Shopping at the Local Market
In our neighborhood, there aren’t many supermarkets. Even that’s an overstatement; there actually isn’t a single supermarket anywhere near us. So we’ve had to become familiar the local market, or “chợ”. And the market’s vendors have had to become familiar with us. Trust is a two-way street, people… and Saigon’s markets are worlds unto themselves.
The closest market to our home is the Chợ Thị Nghè, found adjacent to the street and river which share its name. It’s a good bet that, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it here. And you’ll find a lot of things which you’re almost certainly not looking for. Pineapples perfectly-carved in a spiral to remove the eyes? Yes, please! And I’ll take that papaya, some cookies, and this ball cap. Why not? I can always use another ball cap.
So far, so good, but every trip to the market also involves an excursion to the dark side. Look to the left, and you’ll see the Toad Lady, whose panicked specimens are all tied together by their legs. No escape for you, my friends. Even scarier is the Chicken Butcher, who goes about her plucking and disemboweling with a demeanor that’s worryingly pleasant. And although I don’t have much empathy for fish, I was horrified the first time I saw the Trout Basher grab one by its tail, raise it into the air, and repeatedly whack its head on the pavement.
Shudder. Let’s turn away, and concentrate on happier corners of the market, such as the food stalls. These stands are especially popular in the morning, and serve up any Vietnamese specialty you can imagine. Hygiene might be a concern, but the food is ultra-cheap and almost always delicious.
Once our bellies are full with pho-for-breakfast, we can return to shopping. Ah, do you notice that fruit lady glaring at me? On my first trip to the market, she ripped me off, charging me double for a dragonfruit. You can hardly blame her; confused foreigners are easy marks. But now she regrets it. Now, she sees me nearly every day shopping at neighboring stands, and knows that she lost what could have been a loyal customer.
Vietnamese people are generally friendly, but they’re also wily. If they sense that there’s an extra buck to be sucked out of you, they’ll give it a shot. It’s something to watch, but falling prey to their tricks isn’t exactly tragic. I mean, this huge cluster of fifteen bananas for $2.50 instead of $2? Fine, you got me, and I’m sure you’ll be giggling to yourself about it all day long. I’ll survive somehow.
Another great market in our home district of Bình Thạnh is the Chợ Bà Chiểu. It offers the same types of goods and is farther away, so we don’t visit too often. But getting there involves a fun walk across the Cầu Bông canal, which drains almost entirely during low tide, revealing how precariously the stilt-houses are balanced in the foul-smelling mud.
After first moving here, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t have a big, Western-style supermarket near us, but now I’m glad. The truth is, if there were a Kroger’s around the corner, we’d probably end up doing most of our shopping there. It’s nice to be forced into the local markets, and it’d be a real shame if they ever disappear. Happily, there seems to be little danger of that happening.