While a visit to Saigon wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the popular Ben Thanh Market, it’s by no means an easy place to navigate. Here’s a guide to help you find what you’re looking for, from T-shirts to pho to fresh meat.
With little signage available to direct you through the market’s interior, once you walk inside Ben Thanh you are mostly on your own. From the front entrance, you can divide the market into six general sections, four areas in the market’s main hall divided by large walkways that converge in the centre of Ben Thanh, a separated outer ring of stalls, and a wet market in the rear. Each separated area in the main hall will contain a different set of merchandise.
The area to the front right of the entrance is where you want to go if you’re looking for clothes. Here the majority of stalls sell designer knock-off shirts, jeans and jackets as well as a choice of tourist T-shirts with clever slogans reimagined for Vietnam, like iPho. This area is particularly notorious for tight corridors between stalls that make you get up close and personal with the people working them. The deeper you go, the closer things seem to get to the point where you can expect to be physically grabbed by vendors as you pass their displays. Pay extra close attention to your valuables here.
To the front left you’ll find your accessories, including knock-off handbags, backpacks and shoes. This is also the section where you will find more traditional souvenirs, like lacquer art, hand-made lanterns and chopstick dining sets. While designer copies are everywhere to be found, digging a little deeper here will lead you to some interesting stalls selling items such as waterproof bags and full blown works of art.
In the back left you’ll find food. This is where you’d want to go if you’re interested in sampling local fruit as vendors will set up shop on the floor, putting on a display for tourists passing by. Here you can also find local coffee, which is available in many varieties for purchase by the kilo. A number of stalls selling dried foods also call this area home, selling both dried fruits and meats, all of which produce a strong smell.
The back left of the market would be considered the food court. A good spot for breakfast and lunch, you can find almost any street food or drink you’d want to try, from the standard pho or banh mi, to local favourites banh cuon and bun thit nuong. Prices here are more than what you’d find on a given street in Saigon, at around 40,000 VND a plate, but they are still quite inexpensive considering you’re basically in the city’s biggest tourist trap. This is also whereyou’d go if you want a cold drink.
Inside the outer ring you will find a variety of stalls selling a wide range of the same items you’ll find inside. These stalls are fixed priced, meaning that unlike the interior of Ben Thanh the items have marked prices. This doesn’t mean that you won’t get the occasional offer of a better deal but, for the most part, the price you see is the price you pay; even if you want to go inside and do some hardcore bargaining taking an inventory of prices at fixed priced stalls can give you a good idea for a starting point for your negotiations.
In the rear of Ben Thanh you will find a wet market selling fresh meat, fish and flowers. Walk through the crowds and gaze at large fish being kept fresh in large metal bowls while large chunks of meat are chopped off full pig bodies. Extra busy in the early hours of the morning, toward midday things begin to close up. Even if you miss the early festivities, you’ll be able to find fresh flowers here as long as the market is open.
By Max Murta
Last updated on 2nd October, 2014.