Hanoi’s notorious black market, where anything goes

Don't expect a receipt if you're looking to buy anything from this market.

Most Hanoians would be flummoxed if you asked them where Hoa Binh Market is, but if you asked them about Chợ Giời, it would be a different story.

The name Chợ Giời tells a story itself as its earliest vendors used to gather in an open-air spot to sell pretty much everything they owned, hence the name “Giời”, meaning sky, God and outdoors in Vietnamese.

The market is believed to have opened in 1955 on the corner of two streets, but since then it has expanded to more than four streets and two big alleys along the busy thoroughfares of Hue and Hang Bai.

In Chợ Giời, vendors sell everything from car parts and metal springs to TV remotes. Some old, some new, some possibly stolen. The majority of the goods are mechanical items, and here you can find the tiniest screwdrivers to rare 1980's amplifiers all under the same roof.

Chợ Giời was one of the longest-standing impromptu markets in Hanoi.

Vendors on Tran Cao Van street sell mainly mechanical items.

“In its early days, it [Chợ Giời] was an impromptu market where people from all over came to sell their stuff,” said a dealer selling mechanical items on Yen Bai 2 Street, who wished to remain anonymous. “I was born and raised here, and as a child, I used to see the police coming with their dogs and chasing traders.”

During that time, it was mostly secondhand goods for sale, from clothing and electronics, to household appliances.

There were no stalls or kiosks, and people “were literally standing or squatting on the ground with shirts for sale on one shoulder and trousers on another,” added the dealer on Yen Bai Street. “They just wanted to sell anything they had.” It's not like that anymore, as many vendors who struggled to sell clothing have switched to selling mechanical items now. 

Many vendors have been working at the market for more than 30 years. "A lot of them have left," said Dao, 55 years old.

Following the war and the subsidy period, Chợ Giời was split down into different departments. Yen Bai 2 Street was known for its CDs and DVDs  —  before the Internet and Youtube changed all that. Nguyen Cong Tru Street draws vendors selling LEDs, bulbs and lighting devices, and there are also rows selling car parts, motorbike parts, household appliances and secondhand goods.

“[In Vietnamese], we call it 'buôn có bạn, bán có phường', or birds of a feather flock together,” said Dao, a 55-year-old vendor.

The market had its heyday in the 1990s, Dao added, but after Doi Moi — Vietnam’s economic reform in 1986—  small businesses in Chợ Giời found themselves lagging behind the country’s development.

“Before there were no electrical shops and department stores, and we were the only suppliers,” Dao said, pointing at his table covered in screws, studs and bolts. “At the time, people from other provinces would come to Hanoi to buy these mechanical components from us, but now the factories can deliver them straight to their doors.”

But Chợ Giời is infamous for another reason. Anyone living in Hanoi knows this is where you can buy pretty much anything.

The market is known for selling stolen goods, notably motorbike and car accessories such as mirrors, wheels and rims.

The cost of secondhand or stolen goods is usually 30–40 percent cheaper than normal market prices. According to some vendors, while most of their goods come from China, others come from various unknown sources, both real and fake, and many customers are unable to tell the difference at first glance.

A few years back, local authorities reportedly confiscated various stolen goods, but despite regular checks, the trade goes on.

Chợ Giời remains unique nonetheless. Its cramped, bleak alleyways and enigmatic ambiance have made it one of the most talked about markets in Hanoi. “Few years ago, parents would even warn their children not to come here,” said a vendor selling bootleg music discs on Yen Bai 2 Street. “I don’t know where that came from." 

Thanh, the owner of a bootleg disc store, said her business has been really difficult over the past few years because of Internet and Youtube. Her loyal customers are middle-aged Vietnamese, who would come for the "quality music". Dao added that her best-selling music genre is the Vietnamese sentimental music.

The majority of stuff sold at Chợ Giời are mechanical items, which come from various sources, mainly China.

The market is a big complex, which consists of both shops and houses. The vendors here use the front part of their house for business.

A vendor selling motorbike parts on Thinh Yen Street. The market is divided into different sections: car parts, motorbike parts, household appliances, secondhand goods and more.

A mechanic and auto repair shop on Thinh Yen Street.

Despite the notoriety, Chợ Giời remains a very unique market in Hanoi.

Story and photos by Bao Yen. 

By Bao Yen