Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This past summer/fall has been one of travel, food, food and more food. Although I have been to Southeast Asia in the distant past, this was my first time to Vietnam. We chose to spend the five days we had in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) as we were meeting friends and had activities booked every day.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam. It sits on the Saigon river in the Southern part of the country. It has been occupied by France, Britain, Japan and the US over the past one hundred and fifty years. Liberation and reunification began in 1975 which lead to the creation of a rapidly growing and changing city renamed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. Talk to anyone currently living in HCMC and they will tell you that development and change is happening so rapidly that the within 5 years the HCMC of today looks completely different. Skyscrapers are popping up like mushrooms along with a metro system opening soon which is hoped will take the strain off the congestion of the 7.5 million scooters that circle the city daily. Construction is everywhere in the city which adds to the challenges in getting around the city.
Visits to foreign cities always include the local market and Ben Thanh Market has had more then a century providing HCMC with produce, dry goods and food stalls. There are 5 or 6 more markets in the city but Ben Thanh is the largest, oldest and the most visited by tourists.
Our visit was part of a cooking class run by Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc, a fantastic team associated with the restaurant Hoa Tuc housed in the oldest Opium Refinery in Saigon. Interesting facts about this building, opium revenue was 37% of the colony’s budget back in 1914. Most of the opium refined here came from India and although no new refineries were allowed to open after 1907, production didn’t stop till 1954. Once the refinery was shut down, the complex became the “red light “ district. The buildings were taken over by the Customs Department in 1975 and have housed the restaurant and cooking school in the last 5 years.
The Market is divided into sections like fresh produce, fish, poultry, spices etc. with the food stalls mainly housed in and around the main entry. There were stalls completely dedicated to tofu…………. silky, firm, fermented, dried etc.
On the aisle that houses the fresh produce, you have the opportunity to see and taste unusual fruits and vegetables. Vietnamese cooking leans towards fresh crisp vegetables served with some amazing sauces. The variety of herbs is outstanding as is the utilization of items we would normally throw away. One such item we found in the meat aisle. On the stand was a pig completely broken down including all the organs. We were told that the uterus and cervix are more expensive then good beef.
What surprised me was the crab vendor. The massive amount of time it must have taken to have picked the crab meat to get the mounds available.
The produce and herb section held my attention for a long time, picking a leaf, smelling it, crushing it between my fingers and then resmelling to try to guess what they were. The suttlties of the different basil and their uses was fascinating. How amazing would it be to walk into a local grocery store or market and find the amazing selection of small vegetables….. a chefs dream.
Continuing the tour we explored the spice section, the noodle makers and dried fish kiosks. Finally we ended back up on the area where the food stalls were in full swing with the mid morning crowds appearing for a quick lunch. One stand produced over 2000 lunches a day of fresh spring rolls and a noodle salad for $1. Elsewhere in the market we found a vendor who was making paper thin rice crepes stuffed with a mushroom filling.
We were in the Market long enough to buy ingredients for our cooking class so we jumped in a taxi and headed out into the sea of scooters.
More Market pictures are available in the photo gallery.