(No.6, Vol.2, June 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Ngò gai, ngò gai.’ Sounds incomprehensible to my ears floated around me, but that they were directed at me never entered my consciousness. ‘Ngò gai! ngò gai!’ The words became louder, and finally a wizened old woman grabbed a bushel of cilantro (coriander) with her knobby fingers and shoved it abruptly under my nose while repeating ‘ngò gai’ once again. Her unexpected gesture caught me woefully off guard, and I initially jumped as the intoxicating aroma first filled my nostrils and then my imagination. More than a few housewives chuckled and pointed my way as embarrassment flushed my cheeks a shade of crimson probably only matched by the overripe tomatoes piled around my feet.
One by one these seasoned veterans of street market shopping held up various herbs for me to sniff, and soon enough my shyness melted away as our laughter merged into one sidewalk chorus under the blazing sun. For the first time I truly felt a part of my neighbourhood as they repeated the Vietnamese names for these bushels of greens while encouraging me to parrot their tongue-twisting words. Welcome to a side of Saigon well off the beaten path for most visitors and expats, yet so close for those who dare shake off their inhibitions and immerse full-on into the chaotic maelstrom.
HCMC’s Binh Thanh District sprawls in its low-rise concrete glory just beyond the confines of high-rise apartment compounds such as The Manor and Saigon Pearl. The transition from these westernized cocoons into the fabric of Binh Thanh’s streets and markets is rather abrupt. The short journey down a narrow alley just beside The Manor is much like a portal transporting me to what I affectionately call ‘Old Asia’ as I leave behind my familiar world of American fast food outlets, rooftop swimming pools, and modern supermarkets. Sadly I feel most of my neighbours remain firmly ensconced within our modern confines as their only journey through Binh Thanh seems to be a taxicab ride from the lobby door to points onward.

Though the skyline now reaches upward with these blocks of concrete and glass, thankfully the way of life in my surrounding neighbourhood remains grounded and has yet to synch up with District 1’s more sanitized environs. Downtown may have the Bitexco Tower showcasing a new and revitalized Vietnam emerging on the world stage, but Binh Thanh and other outer districts still allow us to savour vestiges of traditional Vietnam in its authentic, unspoiled state.
One could describe a city as a living, breathing organism with its neighbourhoods the pulse. Binh Thanh’s crowded narrow streets and impossibly narrower alleyways lead us into Vietnam’s rapidly beating heart. Here in Binh Thanh, the market along Vo Duy Ninh Street radiates its energy outward from the packed shops and the ever changing parade of street vendors who keep the ambience fresh and lively. Women in conical hats peddling their wares, old men in pyjamas playing checkers, and the tired taking a noontime siesta all vie for their piece of the sidewalk as minutes turn into hours and hours lazily meld into another day.
I think I speak for many a westerner who visits a Vietnamese street market for the first time with only our orderly shops and manicured streets 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 tempt us while the hustle and bustle of regular people going about their daily lives captivates us. We use our cameras and smartphones to document our fascination, and modern technology so incongruous with these ‘old school’ surroundings allows us to instantaneously dispatch images to our curious friends and family back home.
A walk down Vo Du Ninh leaves no doubt in our minds that we have crossed a frontier, though less defined is the boundary between store and sidewalk. Indeed, anything and everything needed to sustain a neighbourhood’s basic needs is on offer here, and the displays of clothing, dry goods, and foods occupy both building and pavement. This overflowing bounty pushes pedestrians into the roadway where a constant stream of motorbikes greets the wary who dare maneuver amongst the two-wheeled madness.
Just when my senses on one recent visit strained to absorb any more overload of suspect smells wafting from trays of curious meats, music from CD vendors, and motorbike horns of impatient drivers, a crack of thunder swooped down into the market much like a conductor’s baton directing a symphony. If only for a split second, Binh Thanh’s medley of instruments fell silent. Soon enough though, life carried on with the orchestra rising once again to ever higher levels of fevered pitch. The rains came and murky rivulets rinsed away the superficial hubris, yet no amount of falling water could ever wash away the deep soul secreted behind the bricks and mortar.
Through luck I have caught fleeting glimpses here and there of these private lives. Binh Thanh is the young woman in her hair salon kneeling before an altar adorned with incense, candles and food offerings to loved ones deceased. An open window becomes a portal through which the intoxicating smells of home cooking waft down into the humid still air cloaking the alleyways. A rusty gate slides open to reveal two young children huddled in front of a flat screen television beaming American cartoons into a spartan living room while their father reads a newspaper. This family scene transports me back to my own childhood and causes me to see first hand people are people no matter where we are.
To say food fuels daily life in this neighbourhood is an understatement, and many of my mornings wandering through the market begin with a hearty yet inexpensive breakfast served up sidewalk dining style as only Vietnam can dish up. The choices in one short block are plentiful … soft bánh khọt pancakes with tender shrimp at their golden turmeric-tinted centres, rich bowls of reddish bún bò Huế, and cups of warmed tofu with piping hot ginger sauce. With my expanding waistline as testament to the neighbourhood’s bounty, I’ve settled on bún thịt nướng as my favourite street food delicacy.
At first my elderly breakfast hostess seemed thoroughly perplexed a Western man would grace her tiny food stand for a bowl of silky rice vermicelli topped with marinated grilled pork and pickled carrots. I’ve noticed she rewards my continued patronage with ever increasing portion sizes and the most savoury of meats from her battered charcoal grill. We’ve shared many a conversation indecipherable to each other yet somehow I think our imaginations fill in the blanks and we walk away somehow mutually understanding each other.
My delicious slide into this street market culture began in earnest with a few pieces of tropical fruit every now and then acting as a gateway to the unknown. Fresh herbs and vegetables came along next to seduce me further into the market’s tentacles. Mounting confidence has finally led me to actually buy live prawns and other seafood right from a vendor set up next to buckets of congealed pig blood and pans of chicken feet so foreign to my culinary tastes honed on a Western diet.
While the market sustains a community, for me it nourishes my fascination with a world I once upon a time never knew existed. This is definitely the Vietnam we dream of from afar, and the journey can prove unnerving for the newly initiated. Our bearings become easily lost in the sensory onslaught as we wander around the alleyways, yet fear not. All we need is a quick glance up, and the towers of The Manor rise like beacons pulling us back towards our everyday lives so unlike the gritty surroundings.
What seems such an exotic underbelly to a westerner such as me is real life for millions of our neighbours. While we may never be able to actually walk a mile in their shoes to fully understand their lives, we can venture into their world and gain a new appreciation for this side of the city right at our doorstep. I am thankful to now have a foot firmly planted in both worlds.

Opposite page: Rice on sale in Binh Thanh District,
Ho Chi Minh City. Below: Binh Thanh District,
Ho Chi Minh City.

Text and photos by John Russack