Immerse yourself in local life – and the endless rows of textiles, trinkets and T-shirts – at Vietnam’s oldest market, Bến Thành Market.
For many it’s considered little more than a tourist trap, but no visit to Ho Chi Minh City is complete without stopping at Bến Thành Market, the vibrant covered market in the centre of town.
One of the oldest surviving structures in old Saigon, the marketplace is a tourist staple that’s bursting with souvenirs, ceramics, fabrics, shoes, fresh produce and tasty snacks.
The building with the iconic clock tower occupies one of the most central spots on the map – the intersection of Le Loi, Le Lai, Ham Nghi and Tran Hung Dao in the frenetic heart of District 1.
Because all roads really do lead to Bến Thành Market, it’s a handy marker for first time visitors to the city, and also a great meeting point.
Bến Thành Market has four main gates and 12 entrances, including the iconic three-sided clocktower at the South Gate (above) at Le Loi Street.
One of the big appeals of visiting the market has long been taking photographs of the clocktower, as well as selfies with the statue of General Tran Nguyen Han and his horse in the middle of the famous roundabout.
The roundabout has now gone; so too General Tran and his horse. Both have had to make way for construction of the city’s first Metro railway.
Each gate actually features specific goods, so it’s a good way to find your way around. For instance, enter at the main South Gate if you’re looking for t-shirts, footwear, jewellery or textiles.
Head for the North Gate at Le Thanh Ton Street for the wet market (flowers, fruit and vegetables as well as seafood and meat). This is also the gate to take if you’re heading to Bến Thành Street Food Market.
At the East Gate on Phan Boi Chau Street you’ll find coffee beans, spices, dried fruits and roasted peanuts while the West Gate on Phan Chau Trinh Street is the place to find ceramics and pottery.
With around 1,400 stalls selling everything from souvenir trinkets to knock-off (and legitimate) branded clothing, the market is usually heaving with tourists from the moment it opens until it closes around 6pm.
Before the coronavirus pandemic decimated international travel, more than 15,000 people visited the 13,000 square metre site every day, snapping up iconic nón lá hats and devouring regional dishes like cơm ga (chicken rice) and bánh xèo (sizzling pancake).
When I visited in March, visitor numbers had dwindled to just a few hundred and it was mainly locals shopping for food. The famous Bến Thành Night Market was even more desolate.
Official government data shows the number of foreign visitor to Ho Chi Minh City plummeted 42 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the previous year.
With tourists effectively banned from entering the country, many stallholders at Bến Thành have simply shut up shop until they return.
When you think of markets you imagine great bargains. But prices actually seemed unreasonably high at Bến Thành compared to other markets in Ho Chi Minh City, probably because the majority of the visitors that head there are foreign tourists.
But if you’re willing to bargain hard, you can still score a great deal.
Never take the first price… Halve it and negotiate from there.
I noticed stallholders wouldn’t budge much on price when it came to ceramics and pottery. But for clothing and shoes – which are a dime a dozen throughout the market – prepare to have some fun.
If you’re determined to bag a bargain, never take the first price given to you. Instead, halve it and negotiate from there, although it really depends on the type of goods you’re after.
It’s worth pointing out that some sections of the market have fixed prices and they will not budge no matter how nice you seem. That’s because these stalls (where the vendors typically wear light blue button-up shirts) are government run.
Be sure to check out the live seafood market (above) where you’ll see bubbling vats of live fish, buckets of snails the size of your hand, as well as sting rays, shellfish and soft shell crabs.
The market is located in an alleyway outside the main building, just metres away from the meat section where the “nose to tail” philosophy is on full display.
The wet market is busiest in the morning and tends to shut down around midday.
By late afternoon, many stalls inside the market start to close and new stalls on the eastern and western perimeter outside begin to open.
The Bến Thành Night Market sells mostly food, clothes and accessories from 6 pm until midnight. The air is filled with the scent of barbecued meats, seafood and wok-fried noodles.
While the night market is worth a visit, be aware that fake and cheap products are widely sold there and tourists are often tricked into paying more than they should.
Bến Thành Market is located on Le Loi Street in District 1, in the centre of Hồ Chí Minh City.
The best time to visit is after 8am. Most stalls close by 6pm when the Night Market opens.
© 2020 BERNARD O’RIORDAN (TRAVEL INSTINCT). ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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