The giant Long Bien market in Vietnam’s capital is a colorful, chaotic and smelly spectacle which never sleeps.
Hanoi is well known for its vibrant, busy streets that provide a plethora of ways to stimulate the adventurous traveler’s senses. Yet, while most of the city’s visitors are safely tucked up in bed, an extravaganza like no other is developing under the cover of night. From 2 a.m. onwards, seven days a week, Hanoi’s restaurateurs, food retailers and street vendors flock to the sprawling Long Bien market complex. Over 1,200 stalls, lockups, and trucks sell wholesale fruit, vegetables and fish by the crate. By 5 am, as the sun breaks over the horizon, the market is complete pandemonium. Come midday however, the crowds have dispersed and peace has returned to the area. The daily cycle of boom and bust allows visitors who are willing to skip some shut-eye to witness the compelling, truly Vietnamese story of the Long Bien market.
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Each evening stall holders spend hours unloading and organizing their produce ready for the crowds that will arrive late into the night. Often, there is period of waiting once the stalls are ready: the calm before the storm.
While much of the market consists of indoor and outdoor stalls, a large area is reserved for trucks arriving from all over Vietnam. Once parked, they unload their haul directly into the hands of the punters offering the highest price.
The huge section of the market dedicated to fish has an odor that can be picked up from blocks away, even during the day. At night the road glistens with run-off from the stall’s overflowing containers.
INSIDER TIPLocals at the market may seem cold and unfriendly towards visitors, but they are usually just busy and preoccupied. A smile and a Tsin Shau (pronounced “sin shaow” and translated as “hello”) goes a long way to warming them up.
Shrimp, one of Vietnam’s prized culinary ingredients, must be sorted by size and type before being sold. An army of workers—mostly women—diligently sift through endless baskets. With a flick of the wrist, shrimp flies through the air and into the appropriate plastic tub.
As the early morning light illuminates tired faces, the market is at its frenzied peak. Motorbikes weighed down with their bulging cargo crawl through the crowds of gesticulating bargain hunters and vocal stall holders as the narrow passageways become clogged with debris.
Gambling is illegal in Vietnam and carries a prison sentence of up to three years for anyone caught winning (or losing) 2 million or more Dong (about $90). This results in a thriving low-value underground gambling scene that can be observed in the quiet corners of the Long Bien Market.
INSIDER TIPMost people in Vietnam don’t mind you taking pictures of them. Many stall holders, particularly women, are far less accommodating, so ensure to make eye contact and point to your camera before photographing them.
While Long Bien is Hanoi’s largest fish market, Vietnam’s seafood industry is one of the world’s largest, exporting over $8 billion a year. In recent months however, it has been plagued with controversy after the EU presented Vietnam with a ‘Yellow Card’ for not doing enough to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
Produce sold at the Long Bien market is brought from all over northern Vietnam. Some of it, however, is grown just a stone’s throw from the market on the floodplains of Hanoi’s Red River. This soft, fertile land found sandwiched between the two sides of the city is directly connected to the market by the iconic Long Bien bridge, the landmark which it is named after.
The Long Bien bridge is a rusted industrial relic of Vietnam’s French colonial past. Crossing the huge splintered waterway of the Red River, it carries trains, motorbikes and pedestrians 1.6 kilometers from central Hanoi across the water and into the city’s northern districts. During the Vietnam War, it was the only passage across the water, making it a constant, and often successful, target for American bombers.
As the afternoon sun casts long shadows over the market, street vendors can be found selling snacks to stall-holders, who by now have begun to prepare for the night ahead. Up to 11% of Hanoi’s workforce are ‘informal’ workers who make a living selling on the streets. Many of them arrive at Long Bien Market in the early hours of the morning to stock their quang ganh, a bamboo pole carried over the shoulder with two baskets hanging at either end.
Once the market has begun there is no time to organize practicalities, so stall-holders begin preparations early in the day. Whether washing containers, sorting produce, sealing polystyrene boxes or breaking up ice for displays, everything must be ready in good time.
The use of plastics in Vietnam is extensive and the scale of the market makes this all too visible. Nearby storage areas hold vast amounts of containers that are available to stall holders when needed.
INSIDER TIPOnce you have been welcomed by locals at the market, offerings will follow. From a loose cucumber to a hot cup of green tea, accepting is not only the polite thing to do, but also the quickest way to make a new friend.
Trucks full of produce arrive at the market late in the afternoon and signals the start of the rush to set up shop. Workers collaborate silently to assemble lighting rigs and construct the produce into small food-mountains.
After the hordes have gone, a cleaning staff clears up the estimated three tons of waste produced throughout the night. A sea of plastic, polystyrene, and food waste is swept up and packed into bags which are then collected by garbage trucks later in the day.
Throughout all these cyclical tasks, stall holders must still find time to rest. There is little opportunity to return home, so many will sleep at the market when possible.