Migrants in Saigon, former name of Ho Chi Minh City but still popular now, have ‘imported’ products unique to northern Vietnam to this southern city, catering for the nostalgic needs of the northerner community.
The so-called ‘Cho Bac,’ or North Markets, can be found in several neighborhoods around town.
Migrants from the North make up a large proportion of the population in Ho Chi Minh City, bringing with them a variety of northern traditions, customs, and certainly businesses and products.
Cho Bac are preferable shopping options for this community.
Here they find not just the items they need, but also a touch of their homeland, located more than 1,600km away.
The foods, fruits, ingredients, and items for sale at these open markets are reminiscent of their old days.
The downtown ‘North Street’
“You can easily tell if a market is owned by a northern migrant,” said 62-year-old Dao Trong Hung, a northerner who has lived in Saigon for more than 40 years.
“They will display all kinds of peanut confectionery, glass noodles, jars of sour cabbage, and Vietnamese eggplants.”
He frequents a ‘North Street’ located on Chu Manh Trinh Street in District 1, with a range of food stalls resembling the genuine northern market style.
Here buyers can find finely-shaped square rice cakes, bunches of glass noodles, bags of Tam Xoan rice, a type of rice peculiar to the northern region, as well as rich golden pomelos.
Another patron, Nguyen Thi Vuong, a 65-year-old resident in District 1, comes around looking for special dried bamboo shoots from the northwest mountains, the scent mushrooms from the highlands of Sa Pa, and some rounded Vietnamese onions.
Despite having lived half her life in Saigon, Vuong is still only in love with northern dishes.
The ‘North Street’ really sells like hot cakes, according to 60-year-old Nguyen Thi Kim Lien.
This is especially true to choosy northerners who pick every single ingredient of their different purposes.
The Tam Xoan rice from Nam Dinh Province is best for daily meals, but for ancestral worship offerings they will purchase a particular sticky rice from the north.
With such insights into their fellows’ needs, Lien and her daughter make their own products for sale, including paper rice cakes, sticky rice mixed with red spiny bitter gourds, dracontomelon and Japanese apricot juices, all of which are popular with northern eaters.
Lien’s brother also sets up shop in Saigon, selling his unique beef loaf wholesale to large supermarkets.
Do Dac Market in the suburbs
This other northerner hub is special both in its name and in the air surrounding sellers and buyers.
Nobody actually knows the full story, but Do Dac Market translates literally as ‘the market of measurement.’
Located in District 2 in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Do Dac Market started in the 1980s as a mere collection of food stalls by several family businesses from the north.
|Buyers find northern products at Nguyen Thi Kim Lien’s store in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ngoc Hien / Tuoi Tre|
People would come here to buy leaves, shrimp paste, salted onions, tough glass noodles, and black carp, among others.
Nguyen Quang Nhat, 35, has run a stall in this market for only four years, but he has gained in popularity amongst buyers with his outstanding sour veggies and sticky rice.
Originally, he was a construction worker, but he took advice from a relative selling northern products on Chu Van Street in Binh Thanh District and moved to District 2.
The man took to the new neighborhood like a fish to water, and his products very quickly found their regular customers.
His square rice cakes and meat loaf bars are quite a delicacy along with seasonal fruits.
‘North Markets’ old and new
Another popular destination for cravers of northern items is Tran Quoc Toan Street in District 3.
This market attracts buyers as they can find very good options for gift items.
Nguyen Cuc Phuong and her husband currently own a store on this street, with 20 years of experience in the trade.
They gave up their civil servant lives in Hanoi and moved to Saigon for a new start.
Phuong’s dried foods and fresh fruits both appeal to potential clients because they are genuinely northern, ‘imported’ directly from the northern provinces.
Their small store now looks like a mini supermarket full of options for choosy northern migrants.
Phuong is also very quick in providing the most wanted seasonal fruits, like Vietnamese plums, fresh dracontomelons, golden pomelos and blood limes.
Places that have been around for a much longer time include Ong Ta Market in Tan Binh District, Hoa Hung Market in District 10, and Xom Moi Market in Go Vap District.
These dated back to 1954 when the first wave of migrants from the north flocked to the south and settled down in different locations around Saigon.
Tran Thi Phuong has been a faithful visitor to Ong Ta Market since its first days.
From her memories, her father used to find his smoking tools here, like the Vietnamese bamboo pipes, smoking bowls, bamboo slices, and traditional Vietnamese rice wine, while her mother carefully picked the best river crabs to steam her authentic northern jute mallow veggie soup.
Some other North Markets have recently sprung up around Tan Son Nhat International Airport as well as a neighborhood in Go Vap District, with stalls catering to the needs of new settlers.
Locals around here can find votive paper offerings, peach blossoms, vegetable greens, confectionery, mountain chicken meat, and pork distinctive to the northern provinces.