Vietnam wet markets can be tourism gems

January 27, 2024 | 04:00 pm PT
Nguyen Nam Cuong Lecturer
Korean people have a tip for traveling: tourists should not just look for Starbucks, they should instead go to traditional markets, which emit more of real life.

Imagine this conversation:

- You can totally sell this to me for 30 cents less.

- I can't. But I'll give you some extra vegetables

The music of bargaining will not be found anywhere else other than traditional markets.

A society's culture, how its people live, communicate, their character, are all profoundly revealed in these markets. Visiting such a market in the first days after moving to South Korea helped me integrate into life here more quickly. That is just one of the interesting things that traditional markets bring to buyers and tourists.

Like Vietnam and many countries with "wet market" culture in Asia, the Korean market has experienced several hardships. A few decades ago, the market was expected to be wiped out by supermarkets.

While trying to survive, small traders were hit hard by Covid-19. Markets, as crowded gathering point, carried negative connotations about the spread of the pandemic. Then the development of digital technology that has created a revolution in e-commerce sometimes makes Koreans think they might soon stop hearing the bustling sounds of wet market life.

But Koreans do not sit and watch their markets die. Traditional market traders have repeatedly protested to demand the government support their livelihoods. For quick comfort, the government reserved space in Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square for weekend traditional markets. The government also rules that, on market days (5 days a week), other forms of commerce must close by certain hours, or even on certain days, to help out small traders.

However, those solutions have caused a lot of controversy about fairness in business. Furthermore, they cannot solve the problem of other competition coming from electronic trading floors. Therefore, recently, the Seoul City government has begun to "rehabilitate merchants" as part of its efforts to restore markets associated with the history and traditions of Seoul, by connecting markets with tourism activities. They have selected businesspeople with good commercial hacks to share them with more than 13,000 traders at traditional markets.

These selected people guide market vendor with selling techniques, such as how to win customers' hearts in a way that pleases customers who come, and also pleases customers who leave. Along with that is the art of displaying goods. Like large supermarkets, they strategize on how to display items and revamp the space regularly to keep customers interested.

Each small trader also learns how to speak politely and courteously while doing business, they also practice cooperating with each other to woo customers to their traditional marketplaces.

Recently, I went to Jekidong market. It was truly different. Not only were the displays impressive, but the market also invested in decorating the ceiling with images of Seoul to help visitors better understand the history of the market in this over-600-year-old capital city.

Two foreigners shop at the traditional market in Da Nang, June 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Two foreigners shop at a traditional market in Da Nang, June 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Showing off its wet markets as a tourism product is now a significant aim for the country.

Traditional festivals have been recreated at these markets and have gradually created a regular flow of tourists to such traditional markets. The Odae Rice Festival in Cheorwon, Geumsan's ginseng market are some successful models.

Vietnam, according to data from the Ministry of Industry and Trade in 2022, has more than 8,500 traditional markets, circulating 35-40% of all goods in the country

According to a survey by Nielsen, Vietnam has about 1.4 million grocery stores and 9,000 traditional markets, with revenue of around US$10 billion per year. Traditional markets are considered to be dying due to the competition of e-commerce and modern retail models. The challenge is that with 74% of people using the Internet, Vietnam has about 59-62 million consumers shopping online and the shopping value of each person is estimated at about $300-320/year. The percentage of Internet users who shop online for goods weekly in Vietnam is above 60%, lower than Thailand's 66.8% and South Korea's 65.6%, but higher than the global average of 57.6%, also according to Nielsen.

The weakening of traditional markets, in the long run, will cause millions of unskilled workers to lose their jobs, causing a burden on the welfare of the whole society.

Similar to Korea, Thailand also seeks to revive its wet market culture by making it a tourism product. For example, Chatuchak market traders in Bangkok always keep up with food and fashion trends in Japan and Korea - their main customer segment. The 9,000 stalls here always have a wide range of products at reasonable prices, and are a nightlife paradise for tourists.

I have seen efforts made by Vietnamese markets to survive. Recently, the "squat market" of Vi Thanh City, Hau Giang, in the Mekong Delta has promoted its "squatting traders" feature to attract the curiosity of tourists and photographers. Merchants at An Dong market in Ho Chi Minh City have created a "hybrid platform," combining on-site and online shopping by livestreaming sales and shipping directly to their customers.

But that alone is not enough to compete with retail and e-commerce channels that are changing every day. Traditional markets have their own advantages that other sales channels do not have, such as: fresh food, local specialties, freedom of choice, and most especially cultural experiences and lively vibes...

Compared to many countries, the Vietnamese markets still have many weaknesses such as goods of unknown origin, poor quality, exorbitant prices, poor food safety, and rude communication with customers.

In the struggle to escape the gloomy situation, traditional markets in Vietnam first help its traders improve their service quality. Then a new strategy from the government is needed to turn wet markets into a unique experience, which will not only ensure traders' livelihood but also help diversify tourist destinations.

*Nguyen Nam Cuong is a lecturer at FPT University.

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