cars once were, a fluoro lit night market springs up. To be honest it’s mostly ‘leather’ bags, designer replicas and Che Guevara shirts – but the night markets are a fun place to browse, soak up local life (there’s a fair amount of locals – they mostly shop for shoes) and grab a bite to eat.

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