Vietnam Street Markets versus American Markets

My recent foray into the street market scene inspired my latest piece for Tuoi Tre Newspaper.

If the link doesn’t work, here is the text:

One of the latest food trends gaining popularity in the United States is the “green market.”  Usually just once a week and for only a few hours in the morning, vendors come together in a public area such as a park to purvey their goods. Indeed, the products in these markets sell at a premium and are more a high end gourmet variety.

Such markets attract crowds of mostly curiosity seekers looking for fresh foods beyond the normal supermarket fare.   Expensive artisan goat cheeses and vegan baked goods are a nice splurge but obviously not the marks of a daily meal.  These markets exist more to tantalize the senses than to sustain our daily needs.

Once upon a time before the days of the modern supermarket, sourcing the ingredients for a meal in America was a daily affair just as in current day Vietnam.   We traveled from butcher to green grocer to bakery for a single meal.   Times change and societies evolve, and the green or farmers markets are a small attempt for us to reconnect with nostalgia and simpler times, even if only once a week.

What we try to recreate with our markets back home, the Vietnamese still experience in true authenticity on a daily basis. These colorful and vibrant collections of vendors selling the staples of local cuisine truly fuel a nation. While walking past sidewalks overflowing with meat, live seafood, fruits and vegetables, we sense and appreciate the feeling of community this sort of shopping fosters.

I think I speak for many a westerner who visits a Vietnamese street market for the first time with only our shops back home as a frame of reference.  Raw meats hanging from hooks and piles of unidentifiable animal innards shock us into submission.  Mounds of tropical fruits and leafy greens appear so inviting, and the hustle and bustle of regular people going about their daily lives captivates us.  We use our cameras to document our fascination, and images are quickly dispatched back home.

Over time we finally work up the nerve to buy deliciously fresh dragonfruit, and soon enough our mounting courage returns us another day to sample previously unknown delights such as purple perilla and bitter melon.  Shedding our inhibitions allows us to become part of the neighborhood fabric and enjoy a side of Vietnam we will forever cherish.  What was once so foreign and strange now becomes our new normal and who knows, maybe one day we will even graduate to buying live shrimp out of a bucket.

In contrast to Vietnam, a trip to the store in the US can prove a very anonymous and sterile experience.   We push a shopping cart around while self selecting fruits, vegetables, prepackaged meats, breads and more.   Many of the larger chains even offer a self check out option via automated pay stations.  Our entire shopping trip can be undertaken without any human interaction should we so choose.

To be sure, the modern supermarket has arrived in Vietnam via the Big C and Maximark, yet the time honored street market still thrives and attracts a daily clientele.  Browsing through this slice of traditional Vietnam proves a bit more of an intimate affair where relationships are built.  We find our favorite vendors and purchase the freshest of fresh from a real person day in and day out.

We are lucky to live in Vietnam with the choice of supermarket convenience or the more intimate and colorful local market affair.  In the end no matter where we choose to shop, Vietnamese and Americans share a common goal of putting tasty food on the table for our family and friends.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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