Ben Thanh Market is one of Saigon’s icons and forms the heart of downtown District 1, bustling with activity from early morning until late at night.
The market has existed for quite some time in one fashion or another. The current location, renovated in 1985, was the site of another relocated market, called Les Halles Centrales by the French. It stood next to the Citadel of Saigon next to the Ben Nghe River but when the French invaded, the market was destroyed and rebuilt, then eventually moved to where Ben Thanh is today.
Although the market is not the biggest in the city — that would be the Binh Tay in Cholon — it certainly occupies a large area in the heart of Saigon and operates also as a transport hub: the intersection in front of the market, where Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao and Le Lai all meet in a roundabout is also home to a bus station; this is a great spot to watch some of the city’s insane traffic.
Inside Ben Thanh you can find nearly anything your heart desires. In the front you’ll find a mixture of knockoff designer goods, like shirts, purses and shoes, as well as a healthy number of 24-hour tailors and fabrics. The stalls in this area are packed together particularly tight and as you squeeze through you may be grabbed by people working at the booths trying to sell to you. When you finally pass through the clothes, you will find yourself looking at a variety of souvenirs, including lacquer art, framed paintings, local handicrafts, key chains and nodding golden cats.
After halfway point, the market’s focus shifts to food. You’ll be able to sample a large selection of local fruits, dried meats and fresh coffee. Several food vendors have also set up shop in the market, making it an easy spot for you try a variety of popular street food dishes. At the rear, a wet market sells fresh produce, meat and fish from morning till around lunchtime.
Shopping inside the market will require you to practise the art of bargaining and, as they commonly deal with unsuspecting tourists, the vendors at Ben Thanh are pros. A common practice is to inflate prices to double or triple their actual value, meaning you must work the price down to get a reasonable deal. A quick tip in bargaining at Ben Thanh is to cruise the outer ring of the market, where all stalls are fixed priced and most items are actually marked with a price tag. This will give you a good idea of what a moderate price will be when you go inside to haggle.
After the market closes at around 17:00, the area drops into a short, quiet lull until a mad dash of vendors begin setting up a night market on the two streets next to Ben Thanh. Officially starting at 19:00, the night market at Ben Thanh also sells some of the same goods you’ll find inside during the day, but its main attraction is food and beer. Both reasonably priced, the night market is a great, inexpensive way to spend an evening in Saigon.
The market’s popularity does come with a price: the steady stream of shoppers coupled with the market’s narrow alleys creates a perfect opportunity for pickpockets. While the thievery is by no means at epidemic proportions, if you’re walking through keep good care of your belongings and remember to brush up on your pickpocket safety tips. Keeping your bags in front of you, not carrying things in your back pocket and not wearing flashy accessories should keep you out of most trouble.
By Max Murta
Last updated on 24th July, 2014.