In which I talk about my experiences at local markets in Mongolia, France, Vietnam and Chile. Also my views on hygiene at markets, how much to pay and if there are any issues of personal safety.
Recently at the recommendation of a friend of a friend, my niece and I jumped on a local bus and travelled for an hour to get to Chazelles sur Lyon. As the name suggests it is outside Lyon in France. I had a list of cheeses that I should buy at the local market that only runs on Friday mornings. So there we were freezing our faces off on a very cold day happily buying Fourme de Montbrison (cru, not pasturised thank you very much), Cantal Vieux and some Emmental for Jess who was nervous.
My motto for cheese is ‘maximum bacteria’. Its good for your tummy. Actually Robyn (1) you better not read that bit about not being pasturised.
It’s a bit of a cliché but there is something very satisfying about making the effort to get to a local market, interacting with the sellers and enjoying the produce.
In St Etienne where I am currently based, there is quite a big market that runs on Sunday morning at Place Carnot. There is a north African / Turkish flavour to it – pardon the pun, which is reflective of the local population. A huge variety of olives, lots of chick peas and other dry beans & exciting flat breads are all available as well as the universally loved poulet rôti or roast chicken on a rotisserie with roast potatoes and onions soaked in the chicken fat, as an optional extra. Fruit and veg are on sale but not so much cheese or charcuterie (cold cuts). Last time I went it was minus 6 degrees C and I seemed to be alone with the sellers and the old men with hats, a newspaper and a baguette. It must be a Thing in inclement weather, a bit like mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun – only old men and baguettes go to the market on Sunday morning when it is freezing.
In Hanoi there was no choice but to shop at the markets. When I arrived in 1992 not only were there no supermarkets but there were no taxis, very few cars, no neon lights, no banks, only 2 buildings with lifts in the whole city.
At the very beginning I had a maid called Hoa. (Hooray for maids!) I hadn’t quite understood the fact that there were no supermarkets and I didn’t twig that I couldn’t buy chicken breasts in a packet. I’d give Hoa a list that included chicken breasts, and Hoa would buy a live chook which was killed while she waited and presumably she kept the rest of the chicken and gave me the breasts. No dishonesty on her part. She might have thrown the rest of the chicken away for all I know.
As an aside, it reminds me of the time Phoebe (2) and I asked advice from the maid about where to buy cinnamon for our first ‘vin chaud’ or mulled wine party. Again, I’d pictured cinnamon in a packet, or a small bottle. She came back with a whole branch of a cinnamon tree. Who knew! It is bark. It is not so much a cooking ingredient in Vietnam as a Chinese medicine remedy which in retrospect was where I’d seen it – in the Chinese medicine shop.
At yet another house in Hanoi and at one time opposite Chợ hôm, a very big undercover market. It had everything, including live dogs, monkeys and snakes all ; fabrics; fruit & veg, dry goods, crockery, the ubiquitous plastic colanders, a food stall area and upstairs whatever fabrics you wanted, with emphasis on nylon, velvet and cotton. Not only was Hanoi minus things like restaurants, neon signs, banks and taxis, but we also couldn’t buy tinned or pre-packaged pet food. At the time I had a little dog called Chops. The light of my life. I scandalised the stall holders at Chợ hôm by occasionally buying bones for Chops to eat, because it was hugely extravagant when other people had so little.
Chợ Đồng Xuân was the name of the biggest market and it really did have everything. It was rumoured to sell monkey’s brains in a dark, back corner if you knew where to look. I wasn’t keen to find out but maybe someone else can confirm or deny that. Interestingly it was built by the French in the late 1800’s when Vietnam was a colony. While I was there it was burnt down but has since been rebuilt.
The markets were where most people bought their meat. It was chopped up and on display on wooden tables, quite often staked up or hanging. There’s lots of flies buzzing around, its hot, open air and humid. And yet no one gets sick, I certainly didn’t. But then I do have iron guts.
Then there are the black markets … cue the ominous music.
In Santiago the black market is the place to go if you want to look for and buy back things that have been stolen, like hubcaps, mobile phones or computers and perhaps items of jewellery. When I was there it was also a pretty nice flea market and I bought some antique milk bottles that I still have.
And Mongolia! This was in 1994, on the epic train trip that Phoebe and I undertook from Hanoi to Helsinki (3). Mongolia had just become independent from Russia in mid 1992. The country had nothing. For example it was official policy that any privately owned car was a taxi. You would flag it, get in, agree on the mileage on the odometer. There was an officially published price per km and at the end the calculation was done based odometer reading. Highly efficient and pre Uber.
At the fresh food markets we had a choice of a variety of milk products, eggs, cuts of mutton and Snickers.
The black market in Ulan Bator was the place to buy consumer goods coming in from China. Mostly tax free if you get my drift. It was in a car park slightly removed from the city and we caught a bus rather than an Uber-taxi to get there. We were warned that it was a dangerous place to visit, but took the proper precautions – no jewellery, no valuable documents, minimum currency – and decided to give it a go.
I didn’t feel personally threatened, or like I was under surveillance but it was the density of the crowd that was slightly confronting. Phoebe and I joined a file of people that slowly moved its way past all the goods that were laid out on the ground. In front of and behind us were very tall Mongolian men and women wearing their national clothing (which I call dressing gowns), with knee high leather boots. We were pushed from behind with a full body push, and there was no possibility of stopping so I don’t know how anyone actually bought anything. Not wanting a plastic colander we didn’t stay long.
And of course there are tourist markets that sell brand replica products, DVDs etc that you are probably familiar with.
How much to pay?
Every time I visit a fresh food market I regret a bit that I havn’t got a huge family so that I could practically MAKE money by buying in bulk.
Unless the price is marked, however, I find it difficult to know how much to pay without inside knowlege. Once you have lived in a country for a while you have a feeling for the monetary value of things. In Vietnam I expected to pay a premium for being a foreigner. At that time, when Vietnam was a poor country I thought that foreigners should pay more, because they could. But if foreigners paid the first price that was asked, then the whole economy changes ! I almost bought my father to tears when he was visiting. We went down to China Beach and I was haggling over the price of a marble statue.
How to haggle
You ask for the price, they tell you and you grimace as severely as you can. You counter offer with something less than you want to pay. He or she laughs, you laugh. If necessary walk away and if they call after you then you come back and continue to haggle but with bargaining power. If they don’t call after you there is the danger that you have lost. Se la vie.
Will I get sick?
As mentioned above, I’ve never been sick from eating food from markets. A couple of times I have been quite sick from eating hot food that I bought from people on the side of the road. There is no kitchen, the food is prepared somewhere else and it’s a bit of a recipe for disaster.
In places like Vietnam all the normal hygiene and sanitation rules apply – don’t drink water from the tap – boil it first; wash all the vegetables that you buy, wherever you buy them from. In Chile we didn’t eat water cress or bean sprouts because they are grown too close to the water. I’ve never worried too much about brushing my teeth in tap water or eating ice. But I probably would if it was a known danger.
If in doubt buy from a stall where you can see local people buying.
Of course in France there should be no more danger at the local market than there is at the local supermarket. But elsewhere, if you are uneasy and the markets have a reputation for being a bit dodge here are some common sense guidelines:
• Take notice of any local travel warnings. Political instability trumps all. That is stating the obvious a bit, but just in case …
• Don’t take or use large denominations in currency. Take what is appropriate to the value of things that you are likely to buy.
• Carry a backpack in reverse i.e. in front of you so that you can see it.
• Be aware of people pushing up against you, and don’t carry things in the back pockets of your jeans.
• In dodgy markets, like the black markets don’t take out your wallet until you have agreed on a price.
It helps, even if only a few words.
I’d love to hear back from you about specific experiences good or bad, that you’ve had at markets. Got a favourite seller? Have you had a bad experience? Is there something that you can only get from markets? Or perhaps you have advice on how to get the best out of markets.
(1) Robyn, the epidemiologist aka poo specialist and my source for anything health or vaguely science related
(2) Phoebe, frequent participator in adventures. You can find her at http://loumessugo.com/en/.
(3) The Great Train Ride, one of the adventures with Phoebe. More of that to come in future posts.
Dubai Fish Markets – an early morning visit the Creek to witness the auction and fish sellers.
Montbrison – French village markets – when you have to buy good cheese, you know the place to go …
Flower markets in Kolkata – vibrant colours, packed, busy.
If you liked this blog, don’t forget to recommend it to your friends and / or subscribe to Agatha Bertram’s enewsletter. Enewsletters are sent once every two to three months with blogging highlights that you may have missed.
You can also keep up to date on Instagram and Facebook – links below.
I loved your Market article Sally, it brought back memories of my visit to those same markets in Vietnam. As we ( my husband and I ) strolled through the markets it was hard to take in all the sights, smells etc. that surrounded us. In the “Butcher” section we spied what looked like small pig carcases, nice round bottoms with a curly tail. To our surprise, we found out they were meaty dogs.! It was sad to see the little monkeys in small cages but buyers could pick out fresh fish still swimming in their containers or fat pythons curled up in a big pot.
A memorable experience.
Yes the dogs … people always make a joke about not knowing if you are eating dogs, or if dog meat will be substituted for beef or similar. But dogs are a a specialty and more expensive. You’d know if you were eating dog and, thankfully, I never had to. Snakes though – a different story. Tastes like chicken.
I can see this blog is going to be a roaring success. I love your humour and making the ordinary extraordinary. I love a market, it’s almost the first place I run to when I’m overseas.
Thanks Nina 🙂 I’m just back from my first visit to the New Markets in Calcutta. My first tourist day. A lot of it was shut for Sunday but can’t wait to get back there. WA Explorer too – I love to read it because there are so many good things to do in WA 🙂 All the best, Sally
Phoebe @ Lou Messugo says
Such nostalgic memories Sally! I can see that if I need a fix of Hanoi or The Great Train Ride (#TGTR) I just need to stop by Agatha Bertram. That black market in UB was crazy, but then so was everything about Mongolia in 1994.
Yes – Mongolia was such a bizarre country at that time. Remember we were fascinated by the $3 note.