Saigon’s Famous Ben Thanh Market

attractions - Saigon/HCMC: Nov. 1, 2013

There’s a purplish tinge to the morning air. A fog surrounds Saigon’s famous Ben Thanh Market. Near its entrance, fitness buffs are engaged in a rousing choreography of gymnastics before the fierce afternoon heat strikes. Nearby, a speaker broadcasts a song praising Ho Chi Minh. I enter. A young salesman, cell phone glued to his ear, calls me: ‘Sir! Bun Bo Hue – cheap! And very good!’ (Bun Bo Hue is a renowned beef soup that originated in the central Vietnamese city of Hue.)

The atmosphere at Ben Thanh is one of fused voices, of goods quickly shifting from hand to hand. Food and drink – both familiar and otherworldly – is everywhere: skewered prawns, steamed corn, beef jerky, chili, semi-incubated eggs called hot vit lon, yogurt, rice wine, fruit smoothies, coffee, tea . . . The list is seemingly endless.

Photo by: Michelle Lee

Ben Thanh Market is the largest tourist market in Ho Chi Minh City. Inside, you’ll cross paths with veiled Malaysian women, Chinese tour groups and Western travelers in ball caps and tank tops, likely amazed by all the stuff for sale.

You’ll discover mountains of cheap t-shirts, wood souvenirs, pottery and ceramics, wristwatches, plus all manner of digital gadget covers and protectors. Goods are neatly divided among sections that include food, textiles, cosmetics and sundries. Except at the restaurants and snack bars prices are not fixed (good luck bargaining!).

From out of nowhere a woman grabs my arm, tries to drag me into her shop! I resist her hard sell and dash over to a nearby shoe stall. Unoccupied. Nobody’s manning the ‘shop’. I’m about to leave when the owner’s head pops up from behind the counter. He was napping! With all respect I don’t blame him, working as he does between 8-10 hours a day. After a lengthy negotiation I leave Ben Thanh with a new pair of shoes, paying just VND200,000 – 100,000 less than what the drowsy shop owner was asking.

I head out in the full sun towards my motorbike, carefully guarded by an attendant at an ad hoc parking lot across the street. A twist of the throttle and I’m back among the legions of motorcycles that incessantly revolve through and around this miraculous city.

Approximate prices at Ben Thanh Market:
Souvenir t-shirt: VND60,000
Lacquered wooden box: VND150,000 (depending on size)
Snake liquor (comes bottled with real snake!): VND200,000

Covered market: 6am - 5pm daily
Outdoor night market: 6pm - 10pm daily