If you’re going to visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Vietnam for that matter, your visit will not be complete without visiting a local market. When people talk about markets in Saigon though, all of the love goes to the Ben Thanh market. Don’t get me wrong; Ben Thanh is a great place to go if you want to get knockoff designer goods or swarmed by people trying to sell you hammocks. Personally, I think that markets that aren’t catered to selling ‘I Heart Pho’ T-shirts to tourists give you a better example of what a Vietnamese market is truly like; that’s why my favourite market in the city is Binh Tay market in Cholon.
Binh Tay market, located on the edge of District 6 in Saigon’s Chinatown (or Cholon), is situated between Thap Muoi and Phan Van Khoe Streets, just a 15-minute motorbike ride from the centre of District 1. Here you will find two storeys of shopping built more for a Vietnamese local and less for a tourist. The first thing you’ll notice compared to its more famous counterpart is its size, which dwarfs that of Ben Thanh, and makes it the largest in the city. Inside, instead of shops for single purchases, many stalls cater to those looking to buy in bulk. In fact, many Vietnamese who operate stalls at markets in other parts of the city come here to buy their supplies. This is why I suggest getting here early as it is the best time to watch the locals buy their goods.
I think Binh Tay is one of the nicest places to take a walk in the entire city and it’s easy to let time slip by here. The market is sectional, so one corner is where you will find household items and another will be the home of make-up and beauty products. When you’re looking for something you’re bound to find it in abundance.
If you get tired from your walk, in the centre of the market there is a courtyard that is a perfect spot to take a break from the shopping and relax in the peaceful garden. The centre of the courtyard is home to a large stone plaque and altar in memoriam to Thong Hiep, a Chinese businessman credited with starting the market. A rags to riches story, Thong grew from poverty to become the market’s main financier. Before the current altar, there used to be a life-sized bronze statue of the man that was removed and now resides in Ho Chi Minh’s Fine Art Museum.
If you’re looking for more than just a quick sit, and you want to recharge your batteries to continue exploring the market, several food stalls should revive you. Besides having some of the usual Vietnamese street food dishes, at Binh Tay you can also try some more Chinese-inspired street fair as well as some of the city’s best banh bao, a Vietnam favourite inspired by the Chinese.
Binh Tay is off the beaten path a bit, and it is a bit of a drive from downtown, but it’s definitely a place to see something more unique than the more popular markets. Although it may not be the best place in town to actually make a purchase, in the long run I think the memory of seeing this large market during its peak business hour will stay with me a little longer than a fake Prada handbag. But, who am I to judge, I have both!
By Angela Schonberg
Last updated on 18th September, 2014.