A market has many material, cultural and spiritual functions in Vietnamese life. Traditionally, ordinary people visit the market not just to shop but to travel beyond their village gate for a change of scene, to meet their friends and catch up, sitting outdoors and eating the crab noodle soup or the fried pancakes.
Long ago, most every village had its own small market. The action is at the much bigger and diverse district and provincial markets held on certain days like the first or fifteenth of every lunar month. Besides farm produce and daily consumer goods, a rural market houses tiny, simple eating places where old friends sit next to each other around a small open wood fire. Hot cooking pans simmer and are filled with light, tasty treats, such as the hot rice pancakes and the nutty rice savories.
Women especially love these cafes as they are ideal for meeting old friends, exchanging news and gossip. It’s a place to treat each other to delicious food and generally have a good, relaxing break from the daily grind. After shopping for the family and buying something for the kids, a country woman may think about treating herself to a simple yet tasty meal. It is her little holiday from the daily routine and responsibility of a wife and mother.
Realizing that women don’t have much money to splurge on eating out, the food stalls in a village market serve simple dishes to suit the average budget. These are light meals usually made from local ingredients such as rice flour, spring onions, nuts, green beans and coconut milk. Countryside cuisine is cheap, simple and yet unique. Many of their hot dishes are cooked by women in front of their customers’ eyes.
The cooking style in a village market reflects regional culinary habits. In the north, they pay more attention to the Yin and Yang, so they balance their dishes with herbs and vegetables. Not so along the central strip of Vietnam, where the preference is for strong and spicy flavors. And in the south, endowed with the wealth of the Mekong Delta, market folk add more fish and fruit to their cafe meals. Despite the culinary differences in Vietnam’s diverse geographical regions, most villagers of old sit down in a tiny, very low wooden or bamboo chair, or even no chair at all, and share a light meal with good friends they hadn’t seen for a long time.
Nowadays, after trying the Western fare at an expensive restaurant in town, many Vietnamese people go back to the country flavors of a Vietnamese restaurant where they can eat every week, or even every day. And it is not taste alone that draws them back; they are returning to themselves, to where they feel comfortable, to a rural memory that persists for life.