“Hello sir, hello miss! Want some noodles?” was the cry that I repeatedly heard at the Ben Thanh street food market in downtown HCM City last week.
Opened last year, the market’s many food kiosks and two indoor eating areas have achieved quite a reputation within a short time.
While Asian food is the specialty, European foods are also on offer at the market, which has a busy but orderly air. Unlike other street markets, customers receive a number and wait in turn for their dish.
Though it may sound suspiciously like a shopping-centre food court, it was anything but sterile. Lively, noisy and aromatic were terms that immediately came to mind when I entered the area.
I arrived at the peak hour of 8pm, and chose steamed sticky rice with grilled pork and vegetables.
It was the good smelling of the pork cooking nearby that whetted my appetite, and I couldn’t wait to take my first bite. The verdict? Very tasty and reasonably priced at VND76,000 (US$3).
Despite serving dishes from other countries, including Singaporean frog porridge and Korean tokbokki, I could see that most tourists were enjoying Vietnamese traditional dishes such as pho (noodle soup), banh xeo (crêpe) and spring rolls, among others.
While the market is popular with foreign tourists, locals like the place too. They come to enjoy the food and atmosphere, and to laugh and chat amid the sound of different languages mixed with music.
It’s a place where you want to linger.
As night falls, night markets in all of the city’s 24 districts become as bustling as Ben Thanh, if not busier.
Wandering into Market 200 in District 4’s Xom Chieu Ward, for example, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of dishes offered there.
Unlike the international offerings at the Ben Thanh, these sellers only cook typical Vietnamese snacks and main dishes, including soup, noodles, porridge, sticky rice, fried banana, egg cakes, puddings and fresh spring rolls.
Though customers, both local and foreign, come here to soak up the evening atmosphere and just hang out and relax, the dishes at this market are especially good.
Fried banana, a bowl of crab and salty-egg soup were cheaper here (VND10,000 to 20,000) than at Ben Thanh. Hot soya, caramel cake and many kinds of sweet gruel were also tasty.
In addition, if you want to have something more traditional and hot, there is an area famous for sui cao (wonton) on Ha Ton Quyen Street in District 5. Food stands and shops that may be of interest are Ngoc Y and 162 eateries.
During my visit to Ben Thanh Market, I met Sylvia and Ewa of the Netherlands, who were on a two-week vacation. They told me that the food was delicious and described the market’s atmosphere as “fantastic”.
Besides foreigners, HCM City residents also frequent the markets, but unlike residents in other cities, many locals like to eat out in the evenings.
“Staying at home alone after work is boring. I often call my best friend to eat out. A night food market is an ideal option,” Phuong Trinh, 24, a sales executive in the City, told me at the Market 200.
As I was eating at a soup eatery one night, I realised why night markets have remained popular over the years.
A middle-aged man, Quang Hai, of District 3, who was sitting next to me, said: “I used to eat this dish a long time ago. Now I really miss the taste, so I come to District 5 to eat even though it’s far from my house”.