For many foreigners, traditional markets remain a sanctum of arcane transactions and confounding commerce. Anthony Rizzi blazes a trail through pork stalls and fruit bins and shares lessons in the ways of the cho. Photos by Nam Quan
Cut to the scene: 6:00 am, sunup in HCM City. The vicious, sweltering heat has yet to flood the streets—although your local cho is already sizzling with action. Hungry patrons elbow their way through crowds to squabble over the freshest cuts of mackerel. Stone-faced venders squat side by side, simultaneously barking obscenities, grilling pork chops and painting their toenails with flawless expertise.
For me, this type of shopping trip is a welcome throwback to the days of old when the local markets were the only place to get your daily sustenance. When corn didn’t come in a can and chicken wings weren’t buried deep in frostbite. It’s refreshing to buy just as much raw material as you’ll need for the day—no superstore-sized 64-packs of Reese’s in these parts. Both the Earth and your palate will thank you.
But are you ready for the cho? It’s a constant battle, and amidst all the chaos it’s essential to keep focused. Any slip in concentration and you’ll be sent home with a pineapple, two kilos of garlic and a dumbfounded look on your face.
Here are a few tips to help you survive your early encounters at the market.
Rule #1: Have a Game Plan
For a lesson in the market, head on over to the mistresses of swine. Sporting blood splattered aprons over purple PJs and freshly sharpened cleavers, these women measure their lives one kilo at a time. They are not here to chit chat. Pick your cut and watch them perform lightning quick surgery on that riblet. THWACK! From carcass to 200-gram portion to scale to bag in 10 seconds flat. Muoi ba nghin!
Things move fast at the cho. Identify your needs before you step onto the big stage. The vendors’ job is to unload their supply as quickly as possible so they can pack up and head home. If you only want 200 grams of shrimp, be firm with your request. Sure the merchant will frown and attempt to dump another 1/2 kilo into your bag as you reach for you wallet, but stay strong. Your poise will earn you cred.
Rule #2: Get an Entourage
Just like your standard penal institution, it’s crucial to establish your posse from the get go. If you’re satisfied with the service and price a vendor offers, by all means support her again. Upon your return not only will she remember what you previously purchased, but also your nationality, relationship status and your monthly income. Amazing! After that she’ll toss free goodies into your bag like scallions or basil and most likely invite you to her nephew’s wedding.
These women will also have your back if another unscrupulous vender attempts to take advantage of you. Loyalty goes both ways inside the cho.
Rule #3: Be Flexible
Another variable is the fact that prices are rarely fixed. A multitude of factors go into the number you’re quoted for that kilo of cucumbers: the market’s location, your nationality, the total amount you buy—even how many hours of sleep the vendor got last night. In any case, the first price she spits out may or may not be the ever elusive “real” one, so why not knock off a few thousand dong?
If the first price seems in range of reason, try hitting back with around 70 percent off the offer; this lets vendors know you aren’t just going to pay whatever number they decide, but its also not stingy enough to offend them. Sure it’s just pennies in the end but imagine the sense of achievement you’ll carry home along with that bag of clams—confident you only paid 150 percent of the local price, instead of double.
Rule #4: Noi Di!
While foreigners often get shortchanged, they can always play the language card. Even the most rudimentary vocabulary spoken with a comprehensible tongue garners praise and sometimes astonishment. For this reason you should always try your best to use some local talk, if only to charm your way to a cheaper mangosteen.
If it’s mid-day, ask the vendors whether they’ve eaten yet (An com chua?). If a merchant is around your age, you can jokingly inquire about his or her love life (Em/anh co bo chua?). These are simple but much appreciated attempts that market vendors will go ga-ga over. You’ll be spreading smiles so quickly, almost any price will fly.
Rule #5: Enjoy Yourself
If you want mixed greens bagged and sanitized, you know where to go. If you want your meat tidily vacuum-packed from Australia, well then I’m sure you can find the spot. Few foreigners would attempt a shopping spree at a local market because it’s more convenient, but as far as shopping escapades go, that walk-in freezer just doesn’t provide the same charm.