Arsenal Fans: A Guide To Ho Chi Minh Central Market And Vietnam
Travel Guidebooks are, in a word… s***e. To see exactly why just pick up the edition relating to a destination that you’ve already visited, or lived in, and compare it to your own knowledge. I’ve had a butchers at the London Book, it directs it’s readers to no-end of Claptrap. They don’t assist the desire to get truly involved. But to the Twerps who return home with Wooden Giraffes and Rugs to display their worldliness, they are The Bible. They help them locate common attractions with which to have a photo taken.
There are herds of such Numpties in Town Squares the world over sticking rigidly to whatever’s “in the book” and wincing at the idea of doing something that’s not. These books will only help you to be a Tourist, not break through to the true culture. This connection is achieved by engaging the Natives. These people, the Heart of a City, will invariably be found at dawn, in it’s Produce Market. The next time you wake up at ‘Daft ‘o’ Clock’ in a Hotel don’t reach for the Remote Control, or Guidebook, reach for your Trainers. Exploit your Jetlag and get in the thick of it! For me, Blood Oranges in Naples, Mango Lassi’s in Delhi and Kippers in Birmingham, while watching the early morning chaos of the market, are the most vibrant multi-sensory memories of time away from home. But I have none more treasured than my first Sunrise in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) Vietnam…
After landing Mid-afternoon I checked in my hotel to sleep off my grogginess. I woke at 4am, bolt upright. I went for a run, the chill of the clear night air was refreshing, the Sky ranged from Purple to Blood Red as the Sun tickled the Horizon. As I ran I saw a Woman sitting on an upturned bucket near a crossroads, in front of her a hot Urn. The smell of its steam, reminiscent of Horlicks, was too inviting. She served me a glass. It was Milk with Malt and fresh Vanilla.
As I sipped and warmed my hands on the glass, a few locals stopped to do likewise. I noticed that they were all heading in the same direction, many riding Cycles or Mopeds (there's an estimated 1000 Mopeds to each car in Vietnam) if not then walking, bent at the knees with a taxing Yokes across their shoulders. No matter what the mode of transport they were heavily laden with Fruit, Veg, Fish. Meat or Livestock. I had gleaned the most direct route to the Central Market. I saw a man with upwards of 30 live Chickens, tied to his bike by their feet. I ran along behind him, trying to keep up. As he dismounted my suspicion was confirmed by a three foot high pile of severed Cows hoofs on the pavement, their blood glistening in the first rays of sunlight.
I followed the swarm of peasant traders into the heart of the open air Labyrinth of alleyways and Quadrangles that was the Market. Alongside me were families, their members managing livestock proportionate to their size. The Dad had a Calf, the Mother a Pig. The teenage Daughter a Goat, the younger ones Chickens and Rats (Rat meat is common here). I later found out that these folk often ride their Bikes, or Cattle, or walk, overnight to get to the market from the countryside.
I found a wooden crate and the suitable spot to sit and watch. The first thing I saw was a family shaving a Pig with rusty razors, even the bare-a***d toddler was mucking in. As soon as it was bald it was hung by the feet from a Pulley, and it’s throat was cut. The meat from the beast, a few Chickens, and a batch of Eggs had to be converted into the families income, hence the toil, legwork and last minute beauty preparation. Within minutes of its blood gushing down the Father’s shins the Mother had segmented it, every part of it’s carcass ready for sale. I turned round to see a girl of about six pulling Bullfrogs from a sack then swinging them downwards from shoulder height like an Amphibian variation on a game of Conkers, their heads producing a popping sound as they hit the opposing rock, knocking them out. Decapitated with one passing of her scissors, followed by four precise cuts to the skin, meant it could be stripped in one movement. The now pink Frog was slung into a bowl, still hopping, until it’s nervous system accepted that it’s head was a yard away.
It’s guts tossed into another bowl, which the younger sister sifted through, snipping out the livers to make soup for their well earned breakfast. The whole market seemed to be about the size of Soho, where I had been necking cocktails just the day before. There wasn’t an inch of floor space that wasn’t occupied by busy families pulling together to ensure the highest yield for their goods. I saw three generations stood side by side, happily ankle deep in bovine intestines as they supported the falling weight of half a still-warm Ox as it was Machete-hacked down the length of its Spine.
At about 7am a Hooter sounded. There was a sudden shift in priority. Within five minutes the wares had been hurriedly hung on stalls or displayed in crates. An open topped Truck appeared in the corner of the quadrant and all unwanted material was swept up and thrown in as it slowly drove past, the area behind it quickly looked less like an abattoir and more like a place to trade. I picked up a broom to help. After a further ten minutes another Hooter declared the market open.
I sat back down on my crate and watched the traders chalking up their prices, wetting down their fish, neatly stacking their vegetables and further separating the innards of their animals. The Father from the Shaved Pig family ladled out Chicken’s feet Broth for the nearby kids, from a Cauldron that had been stewing as they worked, herbs having been thrown in toward the end. He offered me a bowlful for my efforts along with a three-toothed grin, some of the other families nodded, their children smiled.
I was quite touched. It tasted good. I tried to buy a few apples from a neighbouring stall to give to the kids. They refused to accept payment. After strolling around the different sections of the market for another couple of hours I returned with a Lottery ticket for each of the kids. All of their wares were sold. Result! I felt entirely embedded into the real life of this City just by following my nose, and a weary Chicken Farmer. Guidebook my arse. The following two weeks I explored the Mekong Delta with just a Map, Compass and Honda Dream 100 moped. This expedition would make a book in itself. I saw and experienced some incredible things. The Vietnamese are Beautiful People. Tears welled up as I sat in the airport waiting for my onward flight to Sydney.
For a superb photo documentation of everyday life on the streets of Vietnam see a book called ‘Bikes of Burden’ By Hans Kemp.