The market beyond the hedge

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"Most villages had a place set aside for an outdoor market, usually located outside the bamboo hedge that defined the village proper. This symbolized the low status of commerce, which was usually reserved for women and foreigners."

Neil Jamieson - "˜Understanding Vietnam'

This estrogen-powered market in District 5 connects Phung Hung and Chau Van Liem streets under a tunnel of umbrellas.

The Phung Hung Market operates seven days a week beneath a canopy of thick umbrellas.

The dark tunnel begins at a KFC on Chau Van Liem and Lao Tu streets in District 5 and snakes through an alley flanked by old apartments, where siblings wander the stairwells holding hands.

The market itself seems entirely closed off from both the city and the world.

The vendors wedge plastic and cardboard between the umbrellas above and the sewer drains below.

No rats or sunshine allowed.

For the past three decades, a tight crew of women has gathered here every morning to exchange gossip, haggle and tease one another throughout the morning. Some are lean and sinewy. Others have big shoulders and round bellies.

Every day, they put on a shrill modern opera"”a fierce chorus of jokes, lottery bets and sales pitches sung over the mechanical gurgle of aerated fish tubs and overloaded Honda cubs.

All come to work in patterned pajamas; their only prop is a fat roll of bank notes.

These ladies seem nearly ecstatic in this husbandless playground, which sits at the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's Chinese enclave.

Which seems slightly ironic.

The market gets its name from Phung Hung Street, which forms its western border. The street was named after the Vietnamese general who seized control of China's southernmost protectorate (Vietnam) during the eighth century, only to die a month later.

The bún mắm served in front of 52 Lao Tu Street contains everything you need to haggle and hock your way through a hot morning. The earlier you arrive, the more you get.

The Chinese spent nearly a millenium putting down Vietnamese rebellions and beating the relatively equitable gender relations out of Vietnam and hammering Confucianism into everyone's head.

Women lost land rights and significant power under their rule.

But, because Confucianism held domestic commerce in low esteem, women continue to rule the markets.

The handful of men who work here remain quietly aloof and Phung Hung feels less like a place to shop than a rebel redoubt.

While foreigners may have, at some point, joined women in these places, I felt like a mark here"”at once welcome and useless. Thankfully, a veteran shopper invited me to a bowl of bún mắm in the center of the action.

One of the joys of escaping the home is the chance to dine on things that stink, crawl or wiggle. Not surprisingly, seasoned shoppers at Phung Hung delight in the fermented fiat of a soup so pungent, it makes bún riêu seem like a Cup-o-Noodles.

Bún mắm allegedly came from the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang, where Khmer, Chinese and Vietnamese communities have intermingled for centuries.

Its not inconceivable that bún mắm was hatched in a Soc Trang market by Vietnamese women trading with Chinese pork sellers and Khmer fish fermenters.

Two ladies sell the wild soup at Phung Hung, but the cart operating in front of number 52 Lao Tu has served it for decades.

Ms. Tu and Ms. Quyen act as the kitchen's flirty sentinels. With broad smiles and sly winks, they take orders for the cook, who stays busy in the back.

I ordered "everything," but "everything" at number 52 changes throughout the day. At 10 a.m., it meant peeled shrimp, fried fish balls and catfish strips, some chopped pork belly and ribbons of green onion.

For the person who ordered twenty seconds before me, it included a slice of steamed squid.

The star of the soup was a red chili pepper stuffed with pork pie.

Ms. Quyen fanned me kindly as the pepper took hold, sending streaks of sweat down my face, and decided she would bet on my birthday digits.

I was grateful for her mercy. And for my bún mắm.

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