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A Hanoi wet market at the crossroads of modernity

By Bao Yen   June 12, 2017 | 12:00 am GMT+7
A Hanoi wet market at the crossroads of modernity
A vendor at Chau Long Market. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

Chau Long Market's days are feared numbered in the age of supermarkets.

It is one of the last remaining traditional markets in the capital, where traces of the past can still be spotted on the decaying walls and corroded rooftop. Chau Long Market stands in stark contrast to the surrounding urban residences and bustling streets, right in the heart of Hanoi.

For some 200 vendors here, the future of their beloved workplace is bleak.

Dung, one of them, has been here almost every day since 1975. She used to sell vegetables for coupons after the war. Then the subsidy period ended and family businesses were authorized to work on their own. She started selling dried goods which she still picks up from Dong Xuan Market today – rice, eggs, nuts, fish sauce, oil and other cooking ingredients.

“Business has been slowing down lately,” she said. “Since the sidewalk cleanup campaign began, officials have been coming to check on us every day and we have to move all our stuff inside. It’s a real hassle in this burning weather.”

The rise of supermarkets and grocery stores has created huge obstacles for traditional markets like Chau Long, which are struggling to thrive in a constantly changing city. Then there is competition from the pop-up, grassroots cho coc – small street side markets that serve their neighborhood.

According to government estimates, there are currently about 9,000 traditional wet markets, 800 supermarkets, 160 shopping malls and 1.3 million small mom-and-pop stores nationwide.

Urban plans drawn up to completely renovate Hanoi’s traditional markets envision them being transformed into modern shopping malls. The goal is to have 1,000 supermarkets to cater for a population of 10 million in the city.

Chau Long, whose last renovation was in 1998, could have already become one of those shiny shopping centers.

In 2014, the city announced a plan to transform it, under the same modernization campaign that had seen three other famous markets – Mo, Hang Da and Cua Nam – morph into half-market, half-mall versions of themselves.

But when Chau Long vendors saw that the transformation did not help their peers elsewhere, whose sales reportedly plummeted, they put up a fight to keep their market.

Cautionary tales could be found in Hang Da, where the city’s vision for modernity has brought major changes.

Once known as a wholesale and retail market for fabrics and clothes, Hang Da has seen a major decline in business since its makeover in 2007. The open air, where the vendors could move around freely their old ways of peddling and haggling, has gone. Now the market is hemmed in by concrete walls in the basement of a high-end shopping center.

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The once open-air Hang Da Market is now in the basement of a multi-purpose shopping mall. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

There are currently 600 vendors in Hang Da Market who rely on frequent customers to keep their businesses afloat.

Even after managing to secure a place in the basement as part of a deal offered when the new center was built, the battle for survival continues for these vendors.

But the figures are not all doom and gloom.

A report released earlier this year by Nielsen shows that the majority of Vietnamese people still prefer wet markets to grocery stores, convenience stores and supermarkets.

Hanoians love going to the market. It’s a habit that runs through generations and carries with it some significant cultural and social values.

The Vietnamese are used to buying fresh produce from either wet markets or the impromptu cho coc markets, said Nguyen Tuan Minh, a researcher and expert on street vendors in Vietnam.

The term “wet market” is an apt way of describing the freshness of these places.

Going to a traditional Vietnamese market means embarking on a sensory experience that exists nowhere else: the overwhelming smells of aromas and dry ingredients, of fish swimming in tanks, of meat being butchered early in the morning, the sounds of knives clapping on wooden counters, the wet touch of fresh vegetables dripping with water, the taste of diverse street dishes made right on the spot, and the colorful sight of fruit vendors and their stalls.

The local markets are also where people can catch up and exchange news; where vendors know their customers so well they can talk about each other’s families and work, or simply pass the time of day.

“Vietnamese people buy fresh groceries a few times per day, which is very different from other countries where people go to the supermarket maybe once or twice per week. Wet markets are also more convenient because people don't have to park their bikes in order to buy food,” Minh said.

“Shopping at wet markets is also matter of economics, given the average income of Vietnamese,” he said.

It remains to be seen if traditional markets can actually survive the onslaught of supermarkets, especially those run by foreign retailers that are known for aggressive pricing.

Back at Chau Long, some vendors are still confident they have their own clientele, at least for now.

“Rich people go to supermarkets, poor people go to street vendors, and the middle-class come here, to Chau Long,” said a vegetables seller who asked not to be named. “I think there is a specific class categorization here.”

It would be impossible to completely eradicate traditional wet markets from Hanoi, said Minh, the researcher.

“The transformation needs to take into consideration various factors such as local culture, consumer demands and urban planning,” he added.

Within the shrinking community of vendors in Chau Long, everybody knows each other.

There is a bond that connects the vendors, the majority of whom have been working here for decades.

“Our lives are here, we know each other well. I know most of my clients,” said Viet, a pork vendor at Chau Long.

Vendors at Chau Long Market. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

Vendors at Chau Long Market. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

Over the last 35 years, she has always started her day at 4 a.m. at an abattoir to pick up fresh pork. Then she comes to Chau Long and works until 7 p.m., when the market closes.

There’s a strange, almost mystical, tale of how Chau Long Market rose up next two graves.

It’s believed that a long time ago, the families of the departed allowed the market’s first vendors to use the sacred ground around the graves to sell their wares. 

Little is known about the dead  –  who they were, how they passed or any specific reason why they were buried here. But it has become an untold tradition for the vendors at Chau Long to light incense and pay their respect.

Standing before the gravestones, they pray for a future of good health and prosperity.The families of the dead were said to have allowed the market’s first vendors to use the sacred ground around the graves to sell their wares.

Every first day of the lunar month, the families would come to pay tribute to their ancestors. Little is known about the two graves — who they were, the stories behind them or why they are here, but it has become an untold tradition for vendors at Chau Long to light incense and pray at the gravestones, wishing for good health and prosperity.