I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to get a true sense of local culture in almost any city or village is to explore its markets. Bring your energy, a curious and open mind, a few dollars and your best bargaining skills if you’re interested in picking up a few (or many!) local goods or fresh food – and of course, your camera and lots of smiles.
As in many Asian cities, markets are plentiful and a prominent part of Ho Chi Minh City’s culture. The best known and most frequently visited is Ben Thanh Market in downtown District 1 – a short and cheap taxi ride from most downtown hotels. While the original version of this market dates back to the mid-1800s, its current incarnation was established in the early 1900s.
It’s a sprawling indoor/outdoor market offering a seemingly endless variety of housewares, fabrics, casual clothing, and tsotchkes, small cafes and food stalls where you can often watch vendors prepare food to order, and even a flower market and ‘wet market’ (for those less familiar, this includes fresh meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables).
Vendors vary in aggressiveness, but overall, you’ll find that no one will be ‘in your face’. Most are actually quite content to let you browse in peace.
I suggest visiting twice if you have time. Once in the daytime, to experience the busy market at its peak and everything I mentioned above. If you can’t make it there early in the morning, not to worry – you’ll still be able to enjoy lunch or snacks onsite, and the market buzzes all day long. Extend your walk to the nearby streets – Le Loi and others also offer relatively inexpensive goods in regular storefronts and boutiques.
Then return in the evening to be treated to another visual and culinary feast! After sunset, vendors set up food stalls outdoors, often with large open stovetops and grills, sometimes with casual seating available. Of course, pho is to be had, but there are also lovely skewers of meat and various rice dishes – plus the ubiquitous, somewhat touristy, but still refreshing, coconut water in the shell to wash it all down. You can even find ice cream carts if you’re craving something sweet to finish off your meal. And if you haven’t yet satisfied your shopping urges, some vendors still sell casual clothing, lanterns, and other small goods at nighttime. On the outskirts of the market, you may come across some disabled vendors selling goods such as ‘handcut’ paper cards – if you’re interested, be kind and support them.
Ben Thanh is one of numerous markets in the area, so if you love markets, save some energy (and your appetite) for others! Stay tuned for future posts on the fascinating Binh Tay market in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown (also known as Cholon) and more enchanting experiences that await you!