Market is a common phenomenon worldwide but the cultural specialties of each land give it numerous forms, each boasting its unique characteristics. Through time, marketplaces, driven by widespread waves of modernization, have transformed dramatically and tend to converge at the modern model of giant malls. Yet, the varied development levels of different countries coinciding with their own traditions still offer very dissimilar types of market.
In Vietnam, a developing country, the stronger integration with the world economy gives rise to sprawling of modern commercial centers, luxurious shopping complex, and gigantic malls in big cities. However, the traditional consumption habit still prevails and steers most people to traditional markets, sometimes called flea market or wet market.
The traditional market is the major channel of retail that dates back more than a thousand years ago since the very first urban areas arose and society went into an organized structure under the rule of dynasties. According to Vietnam Association of Retail, there are now approximately 9000 traditional markets nationwide and up to 80% of all retail sales are conducted through these traditional channels.
Markets at this time were located in regions of large area with easy access to transportation such as public places in city center, street intersections, citadel’s gates, and along the river sides. A document in the 17th century mentioned the boisterous business activities in 8 big markets of Thang Long, namely Cửa Đông, Cửa Nam, Huyện, Đình Ngang, Bà Đá, Văn Cử, Bác Cử and Ông Nước. The ramification of the Red River into smaller rivers flowing through Thang Long provided convenient water ways for people from all surrounding provinces and even faraway lands to access the markets in the city centers. Bat Trang, the village famous for excellent pottery wares, is located on the northeast bank of the Red River and thus soon became a port for pottery trading activities. Besides the large and permanent markets, Thang Long also hosted numerous small and mobile markets which were easily formed by just a few vendors presenting their goods along the sidewalks or anywhere that people walked through.
Generally, the marketplace was consisted of various stalls/booths, each offering a different commodity or a specific type of goods. Booths selling relevant items were located near each other, forming sections specifying in commodities of particular field. Food, clothes, and household facilities were the three main sections often included in a sizable market.
Malls selling a mixture of different goods were not observed until the French colonization period. This is understandable given the limited number of workers in each family, the most common unit of business in Vietnam in those days. Focusing on a specific item allowed family members not only to produce more in a faster pace, but also to improve techniques through intensive exposure to, and thorough experience of, working procedures. The elders passed down their life-accumulating experience to the young members as family secrets, giving the new generation the advantages of having first-hand knowledge and being trained under supervision of experts.
If manufacturing was a heavy task requiring the cooperation of lots of people, guilds and groups of workers were formed and separate tasks were assigned to people of appropriate capacities. This labor specialization in the earliest forms helped improve the quality of the goods produced and also gave rise to the famous network of 36 streets in the ancient quarter of Hanoi. The 36-street section in the center of Thang Long could be considered a giant market with each street focusing on the production and sale of its professional products. Streets, thus, were named after the products they sold. For example, “Hang Mam”, meaning the street of fish sauce, had most of its families supplying a wide variety of fish sauces for customers.
Generations by generations, the primary markets improved gradually in terms of commodity diversity, trade volume and value. Going with the flow of timeline, the country expanded geographically and developed economically. Accompanying the greater population and workers’ productivities were bigger and busier markets in other important cities like Hue, Hoi An, Gia Dinh (ancient HCM city), etc.
Due to the development of the textile industry and the higher living standard, clothes and fabric now move to face front shops and malls. There are even individual markets devoted just to clothing and fashion accessories, most famous in Hanoi are “chợ Hôm” and “Ninh Hiệp”, and “Soái Kình Lâm” in HCM City. Tools, furniture, stationary, cosmetics and most other products are now sold in specific stores and shops on the streets.
Wet market is another name for the traditional market, referring to the fact that an excessive amount of water is used daily to keep food, vegetables and fruits fresh, especially water-living creatures alive, till the moment of purchases. Big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City house hundreds of such open fairs scattered across the towns. Each neighborhood of a few hundred people or more normally has its own wet market; most are now established in a fixed place and open for sale all day long. This is among efforts of local authorities to make business activities organized and kept track of by having local marketplaces officially registered and managed by a committee chosen by stall owners themselves.
However, there are also mobile markets that meet only a few hours in early mornings, at any central large ground, be it along the side of a temple or on the pavement, right in front of private stores whose owners have not opened for a new day yet. These fairs are often without official permission from authorities. But since they are something so traditional and all residents enjoy the convenience of buying fresh food just a few steps downstairs, the authorities accept them as a matter of fact. Both permanent and mobile wet market offer a wide variety of breakfast dishes in the morning like the sticky rice “xoi”, many types of noodle like “pho”, “bun”, “mien”, and many kinds of rice cakes. These breakfast stalls open only in the morning and yield spaces for other stalls of mid-day snacks and drinks later in the day.
Wet markets are featured by fresh food: meats are recently butchered; vegetables and flowers are just picked in the early morning. If customers want to process the poultry themselves, living livestock are there for them to pick. Vietnamese cuisines treasure the freshness of staples used to serve their daily meals and thus people come to these wet market every day to buy ingredients for their delicious lunch and dinner. Stocking of processed food is not preferred even in the city center because the processing chemicals take away the original taste and texture of the food. Freshness is what I love most about Vietnamese food, so much tastier than the fast food I am consuming all the time in the United States.
Dried ingredients are also offered at the market. Other oddities like bath products, hair accessories and minor items are sometimes provided as well, but they are often of normal or low quality, and thus pretty cheap. So wet market is like a primordial groceries store.
The market in modern Vietnam pretty much preserves its typical features of a place specified not only for retail of daily necessities and foods, but also a sociable site for acquaintances to exchange some greetings and mediocre chats. Since shoppers are local residents, people exchange their greeting and take advantage of a few minutes waiting for their stuffs to be wrapped to chit chat. The morning market sessions in Vietnam always possess unique mix of sounds that can hardly be found anywhere. The bargaining between buyers and sellers, the sellers’ call for their fellows to ask about selling rate, the sounds of livestock kept in crowded cages. Many women, including my grandmother and mother, consider walking around the market to shop in early morning as an hour jogging.
Nevertheless, the wet market is not a wonderful daily event without annoyances. The most outstanding concern is the health issue as the sanitary conditions at all mobile markets and most permanent markets are bad. Only some big markets have their own sewage systems, which are often inadequate and not taken care of duly. Sanitization to most sellers only stops at cleaning and washing by water. In many meat stalls, owners present chunks of raw meat on unclean tables without any means of protection and thus meat is often exposed to all kind of dusk, viruses, and insects like flies. Water used to wash and process food is directed to run into the next-by creek or common sewage pipeline, sweeping with it all the remains and dirty disposals. Air, soil, and water in the proximity of the marketplaces are thus polluted. Unsanitary conditions also stem from the fact that trash is not collected timely and sufficiently. Stall owners only make sure their areas are free of trash but care not about other common places. Some food booths are situated next to the pile of discarded things or stinking water way.
Another problem is the undetermined source of food. Owners are mostly small traders who buy their products from small farms, gardens, or slaughter house scattered in the city suburb. These individual businesses in turn provide their homemade products without bills or records. Thus, no bills or receipts are given or kept for any transactions and taxes thus largely go uncollected. Again, the uncertified source of products, together with the unsanitary conditions of the marketplaces, presents great obstacles for authorities and medical officials to trace back the source of diseases if any malice springs and causes widespread health problems.
Wet markets have sustained strongly along with all historical changes of Vietnam and establish themselves as an important part of Vietnamese culture. Although incurring undeniably bad points, wet market do offer merits that Vietnamese people cannot ignore and thus, still assert itself as the main grocery distribution channel. Going to the wet market to get fresh food for meals within that day is the practice that Vietnamese people have kept for thousands of years. As tradition deepens, wet markets become part of Vietnamese culture. They are so unique to Vietnam, the country and the people.