Sunday, February 11, 2007

Travel Market: Ben Thanh (Vietnam)

This is the fourth in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.
Most of you know I love to check out the local markets wherever I travel. And before I went to Saigon/HCMC, I heard a lot about the huge Ben Thanh Market. But still that didn't prepare me for what I saw when I actually visited this combination food and flea market in District 1 of this Vietnamese city.

I imagined that Ben Thanh would have a huge farmers market, but it was so much more. There was definitely the farmers selling their fresh vegetables on one end of the market that was out in the sun. Then there were the fish mongers selling all sorts of fish and shellfish along side the farmers. In a row over, butchers sold freshly slaughtered meat. And all this was just the first quarter of the market.

When you walk inside, that's where you'll be overwhelmed by the many many stalls tightly packed in the main hall of Ben Thanh. There were a variety of stalls featuring fruits, vegetables, coffee and tea, cooking sauces, pickled vegetables, dried ingredients, mushrooms, and candy. Then on the other side, a food court with stalls selling pho, bun, spring rolls, shrimp paste on sugar cane sticks, and much more, all trying to convince you to sit at their stall for lunch.

But that's not all. Near the opposite side are just as many stalls selling souvenirs, T-shirts, silk fabrics, lacquer ware and other products in a major bazaar. Surrounding the perimeter of the entire market, more stalls of cheap jewelry, watches, embroidery and artwork. If you think you can visit all the various spots of Ben Thanh in one day, you'd be wrong.

While Ben Thanh is a feast for the eyes, it can also be overwhelming, like I mentioned earlier. The stalls are so packed in that space made humid by the outside Saigon sun that there's little space for you to walk in the tiny aisles. And you'll constantly be targeted for a sales pitch by the stall owner, trying to get you to buy their tea or dragon fruit instead of the vendor two stalls down. This is not a place to simply stroll in peace.

Here are a few photos from Ben Thanh.

The outdoor produce/seafood section of Ben Thanh.

Meat market area.

I don't know what kind of fish these were, but they're looooong.

Shrimp paste on sugar cane sticks. They're barbequed to give it a nice grill taste.

Tea or tra for sale.

Dried shrimp vendor.

Postscript Saigon: Food Stalls at Ben Thanh

The "food court" at Ben Thanh can offer you a taste of Saigon's street food without having to eat on the street. It's a great place to grab a seat at a stall and have a simple (and cheap of course) lunch.

But like other vendors in this huge market, they'll all aggressive sales people. So while you try to walk along the many food vendors, checking out what they're making AND trying to figure out who's popular with the locals, you'll constantly be approached by other vendors dragging you to sit at their booth.
I was so overwhelmed by all the women grabbing at my arm that I eventually sat down at Stall No. 1044. The woman behind the stall had the least hard sell, so after walking through the dizzying array of booths, I sat down like in a game of musical chairs with the music stopping in my head.

I ordered a bowl of bun with barbeque pork. She was nice enough to ask me whether I wanted the fresh herbs added, knowing that some foreigners are afraid of adding herbs that may not have been washed properly. I took a leap of faith and was also glad in my mind that I had an up-to-date Hepatitis shot.

The bun was tasty with the fish sauce dressing, but I felt the noodles were clinging to each other too much. So it was clumpy when I wanted it to dance in my mouth. The woman had what I thought was an assistant who translated for the woman behind the booth. This assistant also brought me a mango shake that was very refreshing. In the end, my lunch totaled D32,000 (or $2) but I felt odd because the "assistant" demanded a service charge for helping with the translation. She took D2,000 from my hands, which really was just a few pennies in the U.S., but it left me with a bad aftertaste for this lunch.

My recommendation is it's still worth having lunch at Ben Thanh's many food vendors because there are vendors who are more popular than the others. You just need to stand your ground and not feel pressured to take the first stool you see. Just go with the booth with the most local people having lunch, even if it means standing on the side waiting for an available stool.

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