Yes – Việt Nam is in the throes of dramatic change. Yes – if you want to see “the Real Việt Nam”, you had better hurry up. Yes – the old ways are disappearing, but less so in the countryside than in the two large cities of Hà Nội and Sài Gòn. The typical village marketplace is still exotic to western eyes – enough so that care must be taken not to fall into the trap if thinking no changes have come to the villages. Many homes have high speed Internet connections and all the market ladies use a cell phone, but the market is indeed a throwback to older days.
So read this, then check back and reread Ten Years After and look at the pictures of the Vincom Center.
Few village homes have a refrigerator, so going to market is done twice a day to be sure food is fresh. This is a great way for the ladies to get the latest news (and gossip) as well as buy the ingredients for the next meal. Most of the villagers have a small plot of land devoted to growing food – the market is where you go to buy what you don’t grow. The vegetables this lady is buying were harvested only hours before they were bought – much fresher than in an American supermarket – or in a Vietnamese supermarket.
(As always, be sure to click on the photos to see a full size version.)
The same is true of meat – most of it is very fresh. These chickens were pecking in the yard only a short time before. If you want chickens that are even fresher, you can often buy them alive and slaughter them yourself. The Vietnamese diet uses meat as a flavoring agent rather than as the main part of the dish. In other words, the Vietnamese do not sit down to a steak dinner, but rather have bits of meat added to a soup or other dish. Chicken, pork and fish are all local.
Notice I say “Most of the meat is very fresh.” The possible exception might be beef. While there are cows in the countryside, they are not as common as chickens or pigs. Việt Nam does not have large grazing areas as we have in the US. Often the beef will come from another nearby village. For that reason, beef is usually the most expensive source of protein. In this case, the lady was charging 190,000 Vietnamese đông per kilo. That would be almost ten dollars for a kilo. Since a half kilo is a little over a pound, you can see why the average Vietnamese dinner does not have a lot of beef – it is expensive. Vietnamese beef is not the best. If the Carl’s Jr hamburger joint in the Vincom Center wants top notch burgers, the beef will most likely come from Australia.
The market is a busy place when it’s open, but it is not open all day. After the morning session, each vendor needs to go home to do her own domestic chores, then return to buy and sell again in the afternoon. Each person returns to her own small stall – everybody knows where different products are sold and where each person’s stall is located. Notice the bananas on the right – we are in the produce section. Each vender only sells one product or a small number of similar products – she may sell four or five different vegetables, while another lady sells cooking oil and still another sells different kinds of fish.
Of course, cooking requires cutlery. These knives are not fancy, but they work and they are inexpensive. I was told these were not made locally, but rather came from the Hà Nội area. I doubt they keep a keen edge very long, which probably explains why I saw the meat vendors use a sharpening steel rod frequently.
As I wander these rural village markets, I always see little old ladies, usually squatting by the side, trying to sell some pitifully small quantity of something. They no longer have to vigor to be able to do their own gardening, so they sell something that requires little care to grow, such as the three small squashes this lady has. She is eighty six years old, yet still comes to market. Being careful of her dignity, my friend Mr. Cu slipped a few đông in her hand. Her expression didn’t change - her mind may not have been able to comprehend the charity extended to her. I noticed she was clean and her clothing well mended, so her family is caring for her as they try to give her some feeling of worth by bringing her to the market, knowing the village women will watch over her.
I know the Vincom Center in Sài Gòn is an indication of economic growth and progress, but I also know you will never see a little old lady trying to sell her squash inside the posh shopping mall.
Progress – it leaves us with tough choices.