“Vietnamese People Don’t Like Frozen Fish:” A Story Passed from Hanoi, Vietnam to South Bend, Indiana

Written by Carly Giddings, GW Class of 2017

If you think about a farmers market in the U.S., you likely envision rows of variously-colored tents, scrumptious samplings, veggies of every variety, perhaps a live band, and a calming octave of community chatter, all staged on a weekend in the summer. Take your thoughts 1,046 miles around the world to Hanoi, Vietnam, where “wet markets” cater to the fresh food needs of roughly 12,000 neighbors each day.

Châu Long Market in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi to South Bend: Who, What, Why?

During the Spring 2016 semester, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Vietnam through a School for International Training (SIT) program themed around culture, social change, and development. For the final month of the program, I conducted a qualitative research project inspired by my interests in sustainability, public spaces, community engagement, and food by completing a case study of a Vietnamese “wet market.” A few weeks ago, I presented my findings at the University of Notre’s Dame’s 9th Annual Human Development Conference (HDC), thanks to a mini-grant from the GW Food Institute.

Behind the Scenes: Public Markets and Super Market Revolution

Like most neighborhood markets in Hanoi, Châu Long exists on a parcel of land central to its peripheral community with high real estate value. Communities benefit from public markets in a variety of ways, from linking urban and rural economies and providing communal public space to supporting local entrepreneurs. As part of my research, I read Thomas Reardon et al. conception of the “Supermarket Revolution,” which poses public markets as traditional and habitual modes of food retail until supermarkets become dominant. At first, supermarkets host higher food prices compared to traditional markets where customers can bargain, however, eventually, the prevalence of supermarkets drives prices down, food systems become less “local” and public markets become obsolete. Similar to the history of modern food retail in America, eventually a society realizes that their food system has modernized to a point where supply chains are far beyond their reach and a movement begins to re-localize these systems. This leads to the rise in fresh markets, referred to as farmers’ markets in an American context, which initially host higher food prices and cater to the changed tastes of higher income individuals before they become more popular, less expensive, and more accessible.

My research found that a public, neighborhood market like Châu Long plays an economic and cultural or habitual role in the daily lives of its customers, underpinned by a more subtle social engagement role. Generally, Châu Long Market’s customers, mostly women, prefer to shop at Châu Long as opposed to supermarkets and fear the proposed redevelopment plan, which would replace the market with a 25-story commercial center, because they rely on the market to meet their needs and preferences several ways.

Veggies of Variety: Châu Long Market Findings

  • The market’s flexible prices fit customers’ economic needs by allowing for bargaining. By the same token, the markets meet the economic needs of vendors since the stall provides their income, that of their employees and potentially that of their children. For example, one meat vendor initially refused to speak with me because she believed I was a representative of the government in support of the redevelopment plan and feared the loss of her job.
  • The option to drive their motorbikes or bicycles through the stalls meets local people’s efficiency preferences. One of the eldest vendors I interviewed said, “Everyone wants a beautiful market, but the people need the market to function traditionally, like being able to drive through.”
  • The ability to purchase produce and protein that honors the Vietnamese conception of freshness where the item has been killed or picked as recently as possible meets local culinary and nutritional preferences. For example, a fish vendor who kills, de-scales, and fillets a fish after a customer orders it, adamantly explained to me that “Vietnamese people don’t like frozen.” She believed that supermarkets, which typically sell fish frozen or on ice, do not threaten her business.

Vendors and customers at Châu Long Market

  • The option to purchase produce and protein in addition to ancestor worship materials, such as betel nuts, meets local religious and cultural needs. It is unlikely these items would be sold at a supermarket.
  • At markets, customers foster a sense of mutual trust with the vendors, with whom they purchase the same meat and produce each day, thus meeting their needs and expectations for food safety, quality and freshness.
  • Unique to Châu Long Market, the market meets the spiritual needs of vendors given the presence of two Mandarin tombs in its foundation. Many vendors noted that they pray to the tombs before opening the market for sale in the hopes that ancestral spirits will bring them the virtues of strong business for the day.

Based on my experience interviewing locals at the Châu Long Market, it would be wise for Hanoi and other major cities in emerging economies to reinvest and reenergize their public markets as public spaces rather than redevelop them into purely commercial venues. As the eleventh Sustainable Development Goal suggests, there exists a need to make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, specifically to, “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.” It is in Hanoi’s best interest to maintain and bolster the inclusivity of markets like Châu Long for the economic, social, and cultural benefit of generations today and tomorrow.

Click here to read the full paper “Traditional Fresh Markets and the Supermarket Revolution: A Case Study on Châu Long Market