MaryAnne Shults's Blog

March 6, 2011

To market, to market, to buy a fat hog

The scene was surreal as we sauntered down the muddy street in Bac Kan, Vietnam. A scene some will only witness in National Geographic. Although temperate, the air was humid from the mist in the air from the previous night’s light rain. In the distance, as if trying to hide in the fog, loom sharply pointed mountains covered with thick jungle foliage.

The Market in Bac Kan, VietnamFast food, Vietnam style. People shop at the market without getting off their motorbikes to grab a live chicken or fish and fresh vegetables for that night's dinner.

The homes are all three- or four-multi-story, yet only about 12 square feet each. Tall and thin. Various shades of colors, from pastels to mustard yellows to bright teal, seem to climb into the sky, towering like a circus acrobat on stilts. Each has some type of store front – be it a beauty salon or a small market with its wares spilling out onto the sidewalk. Some are karaoke bars with individual stalls for friends to try out their hand at Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as if it was the latest Top 40.

The evening prior, the same walk was completely different. Where an hour before, each building housed a family as well as a self-contained commercial venture- a big screen television illuminating the teak and mahogany entertainment center in a room showing the latest popular television shows. The front doors still wide open as men and women gather, perhaps for an after dinner beer or a game of checkers or just to check out the pale-skinned Americans now wandering through streets unaccustomed to faces they’ve only seen on a TV or movie screen.

Walking a bit further down the street and turning the corner, suddenly the streets are filled with endless booths selling brightly colored fruits like pinkish-red spiked dragon fruit, oranges, mangoes and apples. Nearby are handmade shallow baskets offering vegetables and herbs. The carrots are the size of turnips. Through a translator, I discovered most of the fruits and vegetables are imported from China.

Pig snouts for sale in the market.Pig snouts for sale in the market

In this part of the world, supermarkets are rare. One buys food for his or her family each day. Nothing is wasted. A young woman on a motorbike stops to inspect a bamboo cage full of hens, selecting one. The vendor binds up its legs and off she rides, a few bags of vegetables on the foot boards. This will be dinner tonight.

Further down the row, large wide buckets show off fresh fish, eels and turtles, swimming over each other in haste, seemingly knowing their fate is to be one’s nourishment in a few hours.

Deeper inside the market, young women and their mothers squat, hunched down in what appears a stance impossible to maintain, but native and comfortable for the very young as well as the very old. One family is selling pork including everything from the pigs’ snouts to their feet. To burn off any leftover fine hairs, she blanches the meat with a butane torch.

Before returning to the hotel, we stop for a few loaves of hot, fresh French bread. The insides are soft and seem to melt in your mouth while the outside crust is flaky and golden. Amazed and intimidated by all that is new, this small treat provides the comforts of home.