To Market by Richard Sterling
About a year ago, the first thing I did upon returning to Ho Chi Minh City from abroad was to check the local rags for any news of my favourite traditional Vietnamese restaurants. I anxiously flipped through the pages, hoping for the best possible news. But, horrors! There it was in black and white and a four-colour, half page photo. Not only was one of my old stand-bys being written of, it was being written of glowingly. And that can sometimes be bad news for such old, humble places. Sure, the food would still be good for a while, but already the service was suffering. They weren’t used to handling such crowds. They were giddy with the big tips and already getting snooty about it. The cute waitress was flirting with businessmen and the waiter was getting surly because he couldn’t do likewise. The only thing that could have hastened the joint’s demise would be if it suddenly were bestowed with a sweeping view of the Saigon River. The place was becoming too popular for its own good.
Too often, popular restaurants are not popular because they have great food at great prices. They are popular because they are popular. People go to them because people go to them. Or because they have a great sweeping view of the river. Fie on popular places! Down, down to hell with ’em! They cost too much anyway. And those joints have a tendency to “internationalise” themselves, or start serving some horrible thing called “fusion”. Fusion is something toxic, and to be avoided. Such places lose touch with their roots. They no longer taste of where they are.
For always reliable and true local flavour at a good price, betake thy hungry self to the market. The noodle stalls, barbecue shacks, soup sellers, and even that guy offering fried insects, these are the people who know best about what’s good. They see it first, as it arrives at the cho (market). They have first pick. And they know their onions! They are cooking for people they see every day, people who will complain and take their business elsewhere if it doesn’t satisfy. The price is always good because they get deals on ingredients. And they don’t pay outrageous rent for a sweeping view of the river. But they have a better view: the market itself.
In traditional societies everybody goes to the market. In Vietnam, they might go two, even three times per day. This is a place where life unfolds before your eyes. All classes of people come here and interact, commune, barter, visit, argue, cuss and discuss. All forms of human intercourse but the sexual (invitations thereto notwithstanding) can be observed at the market. Who needs the river view, or the high prices? To market!
In the “village” of Ben Thanh Market you will find it to be, like any other such market in Vietnam, divided into little territories inhabited by merchants who pay a fee for their bit of commercial real estate. A market stall may be newly occupied by its merry merchant, or it may be held by the same family for three generations. This explains why you will often see, side by side, several stalls selling the same merchandise. They’re not in competition, they are complementary.
Vietnamese shoppers and diners are not casual or impulse buyers. They generally know exactly what they want when they leave the house. Commercial transactions are personal in Vietnam, especially for such intimate things as what they will eat. So go where they go: to the northwest corner of Ben Thanh Market. About an acre of food stalls greet you. Stand at a distance and read the prominent signs and displays of wares. Select your desire, then make a beeline for it. If you hesitate, several food stall merchants will block your path and urge you — no, they will insist that you patronise their concern.
Every market has its own personality, and its own way of living and working and dealing with shoppers and diners. Ben Thanh, granddaddy of them all and emperor of emporia, exudes confidence, bustle, city-slicker savvy and sophistication, as well as an almost New York aggressiveness. But you can simply ignore the urgent calls, the grabs at the shoulder or the waving of menus. You won’t hurt their feelings. Just continue your browsing till you find the stall that looks the tastiest and dive in.