Europe taught us that markets are the beating heart of local life. Even when those markets are gussied up for tourists, just watching a basket-laden grandmother haggle for mussels in Normandy cleaves one into the cultural and food traditions of this specific town square in these specific verdantly draped hills. In Asia we found every aspect of daily life to be in technicolor—brighter, more colorful, louder, more extreme. And this was especially so in the marketplace.
As with anywhere in the world, the only way to really understand a place is to connect with her people. Markets are an opportunity for that engagement. But here's the place where market-going in Asia is particularly important—by admiring products and purchasing a bag of mangosteens and rambutans, you let the locals know that you are not there to gaze imperiously from a distance. The instant you have a bag of lychees in your hand, the rest of the market opens up—vendors lose their hesitant attitude and instead, smile openly.
I hope you enjoy this stroll through southeast Asian markets. If you do, leave me a comment or share on social media!
Markets in Bangkok were much like we would've imagined—tables heaped with unusual foods. fruits that look they were designed by a higher being on an acid trip, jasmine garlands for draping on shrines that perfumed the chaotic streets, and banana-leaf wrapped packages of rice and filling. Our favorites were mangosteens and rambutans, and we carted them around everywhere we went for a quick hit of crisply floral flavor (rambutans were especially prized for their easy peeling). In many ways, Bangkok makes an ideal entry point for a first timer visiting Asia, and the markets are reflective of that. Different, but not extravagantly so.
Hanoi markets were to Bangkok as Bangkok is to Italy. As wild and crazy as we found Bangkok, Hanoi concentrated that intensity and then exploded it all over the streets. No more tables for markets, produce was perched on the backs of bicycles, carried on baskets shouldered on sticks by conical-hat-wearing women, and looped around the ground surrounded almost every doorway. Here we saw eels in buckets, men grinding small (and live) crabs into paste, and piles of greens taller than Gabe. Alleyways that could barely fit two of us walking hand-in-hand were lined on both sides with women hacking fish and the largest cucumbers we'd ever seen, as well as scooters beeping their way through the crowd or stopping to grab a bag of blood cockles. Every stoop was a market, every foyer a butcher shop—I've never been to a city that so completely centers its economy around food.
Here's where the marketing gets real. Tourists are unusual at the morning market in Luang Prabang, or at least that's how I'd interpret the surprise on vendors' faces as I made my solitary way through the market one morning after the sunrise offering of alms to the monks. Plus there's the fact that though we saw plenty of white faces strolling the streets of Luang Prabang, we saw virtually none in the marketplace. This town is a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to the preservation of its unique Lao architecture with French colonial styles and also the richness of its temple structures. The town is so full of temples that the morning market abuts two of them. It's a gorgeous town and a haven for expats, and yet... no tourists at the morning market (plenty at the evening market which is a destination for unique textiles and souvenirs). Maybe they are scared off by the twitching frogs impaled on sticks bundled together like lollipops, or the grubs that Keith saw one local swipe and pop straight into his mouth to the ranting of the Lao vendor, or the wooden bucket of water bugs to add dimension to sauces. It's too bad, in an increasingly Westernized town like Luang Prabang, the traditions of food culture should be savored. Even if you won't savor the water bugs.