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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vietnamese Supermarkets

Ho Chi Minh City might be cheap as chips when it comes to eating out, but prices are rising (food is up about 40 per cent this year according to one report I read recently), and a lot of folk are doing it tough. Consequently, self catering has developed a certain appeal, and it makes sense for those staying a long time, or thinking of staying a long time. Lonely Planet recommends grabbing a loaf of bread and stuffing it with white Vietnamese cheese and whatever else you can pick up at the market; Crowded World Vagabondic tells you there are plenty more self-catering options than that. If you want cost effectiveness and quality, take a stroll through one of the many supermarkets opening up in the city. We might consider them soulless and barren bastions of corporate greed in the west, but supermarkets pack a novelty punch in Vietnam (to the Vietnamese at least), and enjoy a department store style snob status. I think my girlfriend N. likes to go to the local supermarket just to check out what is on special, have a look around, and soak up the vibe. It is a place to hang out, to see and be seen, kind of like the classic American mall of the 1980s, circa Weird Science. Personally, while I loathe shopping at home, I have always been interested in checking out the supermarkets in foreign countries, just to see how they represent the culture. You can judge the taste and temperament of a people by the way they stock their supermarkets. In Spain, there are whole rows devoted to olives, and they take them seriously indeed. In Japan where I live at the moment, you can sometimes pick up a slab of whale, perfect for a steaming winter nabe, or at the end of the day find discount trays of sushi and sashimi, or crumbed chicken or octopus or squid, which sometime work as a filler between thick slices of bread (that combo does give you indigestion though.) Apart from that, there are always plenty of mushrooms and fish, soy sauce and sake... and grumpy old ladies pushing you out of the way. Icelandic supermarkets are sparse, warm and tasteful and sparse, big on bread, cheese and lamb, and numerous specimens from the deep. Go into a supermarket in London, and it is like all the culinary heritage of the world has been assembled under one roof. Moroccan sandwiches and Indian tandoori takeout and so on. I love all that shit!

Coop supermarket on Cong Quynh Street in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Frantic traffic at the intersection of  Bui Thi Xuan Street and Cong Quynh Street, Ho Chi Minh City, District 1 (Vietnam, 2008) 
So, how do the supermarkets in Vietnam stack up to those of Barcelona, Tokyo, Reykjavík and London? Well, like Vietnam in general, I find them noisy, crowded, and often chaotic. Wheels on trolleys buckle, causing you to lurch. Last time I went shopping in the state owned Co-op Mart at the end of my adopted street, Bùi Thị Xuân Street, on Cống Quỳnh Street in Saigon, I got followed round the aisles by a pervert. He stood in front of my girlfriend N. and gestured obscenely, squeezing the air with two hands to demonstrate what he would like to do with her breasts. Maybe he was a security guard for the supermarket... I heard they don't like foreigners in that place. And a foreign guy with a local girl, that must be their worst nightmare! Guys giving me the envious eye ought to understand that my life is nothing to be envied... I ought to be envying them. Sometimes relationships aren't they're all cracked up to be... sometimes I wish I was free to fly the coop, get out and do what I want to do, drink rice wine with the old dudes in the slums, or hang out with some girls.  But whatever... the odd pervert aside, I like hanging out at the Co-op Mart on Cống Quỳnh (which they call the Co-op Mart CQ for short), and I am always happy to see what they stock. Unlike the steamy markets outside, Vietnamese supermarkets are air conditioned, and you can take your time checking out the exhibits. Racks of durians looking like medieval torture implements. A vast array of odd fruits and vegetables, with an earthiness you can sense. No genetically modified, shrink wrapped produce here (apart from the mushrooms you see below!) No style over substance, no extravagant carbon mileage. But at the same time, no persistent touts or beggars either... just the odd weirdo or pervert. Furthermore, there is no need to bargain like you do out in the wet markets for a decent price. As this photo demonstrates, all the prices are fixed.

Fruit and veg stands
Fruit and veg, Saigon Style, inside the Co-op Mart on Cong Quynh Street (Vietnam, 2008)

In the bottom right corner of this photo you can see some Hồng Dòn, which I believe are a type of Vietnamese persimmon, going for 14,800 Dong (US$0.89) per kilo (if I can read the sign correctly). They don't look nothing like the persimmons I see every late autumn and early winter in Japan, so they must be the bitter persimmons (the ones you're supposed to eat green.) However, hồng supposedly means "red" or "pink" in Vietnamese, so go figure. In any case, Vietnam is a paradise for fruit and veg lovers, and you could make a decent meal, back in your hotel or apartment, out of some of specimens at the market. Many fruits are eaten with a salt and chilli dipping sauce which might seem like a strange accompaniment at first, but is "quite possibly addictive", as Lonely Planet concedes.

N. ascertains the freshness of this mystery fruit, at the CQ branch of the Co-op Supermarket (Vietnam, 2008)

This is another fruit or vegetable I find difficult to identify. Whatever it is, it is probably grown locally -- 95% of the merchandise on sale at Co-op is locally-made or locally-grown products, according to some report I read online. They are quite unlike the type of fruit and vegetables you would see in the West. No boring apples and oranges here! Well, actually there are apples and oranges, but they're in the minority, and they are probably as exotic to locals as the Hồng Dòn are to us

Fuji apples from Japan, wrapped up like gourmet melons in Tokyo, and what seem to be oranges (Vietnam, 2008)

For some reason, milk and dairy products are huge in Vietnam. Probably too huge, in my opinion. You can get free plates and knives and forks attached with cartons of powdered baby milk, which seems a little bit suspicious to me. It seems like aggressive marketing to me, like third world exploitation, the sort that Nestlé might indulge in. Green tea is also rising in popularity in the Land of the South Viets, and you will find gallons of it in the supermarket. Ditto for the local Vietnamese coffee... well, not quite gallons, maybe tons would be a better metric. It's all instant. Back to the tea: I don't know why, but the green tea here seems more yellow than green. For some reason it doesn't work well with me, but then maybe that is my fault. The instant coffee looks like instant coffee anywhere else in the world.

Nga in the coffee and milk goods section of local Coop Mart, a bundle of green tea flavored milk cartons in her trolley
N. with the Nescafe range, in our comfy Co-op (Vietnam, 2008)

On the topic of green tea, the venerable Thanh Nien Daily reports:

Green tea has been drunk in copious amounts by Vietnamese families at home and in restaurants for centuries.
But a recent boom in bottled green tea, made both locally and abroad, means that the traditional beverage is now competing with big names like Pepsi Cola and even bottled water.
Nga (eds. note: no relation to my girlfriend N. featured in this story), a convenience shop owner in a District 5 alley off An Duong Vuong Street, says she started selling bottled green tea – which is often sweetened with honey or sugar – when she noticed the beverages were selling like hotcakes at other local shops...

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