The bounty of food markets of Asia ~ Viet Nam (part 1)

Our recent visit to, and blog post about Colombo’s Pettah Market here in Sri Lanka, reminded us how much we have enjoyed experiencing markets all over the world. Markets are where it’s at when it comes to cultural discovery and getting the vibe of a new country.

As we started to reminisce, we decided to share the best of our best market visits with you. A retrospective and twirl around South and South East Asian markets.

It is simply IMPOSSIBLE to address South East Asian markets without giving Viet Nam the predominance it deserves.  We lived for about 5 months in Viet Nam and the vibrancy of the markets remains a persistent memory that is indelible. We criss-crossed the country and of course visited markets from the North to the South and much in between. Each market had its very unique “flavor”.

Hoi An, Central Viet Nam

Our earliest experiences in Hoi An started when we lived with a family of Vietnamese farmers on the organic farm of Tra Que. We returned two more times to Hoi An and indeed we feel very much at home here in Hoi An, Central Vietnam. 

We could easily live here again, and probably will at some point, or at the very least we will keep returning for more!     Hoi An holds a special place in our hearts

The Hoi An market is huge, bustling, energized and a place where locals shop for fresh food twice a day, every day. The produce is as fresh as can be and there is a huge variety of herbs and other greens which are a critical component in Vietnamese cuisine.

Quintessential Hoi An on the Thu Bon river. Now converted mostly to restaurants, the yellow ochre structures were warehouses for storage of all sorts of goods traded at this thriving port in the 17th Century.

All the greens, and noodles, are all stored in flat wicker baskets with women squatting nearby. All the action is low to the ground!

Freshest of fresh bean sprouts.

Bright red chilis and limes, also used with almost every Vietnamese dish.

Alive seafood for sale. Scallops in the shell, shrimp still wriggling in water.

The egg man has quite a volume of different types and colors of eggs for sale in his basket. What a sight!

There are two types of noodles which are specific to Hoi An and are of course made daily, then cut into ribbons and sold at market.

Market in Than Ha, Viet Nam

But truth be told, one of the main reasons we particularly love Hoi An is not just because of its street food and magnificent colonial architecture on the banks of the river.  No, our (shhh!!) secret is that we discovered the nearby fishing village of Than Ha!

Big, old colorful fishing wooden boats go up and down the wide river at Than Ha.

This tough leg up, cigar in mouth, matriarch is just one of the colorful characters we meet in this market.

Vietnamese people are definitely not shy. But then again, nor is Peta. Even without language we are able to communicate with this group of women very effectively and enjoy a laugh together and some good eats.

This market is primarily about the fish. Fish of all shapes and sizes, are brought in on the fishermen’s boat s twice a day and sold at the dock to the vendors who then resell to their customers.

Colorful hats and clothes in all manner of stripes and designs combined is a classic fashion feature in Than Ha.

In Vietnamese fish markets, the ice man is one of the busiest people around as he continuously supplies ice to keep the fish fresh.

And of course, markets are the best places, always to get good fresh local cuisine. During all the time we spent in Viet Nam, we seldom ate at restaurants. Almost every meal was had on the street and in markets… breakfast, lunch and dinner!

Market in Hanoi, Viet Nam

We spent a fair amount of time in the high energy capital city of Hanoi. One time, we had a home exchange that took us to a more rural “suburb” of Hanoi, where the market was particularly bustling with people coming home from work, on their motorbikes.   Hanoi, Viet Nam

At this market, many people stayed on their motor scooters while making their purchases for dinner from their favorite vendors.

This woman selling tomatoes had such a handsome face and captivating eyes.

One of the features that Ben loved about this market, was the nightly BBQ of all sorts of different meats with different sauces.

Our first introduction to jack fruit was right here in this market. I wonder if she always wears a yellow jacket to match the fruit?

This character, is the medicine woman. Selling dried out, stretched out frogs or salamanders on a stick. What they are used for, we never did find out.

This family are makers of tofu. First it is set in long strips (in metal vats), as you can see at the back of the table and that it is cut to order. We never saw tofu being made from start to finish at another Vietnamese market again…

Market in Dalat, Viet Nam

Dalat, was the final destination after a WEEK long motorcycle ride we did on the Ho Chi Minh Trail with one of our sons, who came to travel Viet Nam with us. Dalat is known for its temperate climate and some unusual (for Viet Nam) agricultural produce:   Dalat, Viet Nam

Artichokes are one of Dalat’s specialties. At the market they were piled high and were certainly some of the most beautiful artichokes we have ever seen.

Here two women sell what is considered an exotic fruit for Viet Nam. Namely, strawberries, which grow in abundance here in the cooler temperatures.

A fragrant, juicy treat.

Avocados as well, are rather an unusual item to find in Viet Nam. Here in Dalat, they were huge and plentiful and delicious.

Markets in the Mekong Delta, Viet Nam

Today, there are no longer many floating markets around Asia as there once were. But in The Mekong Delta, Viet Nam,   one can still experience the real thing. Especially if you go very early in the morning. This market is both a fruit wholesale market (the large boats) and a retail market (smaller boats) that pull over to your own to sell produce and “street” food…

A boat full of watermelons piled high. Watermelon wholesaler.

Boats of every shape and size, and speed. This vendor is selling fragrant mangoes from his little speed boat.

The movement of large and small boats weaving in and out is mesmerizing….

Fresh coconuts and coconut water are a staple in Viet Nam. This woman guides her boat with its long oars, from a standing up position.

But even beyond the floating market, Can Tho, as one of the gateways into the Mekong Delta, distinguishes itself by the sheer size of its market, which essentially takes over one of the main avenues in the city.

Getting acquainted with the huge jackfruit.

Off the river and on one of the main streets in town, the hustle and bustle of the evening market is palpable. Nothing quite as exciting as driving into town on a scooter at market time!

Huge blocks of ice ready to be chopped up into small pieces and sold to vendors to keep fish fresh.

Produces lines the streets of this market, with the center of the road full of traffic, namely, people doing their market shopping on their motorcycles.

Pineapples cut Vietnamese style. We never tired of watching the process and of eating these sweet juicy treats.

Peta buying limes of course…. purchasing produce is an opportunity to engage. Even without much language in common, communication is not difficult in Viet Nam.

Curious about some of our other Asian market finds? Part 2 coming up next: Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia?

44 thoughts on “The bounty of food markets of Asia ~ Viet Nam (part 1)

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Julie, thanks for commenting. Lately I am using my ipad as my vehicle of creativity and am finding that photography is a lot less messy than painting, 🙂 But yes the colors and textures in these markets are very inspiring overall.

      Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Darlene, Spain does have great markets indeed, we enjoyed the ones in Granada, Barcelona and Sevilla, come to my mind. Of course coming from an Asian price point, it is a bit of a shocker when in Europe. However, markets are a good way to keep the cost of meals down compared with going to restaurants. The produce in Spain was remarkable!!

      Thanks for the lovely compliment.

      Peta & Ben

  1. Anabel Marsh

    I don’t know why, but I always seem to come across your posts when I’m hungry. Or maybe I’m always hungry after reading your posts….. Whichever it is I’m now desperate for something with lots of lime and chilli!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Anabel, I guess we are rather food focused in our posts and in life in general. But going through our photographs of Viet Nam made us both ravenous and eager for a return to our favorite cuisine in the world. Simply nothing like Vietnamese food, in particular the food in Hoi An, which is foodie paradise.

      Peta & Ben

  2. Liesbet

    Your photos are incredible, Peta!!

    I envy your courage to take close-ups of people. I know most of them don’t mind and are happy to encounter tourists and praise their wares, but I am not so good at asking or quickly snapping. I would have never guessed strawberries are available in Vietnam!!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Liesbet. You make a good point about photography. I am very careful not to offend people or “be in their face” and for sure every country and culture seems to react differently to having their photo taken. Because we lived in Viet Nam for an extended period it made taking photographs there much easier as we were regulars at the market and became part of the local fabric, which is always our goal.

      In addition one of the reasons I really like using an ipad instead of a camera for photography is that I can immediately share enlarged images taken with the people I take them of, and also the physical object of an ipad is not threatening or intimidating the way a camera can be. It is in fact, a great way to start conversations. We often see Chinese tourists with huge fancy cameras which are used in very intrusive ways and having something pointed at your face is not exactly comfortable. The ipad does not cover ones face when you take a photo, so it is much more friendly. Many Vietnamese people, in our experience, actually enjoyed having their photos taken.

      Ben & Peta

      1. Liesbet

        I never realized that as an advantage to an iPad, but you are right about not shooting straight at somebody and its ability to share is better than on a digital camera as well.

        Great tips – and very enjoyable and rewarding to become part of the local scene with your presence and manners. 🙂

          1. Liesbet

            Incredible, Peta. Such a joy to see all their smiles. I used to do this with my digital camera, but the effect sure is better on an iPad! Worth taking it with us on day trips next time we are in a country like Viet Nam, or other exotic places with loads of following, smiling children and vibrant market scenes. 🙂

            1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

              Thanks Liesbet. The only thing that the ipad is not good for is when there is a need to zoom in, and at night. Being in very rural areas where locals have not interacted with foreigners before also makes the experience a novelty for them!

              Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Peggy you are definitely in for a gastronomic treat! The markets in Viet Nam and the incredible street food are quite amazing. (Just be careful of MSG added to food. Here are the most important words in the Vietnamese language: KHOM MI CHIN. If you write this down on a card and then show it to people making your food, you might be ok. Translation: NO MSG.)

      Whereabout is she moving to.. what city?

      Peta

  3. Shari Pratt

    It’s wonderful to see these places, once so devastated by war, enjoying more normal lives and busy with local commerce.

    You two travel to amazing countries and take away stories unlike any other travelers I know.

    Always a pleasure to read your posts.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Shari thank you for the best compliment, that speaks directly to our philosophy of travel and living sequentially, globally.

      With regard to the war, it is worth noting that over 50% of the Vietnamese population is under 28 years old, so the “American war” is something relegated to history books, except in some areas where the remnants are visible and still impacting populations today due to unexploded ordinance and the devastating physical impact of Agent Orange.

      Ben & Peta

  4. Gilda Baxter

    Vietnam is an amazing country that I am yet to visit. No doubt I will love to visit these markets, they are incredible. I would particularly like to visit the floating market. I will look forward to hearing more about the other Asian markets ?

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Gilda, the floating market was a great experience, the key though is to get there just as the sun is rising so that you catch the wave of local buyers and sellers before the boats come in with the tourists. Besides the markets, the street food is incredible, like no where else in the world ~ so fresh, unique and varied. I almost wish I had not been so that I could start all over and rediscover it again!

      Peta

  5. Lexklein

    Your photos are bursting with color and flavor! I cannot wait to go to Vietnam someday and experience this (and many other things). Just yesterday, we spent some time in a huge Vietnamese market here in Houston, and I went nuts photographing the giant jackfruit, dragonfruit, deep purple eggplant, and many other exotic and local fruits and veggies. Great idea for a blog series!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Lex, that is a lovely compliment! Hope you have had the opportunity to eat in some Vietnamese restaurants to get acquainted with the unique flavor profile that Vietnamese food brings. Truth be told, it was the very first Asian country we spent time in together, and it was a no brainer for both of us ~ love at first bite, for sure!

      You can take a spin through our archives, for many many entries on this amazing country. We lived through a typhoon which hit Hoi An when we were living there, lived on an organic farm with farmers and motorbiked with one of our four sons, for a week on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Central Viet Nam, visited small villages where locals build the most unusual tall bamboo “tall houses”.

      Glad you like the retrospective of Asian markets idea….

      Ben & Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Judith.

      The vendors at the markets have worked out quantities to almost exactly what they know they will sell. They all have regular customers and they know what they buy. Very little is wasted as prices are adjusted and reduced towards the end of the market times if there is any excess. Interestingly, this worked against us when it came to street food, because some of our favorite vendors would run out of supplies because they had calculated ahead of time what they needed so as not to waste anything.

      In Viet Nam the majority of people do not have refrigerators (outside of the big cities) and so all food is absolutely fresh and bought twice a day at market.

      Peta

  6. Joanne Sisco

    When I compare these market experiences to typical shopping in North America, it’s like different planets!! The produce on boats was the most interesting to me – especially all those stacked watermelons.

    What an amazing opportunity to spend 5 months in Viet Nam!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Joanne you are absolutely right.. after living in Viet Nam it was very strange, when we lived in Chicago for a while, to go into a regular supermarket to buy fruit and vegs, with stickers on them, at that. We started going to the farmers markets and getting as much of the fresh produce we could from there. That said, some of those U.S. supermarkets have a pretty impressive variety of produce, like Whole Foods type of places, for example. Expensive though.

      Our time living in Viet Nam was without doubt one of the highlights of our lives. It is interesting how different countries and cultures appeal to different people. Some people had “warned” us that the Vietnamese people are tough and not very friendly, like say the smiling Thai people. We had a very different experience. We consistently enjoyed the humor and ease of interaction with locals, especially in Hoi An where we lived. There is a directness, no bullshit kind of attitude that we both really appreciated.

      Peta & Ben

  7. Suzanne

    What a beautiful post! Like looking through the pages of a magazine. Made me want to cook something healthy.

    Thank you for sharing your “secret” for getting up close for photos of people. The Ipad is a great idea.

    Looking forward to part-2.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thank you Suzanne for your lovely comments and flattery!

      Glad to hear you are looking forward to the next in this series. Working on it… the thing is we have SO many amazing photos we would love to share but of course we have to be selective. It has been a nice jaunt down memory lane for us too!

      Peta

  8. Patti

    This is a wonderful collection of photos in that you really captured the moments of each market. We love artichokes and the photo of them is great, veggie art!

    Love the photo of the foot up cigarette smoking woman and It’s lovely that you sit with the vendors and try to connect. A smile goes a long way, doesn’t it?

    We went to the historic central market in Budapest yesterday and it was a great adventure. We love exploring markets and yesterday we found packages (and packages, and packages) of smoked paprika. It was fun to buy a few to pack away and take back to the states for family. We rarely buy souvenirs when we travel, (and we have precious little extra space in our bags) but finding something that can be used and is unique to a region, well, that’s worth a buy.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Patti thanks for your thoughtful comments on this post.

      We love finding markets in Asia that are in rural regions, off the “beaten path” (namely, no tourists), this offers a very different opportunity for interaction with locals at the market, both vendors and buyers. Vietnamese people are not shy and this makes it rather easy to communicate. Peta is also not shy and strikes up conversations without language being a barrier. Connecting with people colors the whole experience in a totally different way than if we did not.

      Re bringing back gifts, we laugh at the paprika as on our last trip one of our sons requested that we bring him a stone mortar from Thailand, which weighed about um sixty pounds!!! Next time, paprika sounds much easier a gift!!

      Ben

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Johanna, the floating markets are becoming a vestige of the past. This is one of the few authentic ones that is not choreographed for tourists and remains as vibrant as ever. One just has to get there super early as the sun is rising. Can Tho is a flood prone region and as such transacting business on boats is likely to be an enduring feature of the region.

      Hoi An does have an extremely picturesque aspect to it. Initially we were a bit put off by the amount of tourists, but we soon realized that the population of tourists tended to limit itself to a relatively small radius smack in the center and were easily avoided. But in fact, beyond the few beautifully restored architectural buildings, what makes Hoi An so attractive is the proximity to 2 beaches, the easily accessible rural inner land that is so authentic and chockfull of visual delights.

      http://www.greenglobaltrek.com/2013/11/images-of-our-life-in-hoi-an-100-days-100-photographs.html

      Peta & Ben

  9. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    We love visiting the markets in each new country we travel in and your photos and narrative made Vietnam come alive. Several months ago, I read quite a few of your posts that you’d written about Vietnam with the idea of a future visit – hopefully next winter. I loved this whole post, but your description of Hoi An made me ache to see it for myself: the people, the markets the whole vibrant culture. I can see why it has such a special place in your hearts. All of the food offerings look so fresh and (except for the medicinal salamander on a stick) had me wondering about all the exotic smells that must hover around the market. And that pineapple cut is completely different from anything I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing this great post, Peta and Ben!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Anita we love that we may have influenced your decision to take a trip to Viet Nam. And yes,we really hope you both do go and experience Hoi An, it truly is a special place ~ so give it plenty of time 🙂 It is of course a major tourist city, for good reason, but most tourists stick to the few central streets, and are easy to get past.

      So glad you enjoyed this post so much!

      Peta & Ben

  10. LuAnn

    My mouth is watering just reading this post Peta. Given that Asia is one of the areas on our radar for travel next year, this post was timely. We love the local markets and street fare, wherever we travel. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I couldn’t wait to get a bit more internet so I could finally catch up with some of my favorite bloggers.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      LuAnn, that is such a lovely compliment, thank you. Feel free to email us when you start thinking about where you are going to visit in Asia and we will be happy to give you some ideas and thoughts. Markets are the first place we look for, no matter where we are in the world!

      Peta

  11. Rusha Sams

    Love this post with all the great photos of the markets and people. It really is true — it’s another world! And we’re fortunate to see it through your eyes.

  12. Caroline Helbig

    What a great idea to do a post on your favourite SE Asia food markets! I am amazed at the amount and diversity of markets throughout Vietnam. You are so lucky to have experienced this country and its markets in such detail. The medicine woman photo cracks me up, she looks like a real character. Wonderful post and photos! Cheers, Caroline

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Caroline when we headed to South East Asia for the first time, we started with Viet Nam, because Vietnamese food has always been our favorite cuisine! So it was a no brainer for us. And then, add the markets on top of that, as well as the humor of the Vietnamese people (for the most part) and we were hooked!

      The last time we were there for 2 months, (in Hoi An) we rented a little apartment on the river, selected due to its location around the corner from the main market. It was great to have that market almost at our doorstep. The first time we lived there we chose to live on an organic farm for the benefit of all the freshly picked greens. Both were unforgettable experiences.

      Thanks for the lovely compliments on the post and photos.

      Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thank you Dahlia, hope you get a chance to read installments 2 and 3 and upcoming #4, as it is in the vitality of the four together that the vibrancy of Asian markets comes though. The last post will be on India ~ familiar lands for you.

      Peta

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