Grocery Shopping Is My Jam

Hi folks! Apologies for the delay on posts — the 12 hour time difference, crazy travel legs, and overall nommin’ proved to be a bit tougher to juggle with posts than anticipated. But, I’m happy to share that we made it home safely!

In the coming days, we’re hoping to add new posts to cover more of our trip and share some of the additional learnings & inspirations we came across. To that end, I’m happy to dedicate this post to the many marketplaces I visited throughout the entire trip.

It’s hard to fully pinpoint my “favorite” part of the trip, but I’m such a sucker for marketplaces and all the bustling spots I toured throughout the country hold a special place in my memories.

Ever since I could remember, I’ve always loved grocery shopping. Even if it was just unloading groceries from the car for my mom & dad, it was always exciting to see all the variety, colors, fresh produce, and delicious things that I was bound to enjoy! Plus, having three siblings, it was also a great way to call dibs on my favorites too :).

But, my true preference was to actually go with my mom. The whole process was fascinating: reading through different ads, deal hunting, making the grocery lists, then of course the actual shopping. Through all of the grocery trips, my mom instilled in me a sense of organization, a big appetite, and a love for deals. Inherent in those themes were key life lessons, including budgeting, eating well, and taking care of others. Til this day, those reasons drive the thrills I find in grocery shopping.

After losing her to cancer just over 7 years ago, I often think about all the major things I’d miss out on experiencing with her. The obvious ones, like dancing with her at my wedding, seeing her be a grandma, and having her at my side as I achieve my dream of opening a restaurant always sting. But it’s often the smaller, every day experiences that I wish I could have experienced with her as an adult. Grocery shopping, as simple as it sounds, is probably what I often miss the most and wish I could do with her.

Luckily, I still feel her presence whenever I find myself in a market. Whether it’s at a local grocery store back home or at an international marketplace, it brings a huge smile to my face knowing my mom is with me. She’s the voice in my head when I sort through fruits & veggies for freshness and think through sales, discounts, and haggling. In the today’s busy world, especially with the undertaking of running my own business, grocery store trips allow me to break away from the craziness and spend a little time with my mom.

With that said, I invite you to join me on this rundown of the Vietnamese markets I visited and the extra special meaning behind these experiences.

 


OVERVIEW

As I alluded to in an earlier post, I’ve been fortunate enough to tour various marketplaces across the world. Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne and Lisbon’s Time Out Market are foodie dream worlds, while Medellin’s Plaza Minorista & Central Mayoritsa are simply mindblowing because of their scale.

Something about the markets in Vietnam, though, felt all the more special. Copenhagen, Lisbon, and Medellin’s markets had plenty of local charm, but every spot in Vietnam was insulated in the best kind of way. The Vietnamese vendors I met were incredibly hospitable and quick to identify my western ties, but unlike the other aforementioned global markets, they stuck to their own norms and delivered quite the authentic experiences. Seating arrangements were tight & jammed, haggling was chaotic & pushy, and the food was served haphazardly & questionably :).  What more could I ask for?

To confirm, I was able to check out the following markets:

Grocery Shopping Is My Jam - Collage

A beautiful collection of the colorful sights across all four markets listed above


BEN THANH MARKET

The trip to Ben Thanh Market was my first stop on Day 1 and it was simply amazing to see all the local fare in one place, as well as the incredible hustle & hard work of each vendor. I’m also tempted to include “freshness” in that list of amazing sights. By western standards, some of the sanitation practices would give you a major pause. But this is where the non restaurant owner in me looks a different way. It’s a different culture over there and the freshness is readily apparent. “Organic” labels are not common or standard practice. But that’s because they don’t have to go out of their way to “organically farm”. Organic farming is often times just . . . farming. The fish and meats aren’t dyed to achieve the beautiful colors either.

Morning Glory

Rau Muong aka “Morning Glory” was a welcomed sight on Day 1 (served raw with my Bun Bo Hue) — this was the first of many meals featuring this delicious water spinach


CHOLON MARKET

As fascinating as Ben Thanh Market was, Binh Tay Market was much more of an adventure. Ben Thanh is located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, whereas, Binh Tay is in the Cholon quarter of the city (District 5 ), which is a good 25 min cab ride from the downtown area.  Cholon is along the west bank of the Saigon River and home to the largest Chinatown in the world.

Wherever I travel to, I’m always geeked out to visit the local Chinatown. But, little did I know what I was in for with this Chinatown. On my fourth and last day in Ho Chi Minh City, I was deadset on squeezing in as much as possible. I left the hotel at 6am and was ready to rock . . . only to be dropped off over a mile west of the market! After a few failed Uber attempts to make my way to the Binh Tay, I went old school and walked. From roosters crowing in the streets to following little old ladies pushing their street carts toward the market, I just about saw it all. In the end, the 30 min detour made the experience that much more memorable.

Once I arrived at the market, I found myself both confused and familiar all at the same time. The main market is still under construction so the temporary layout is a maze to say the least, but given the Chinese influences within the market, it was fascinating to recognize many of the hanging/barbecued meats I’m used to enjoying, as well as several dried/preserved ingredients like shitakes, turnips, and white fungus (mmm always a favorite despite the name!).

Regrettably, I cannot speak a lick of Chinese, but I can spot dim sum from a mile away. An order of a bao and the local take on hagao (shrimp dumpling) &  siu mai (pork dumpling) had me quickly forgetting about my detour.

But, the fun really began with the soup pictured below. For simplicity sake, let’s just called that bad boy a “kitchen sink” soup. I was first intrigued by the hand pulled noodles being worked on, then I was sold once I saw that the vendor was adding both his egg noodle and rice noodle into the soup. After I placed the order, I then witnessed the vendor literally add every ingredient under the sun, including his “kitchen sink”. The softball of a fried wonton was the final touch to an incredible gamut of cilantro, scallion bean sprout, onion, bitter greens, sliced pork knuckle, tripe, white fish and, of course, beef kidney for good measure.

As you “might” imagine, this array of ingredients will never find its way onto the Viet Nom Nom menu, but it reinforced the flavor profile of Vietnamese cuisine. Like every Vietnamese soup I’ve tried, the broth was remarkably flavorful but clear and not heavy. Whether it’s pho, bun bo hue, any aanh variation, or this “kitchen sink” soup, there’s a distinct soulfulness to Vietnamese soups — they remind you of the magical healing powers of chicken noodle and matzo ball soup. This is a vibe we strive to maintain in our kitchen with every bowl of chicken or veggie pho we serve up!

Cholon Collage.jpg

A view into the food stall section of Binh Tay and a close up of my “kitchen sink” soup

 


HOI AN CENTRAL MARKET

Hoi An is a port city, located in central Vietnam. Because of its water-based location, its history is heavily influenced by ancient trade routes — both Chinese and Japanese influences are still readily apparent in the city’s well preserved architecture and culture. Ahead of the trip, I consistently read that Hoi An often turns out to be the most memorable city in Vietnam for many travelers. After our whirlwind south to north tour of the country, it’s hard to argue with that stance.

As you would expect, the central market is in the heart of the old town quarter. Less chaotic than many of the other markets I visited, the vendors and locals were much more mellow — think west coast beach town or Key West — and very open to sharing samples of their produce. I was beginning to grow a bit more wary of the sanitation standards of the markets by this point, but I was all for fresh & untampered produce. Speaking of the Chinese influences, one of the best samples I tried was the fresh lychee pictured below. The kind lady selling lychee was quick to crack open a fresh one for me as I approached her stall.

I could have spent a whole week there just sampling the fresh pineapples, mangoes, dragonfruit, guava, soursop, etc. Fresh fruit was easy to come by across the country, but warm & quaint nature of the central market in Hoi An is what separated this experience from the rest.

Lychee.jpg

Lychee, doesn’t get fresher than this


DONG XUAN MARKET

Heading from Hoi An to Hanoi sent us back to the hustle & bustle of big city life. Like Ben Thanh Market, Hanoi’s Dong Xuan Market was nothing but commotion. And, believe it or not, it was way bigger. We probably canvassed the market for just over a hour and we barely scratched the surface of the site. There was plenty of the familiar produce stalls, as well as a wet market, but the volume of commercial goods dwarfed everything else we saw on the trip.

There were plenty of the typical trinket & clothing vendors, but Dong Xuan was unique with all its massive spread of silk & textile sections. At one point, you cannot see anything but silk in every direction.

Needless to say, there was plenty of interesting things to view here, but from a personal standpoint, I was not swept away. The main takeaway here was just, again, seeing how critical these marketplaces are to the local economy, employment, and way of life.

Dong Xuan Market

The main atrium of Dong Xuan but a mere subsection of massive site

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