We enter markets in Vietnam with a sense of excitement, delight and mild trepidation. These vibrant, crowded places beckon us with mountains of dazzling fruit and vegetables, arrays of jewel bright desserts and food stalls serving all manner of yumminess.
We stop and marvel at hibiscus flowers, chestnuts, rose apples, dragon fruit and the gorgeously named Buddha’s Fingers (a lime green fruit sprouting finger like tentacles).
There are pails of milky beancurd, baskets of scarlet chillies, silky vermicelli, snake beans, bitter gourd, herbs that we have never seen before and tangled bunches of morning glory (a delicious water spinach).
I am drawn to the seafood section with its piles of salt crusted shellfish, buckets of clams, wet fish still jumping on metal trays, clumps of orange roe, and clusters of live feisty crabs.
I also can’t resist the cakes and puddings redolent with flavours from my childhood – concoctions of rice flour, banana and palm sugar and bowls of sweet bean porridge laced with coconut milk.
We revel in the sound of Vietnamese voices ringing out like a chorus of bells, we sniff the green fragrance of bright, dewy herbs, we gaze at a basket of tiny mauve and white eggplants as perfect as marbles or a tray of snowy, delicate mushrooms which would cost a fortune in an Australian supermarket.
The exquisite and the alarming rub shoulders in Vietnamese markets. These are not places for the fainthearted. Be prepared to see a basin of young turtles scrambling around waiting to be made into soup. Be aware that you will turn around from a pretty mound of golden mangoes or glistening lettuce and find yourself looking at the yellow bill and beady eyes of a freshly killed duck. Know that you will stop short in your tracks at the confronting sight of newly skinned frogs still quivering and trying to hop.
Our friend, Luc, points out a pile of tiny plucked black chickens (a specialty in Vietnam), there are eggs filled with duck embryos, pigs’ heads (complete with eyes and ears), webbed feet, claws and lumps of clotted blood. There are worms and snails and long naked tails. Things are pickled, dried, salted and brined – everything that can be eaten is for sale.
The clamour, verve and sheer tenacity of Vietnamese people in a local market is a sight to behold. There they are cutting vegetables, scaling fish, plucking poultry, preparing food, haggling, shopping, eating, cooking, hoisting heavy baskets on their shoulders…no one is idle and nothing is wasted.
Vietnamese markets joyfully reflect the indomitable spirit, resilience and enterprise of the Vietnamese people who have endured terrible atrocities in so many wars and who have repeatedly emerged with humour, stoicism, resolve and astonishing energy.
© Anita Patel, 2016