In Vietnam you can shop at an ultra-modern department store, browsing at leisure through rack after rack of designer-brand clothes, kitchenware and sundries, or you can shop at a spotless, brightly lit supermarket with soothing muzak in the background, or you can shop at an overcrowded, dimly-lit market with goods displayed willy-nilly without any thought to order or logic. A market has no modern merchandising tricks, no muzak, no polished floor tiles, and no designer brands (though plenty of fakes). It’s shopping at its most basic. And, given the choice, it’s what I choose every time. The lure of the bazaar is one that is hard to resist.
What is it about markets that appeals to me more than all the hypermarkets, ritzy apartment stores, and fashion emporiums put together? In a market you are stepping into the real world, a world that is as old as civilisation itself. In a market you rub shoulders with ordinary people - housewives stocking up on food for the family, a gaggle of school kids looking for pens and notebooks, shoppers in search of school uniforms and cheap clothes for the kids, porters humping impossible loads on their backs. Vietnamese markets sell a bewildering array of everything under the sun, set out in a warren of hot, humid, cramped passageways where it’s easy to get lost. In the air is the smell of humanity and incense, and the babble of eager hawkers cajoling shoppers to buy, or the more urgent sound of customers and sellers haggling over transactions.
And haggling is the key word here - there are no fixed prices and every asking price is open to negotiation. Bargain wisely and you’ll walk away with something costing far less than it would at a fixed-price shopping outlet. But remember you’ll be pitting your wits against a street-savvy seller well versed in the art of haggling. If you’re not Vietnamese, from the moment you approach a seller he or she already knows a few things about you. One, you’re a rich foreigner, probably verging on a millionaire. Two, you’re not well-versed in bargaining skills. Three, you probably don’t know the going rate for goods. So, in other words you’re fair game for a little price gouging. Let the haggling begin. How do you, knowing all too well that the seller’s assumptions are correct (with the exception of the millionaire bit), ensure that you won’t be fleeced?
Try applying a couple of little techniques to get the asking price down to a sum that’s within reason. For example, never pick up the thing you want to buy first. Pick something else up at random and enquire how much. When you hear the price the seller quotes, drop the item like a hot brick. Idly pick up the thing you really want and ask in a disinterested voice ‘and how much for this?’ This little ploy usually ensures that the opening price is closer to the seller’s bottom line. Unlike the seller, you always have the option of walking away, and quite often when you do this you’ll be called back and offered a bargain-basement price. Do your shopping early in the day. Most salespeople believe that if the first transaction of the day falls through, it will put a jinx on the rest of the day’s trade. Consequently, their early-morning prices are lower.
In central HCMC, the 100-year-old Ben Thanh Market with its belfry and clock tower is a sight familiar to most people and has become a symbol of the city. While a never ending stream of traffic circles the huge roundabout in front, inside a never ending stream of shoppers circulates round the narrow, humid passages of the market looking for bargains. On sale are goods of every description: vegetables, meat, spices, clothes, fabrics, accessories, pirated DVDs, hardware, and souvenirs. Because of Ben Thanh’s popularity and convenient location, prices are usually higher than in the lesser known markets, especially for a foreigner shopping for souvenirs. But for an authentic market atmosphere, it can’t be beaten.
For foreigners in search of memorabilia of the war era, Dan Sinh Market in District 4, also known as the War Surplus Market, is the place to go. Here you’ll find helmets, bits and pieces of uniforms, boots, gas masks, flak jackets, canteens, rusty dog-tags and the like. The sellers’ claim that all items are authentic should be taken with a grain of salt - genuine artefacts from the war are getting few and far between nowadays.
Huynh Thuc Khang Market in the Dong Khoi area used to be known as the electronics black market until 1989 when the sale of imported electronics goods was legalised. It’s still the best place to find electronics at reasonable prices, from mosquito zappers to TVs and DVD players.
The Old Market on Ham Nghi Street specialises in imported goods: food, wine, shaving cream, cosmetics, shampoo and what-have-you. A word of warning here: if you mispronounce the Vietnamese name for the market, Cho Cu, it means an intimate part of a man’s anatomy; it’s far safer to show your cyclo or taxi driver the market’s location on a map.
In Cholon, on Hau Giang Street, you’ll find Binh Tay Market located in an impressive Chinese style building complete with clock tower. A lot of foreigners on group tours pass through to snap up cheap clothes, accessories and souvenirs.
An Dong Market on Duong Vuong Street, also in Cholon, is four storeys crammed with shops. The top floor has souvenirs of wood and lacquerware, bags, wallets, sandals and shoes by the thousand, ao dai and jewellery. The first floor specialises in authentic-looking designer-brand clothing (you’ll find lots of Levi jeans and Calvin Klein t-shirts). Provided you bargain determinedly the prices are cheaper than Ben Thanh Market. One floor is devoted to dried food: mound after colourful mound of shrimp, peppers, spices, fish, fruit, grains, berries and beans. In the basement is a maze of small restaurants serving up a tantalising range of taste treats.
In Hanoi, Hom Market on the north-east corner of Hue and Tran Xuan Soan Streets is a veritable treasure-trove of fabrics piled to the ceiling like a multi-coloured Aladdin’s Cave. It’s definitely the place to go if you’re planning to have clothes tailor-made for yourself.
A few blocks north of the Hanoi train station is Cua Nam Market (now inside a modern building). In the market itself there is the usual range of goods that you’ll find in any market, but Le Duan Street between the station and Cua Nam is full of stores selling household goods and electronics at unbeatable prices.
To catch a flavour of Hanoian street life, go to Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter, north of Hoan Kiem Lake. It has hundreds of stalls selling everything you might need and plenty of stuff you don’t need, and very few tourists. This lack of tourists is probably due to the negative reviews of Dong Xuan on TripAdvisor: ‘Difficult to park there’, ‘Unfriendly stall-holders’, ‘Don’t expect any service at siesta time’.
Hang Da Market, 300 metres west of Hoan Kiem Lake, is not your typical market. For one thing it’s air-conditioned, and for another it’s not crowded. It specialises in imported food, wine, beer and flowers. On the second floor are fabrics galore. It also has a surprisingly good range of artworks.
Hanoi’s fascinating Night Market, running north to south through the Old Quarter, is open every weekend from 6pm to 11pm. The market is a beehive of cheerful chaos. The atmosphere is lively, the crowded passageways abuzz with activity, and on offer is a tempting array of clothes, shoes, bags, knick-knacks, souvenirs and jewellery.