It’s not top of any must-do list in travel guides, but a visit to Hanoi’s chaotic Long Bien market is a fascinating exposure to the life of a large proportion of Hanoi residents. But you’ll need to get up early — very early.
Long Bien market, located next to Long Bien bridge, alongside the dyke road, is a fruit and vegetable wholesale market and is at its busiest in the very early hours of the morning, when stallholders from the local wet markets, restaurants and other businesses visit to stock up for the day. Fruit and vegetables come in from the Vietnamese countryside and from China, arriving in trucks from around 01:00. A drive or walk along Yen Phu — the main road — at any time between 01:00 and 06:00 will give you an insight into the life of the market, but to experience it in all its glory you’ll need to head on inside.
You may have visited a wet market in Vietnam before but Long Bien market is on a completely different level. At its peak, around 03:00, it is a heaving mass of activity: buyers crowd around open-back trucks, vying for a bargain; money counters hold court over their stalls, recording every sale; motorbikes weave down aisles, loaded with boxes and bags crammed with fruit; workers squat in front of huge baskets of fruit, sorting the good from the bad; and paths are blocked by carts competing with bicycles and shoppers, with neither willing to give way.
Being a night market also gives it a different vibe: vendors operate under fluorescent strip lights or single bulbs, bringing a eerie glow to the multitude of alleyways created by canvas and wooden makeshift dividers. As the sun comes up, the lights go off and daylight replaces artificial lighting. By 06:00, shoppers are replaced by a plethora of street cleaners, sweeping up the crushed packing material and squashed oranges, and vendors take a break for breakfast and to count the day’s takings.
Everywhere you look there is a treat for the senses at Long Bien. So visit, walk around, and find a spot to just watch — the time flies by.
As a final note, and without wishing to put a dampener on things, the market does have a darker side. Many of the workers, particularly the porters, have emigrated from surrounding rural areas to earn money to send home to poor families. For women, this means leaving children behind and relocating to a cramped, damp room, shared with others in the same situation. Pay is low, the work is hard and abuse is common.
A recent exhibition at the Women’s Museum — “Shining Night” — relayed the lives of migrant women (and men) working in Long Bien market through displays and personal stories. It’s no longer on display, but if you want to know more or contribute in any way you can visit Light’s website.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 29th January, 2015.