It’s Not Your Mother’s Supermarket

Ben Thanh Market, in the heart of the heart of downtown, is the best known of the public markets in Saigon. It is a must-have-total-immersion experience for everyone from the family shopper to the high end tour group. The market is enclosed in one gigantic structure and covers one square block. I’m not sure what the roof construction is, but the last time Marilynn and I were there it was raining so hard outside that there was a heavy mist inside.

The market catches your eye immediately as you approach. The outer stalls facing the street are the flower sellers – dozens of them. If you enter from the north you are immediately thrown back to the ageless, timeless, markets of the world and an dizzying array of sights, sounds, and smells. The ladies in their conical hats squat beside basins of live eels, octopus, crabs and flopping mackerel. Behind them are the fruit and vegetable vendors with their tables full of carefully arranged produce. Everyone walking through stops to take a picture of the art. The color, the geometry, the orderliness stop the eye and hold it.

The meat, sausage, and poultry are displayed more like they are in a European market – behind glass but in cases open to the air. It’s hard to recognize any of the cuts. They’re different than what we’re used to seeing. When you order chicken in a restaurant it often comes in chunks and looks like the butcher took a bandsaw to the whole bird and cut it into bite sized pieces.

Deeper in the market, food vendors, all with a few seats at narrow counters offer pho, noodles, rice, etc for the breakfast, lunch and dinner crowd. There is plenty to choose from but it isn’t easy to know what they are selling. It’s best to scout out the counters and see what the customers are eating and then point. Is it safe to eat? Probably, if it’s cooked, but the Vietnamese tummy is conditioned and able to cope with whatever travels along with the fruits and vegetables. Ours is not; so the basic rule is don’t eat unpeeled fruit or fresh salads. The exception to the rule is that the better restaurants and those that cater to the expat and tourist trade take extra care and wash their produce with a special product that ensures its safety.

After eating you can shop till you drop, because everything beyond the food vendors is for sale – fabric, watches, clothing, household goods, sweets, art. It’s all there, and, everything that’s for sale has to be bargained for. I’m not very good at it, but my rule of thumb if I want something is to ask the price and then counter-offer with half. If they snap it up I turn away and find another vendor and offer less. There are dozens of vendors with the same products. At least you’ve found a ballpark figure to work with.

Ben Thanh Market has some name brand knockoffs – handbags, watches, clothes, etc, but the better ones are down the street in a newer building called Saigon Square and the same goods that are for sale there are available across the street in a stall for half of that price and with less mystery in the bargaining. We bought Marilynn a “Chanel” leather bag at Ben Thanh for $25 and I bought a “Prada” shoulder bag at a stall for $9. The quality is there if you have time to dig, but it’s harder for the tourist hurrying to catch up with the group or not miss the bus. Your negotiating posture is always better if you have time or don’t really care if you take the particular item home. There’s always next time or another market.

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