For the uninitiated, entering any wet market in Vietnam is a formidable undertaking. Nostrils must be pre-prepared, eyeballs readied and shock detectors re-calibrated. Ba Le Market in Hoi An is no different but it does provide a much more relaxed alternative to the other markets in town. Bring your sense of humor because Ba Le is banter as well as barter central.
Where is it?
Ba Le Market is tucked away just off the main Cua Dai road in Cam Chau – a residential neighborhood dotted with homestays roughly midway between the Old Town and the beach. Increasingly popular as a home for expats and those digital nomad types you keep hearing about, Cam Chau offers a quiet life away from the huddled tourist masses with a little local flavor thrown in. Sounds good, right? We think so too.
How can I get there?
Cam Chau is a relaxed 15-minute cycle from the Old Town or a 30-minute wander. And don’t worry, Hoi An is pancake flat – so you’ll still be able to make it on your rickety free hotel bike.
15 mins cycling is far and I’m full of Cao Lau…why should I make the effort?!
Ba Le Market spans less than a block in size – so it’s considerably smaller (and therefore less daunting) than Hoi An’s Central Market. Even so, what it lacks in scale it makes up for in the breadth of produce on offer. Just like your local superstore back home, Ba Le has butchers, fishmongers, fruit and vegetables stalls, toys, clothes, DIY and even a bakery churning out those delicious fresh demi-baguettes that find their way into town and give you your daily Banh Mi fix.
OK. So it’s just a market! The Central Market is a market and it’s well…central. Why don’t I just go there?
Good point. To be honest there is nothing at Ba Le you can’t buy at the Central Market or Tiger Market. The joy of Ba Le is the relaxed and friendly welcome that foreigners can expect from the stall owners. Sometimes shopping at the Central Market can feel a little like a war of attrition, an exhausting onslaught on your senses as you stumble from one side to another. In comparison, Ba Le is a stroll in the park; you can take your time, browse at will and, best yet, actually have some genuine fun with the stall holders.
And best of all, at Ba Le (unlike the Central Market) pedestrians rule the roost – motorbikes do pass through from time to time but you don’t have to live in constant fear of being mowed down by a honking loon on a Honda Wave piled six foot high with live chickens.
Ok, so it’s relaxed but is it cheaper? I like cheap.
Well that depends entirely on you and your bargaining skills. Haggling is of course essential, as it is everywhere in Vietnam. And the formidable stall keepers – the vast majority of whom are women – take no prisoners. But that said, starting prices for a kilo of mangoes do seem to be a lower than in town.
Forget mangoes; my mum wants a pretty red lantern. Can I get one at Ban Le?
Hmmm, not so much. Ba Le is certainly not the place to go if you are hunting for souvenirs – not unless you think your family would appreciate a genuine roll of Vietnamese chicken wire or a fresh severed pig’s head. Each to their own, though.
Pig’s head, really?! Is that hygienic?
In these markets fresh really does mean fresh, which often means the produce is still alive or very recently departed. Vietnam rightly has a reputation as a vegetarian’s paradise but when you head to Ba Le prepare yourself – you’re bound to see a little gore. In terms of hygiene, Ba Le may not receive a certificate from your health inspector at home but it is clean as stall holders live or die by their reputation. Wet markets are called wet for a reason – because those that work in them are constantly washing their produce, their stalls, the floor. Your feet might get a blast from time to time, too. Lucky you.
Ok, I’m almost sold…but I can’t speak Vietnamese! How will I buy anything?
That’s a fair concern. The stall holders here definitely don’t have the same polished salesman patter that you will find in the Central Market, there are no ‘lovely jubblies’ or ‘top of the mornings’ here. But most speak a smattering of English and even without a language in common it’s easy to bargain (especially if you have ‘charades’ experience) and if you truly get stuck, an English-speaking fellow shopper always seems to materialise who’ll be happy to help.
Fine. You’ve convinced me. Give me some top tips for surviving Ba Le Market.
Definitely go early. Not just because the produce will be at its freshest but also because early means busy. Locals head to the market before work and before the heat of the day kicks in. With other customers and a bit of bustle to distract the stall holders, you’ll stand out slightly less. That is, of course, until you kick over a basket of frogs or walk headfirst into a low-hanging pork shoulder. Watch out for those and you’ll be just fine.