Normally, in our digital nomad lives, I would never wander into a Vietnamese wet market a few days before Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year celebration. But, after joining our cooking class at the Hanoi Cooking Centre, we toured the nearby Chau Long market. Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed myself.
Chau Long Market is a “wet market,” or a traditional food market, where people shop for their everyday foods. A wet market is the opposite of a market that sells clothes or toys or other products. The term wet market can also refer to the fact that I have yet to walk through one where the floor was not wet, from constant rinsing of food remnants. It is often, not a pretty sight.
I love food markets in Europe, and markets like Santa Catarina Market in Barcelona or the Mercato Albinelli in Modena are simply stunning to walk through, to experience. Everything all clean, and orderly, with lovely lighting, and foods often in a ready to eat form.
But wet markets in Southeast Asia are totally different. They are an assault on the senses. Chau Long Market in Hanoi was no different. Low ceilings, narrow walk ways, poor lighting, it was just like so many other wet markets in Southeast Asia.
Being Intimidated by Chau Long Market
Chau Long Market is located just north of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, just off of Truc Bac Lake. We had spent a few days in the neighborhood at a friend’s apartment, and had walked passed the market several times. Our pho shop and cafe were just a stone’s throw away, at the edge of market, and facing the lake.
Every time I walked past Chau Long Market, though, it looked intimidating. I knew if I followed the narrow and darkened alleys into the market, I would find a traditional wet market. I knew the familiar sites and sounds, and most importantly smells, that would greet me.
Exploring the Unique Foods of Chau Long Market
I knew I would see the rows of fresh vegetables and fruits, rows of fresh, recently butchered meat, and chopped up bits of fish, all the foods that form the basis of the Vietnamese diet.
But, when we walked into Chau Long Market in our little tour group, I somehow felt different. Several of the people on the group had never been to a market like this one. They stepped precariously through, trying to avoid the pre-Tet shoppers, who pulled their motorbikes directly up to the stalls, despite there being no room to maneuver around them. They stared at strange vegetables, offal including coagulated blood and intestines, and fish heads. They watched sellers killing frogs to make one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, frog with chili and lemongrass. They watched another woman let the blood out of a just killed chicken.
I generally do not visit wet markets in Asia, because to some extent I have felt like I have seen too many. I know the drill. But, walking through the market on the tour with Hanoi Cooking Centre was similar to walking through a wet market in Bangkok on our Taste of Thailand Food Tour. I walked in with an expert, who showed me ingredients, and answered my questions about foods I was unfamiliar with. I got to see just how they store, kill, and clean the frog for the dish I love so much. It made some people on the tour a little squeamish, but I enjoyed knowing exactly where my food comes from. It makes me appreciate it even more.
And, Chau Long Market, on this day, just before Tet, was also different because of the energy in the air. It was like walking down Michigan Ave just before Christmas. Well, same same but different. Less Tiffany’s and more cow guts, but you get the picture. People were excited, people were breathing in the anticipation of the impending holiday, the biggest of the Vietnamese year.
On this day, I was glad that I was not spending the day in the apartment, working on my website or working with Eric on his business. I was happy to be a tourist for the day, instead of a digital nomad. I was happy to have experienced Chau Long Market at the most interesting time of year.
We were supported by Buffalo Tours in this fabulous foodie experience in Hanoi, but as always my opinions are my own. A cooking class in Hanoi, including the market tour, with Buffalo Tours starts from around $75, not including transfers.
For more tips about eating in Vietnam, check out our Southeast Asia Food Guide.