Vietnam’s capital has dozens of markets: some big, some small and some that take over entire city streets. Some open before sunrise and some are at their busiest just before midnight. Each has a unique charm worth exploring and offers an insight into local life. Here, Culture Trip rounds up the best spots to shop for food, fashion and fabric in Hanoi.
Arriving in a new city can be a difficult, isolating experience, and Hanoi is no different. Its streets are crowded with the smells of strange food, the sounds of a language you likely don’t speak and the blare of horns. All around you, 8 million people are living out their lives. It can be a challenge to feel like you’ve got even the slightest grip on what makes the city tick.
One of the best ways to get a sense of Hanoi is by paying a visit to one of its many markets. These bustling, hectic, intoxicating places are the heart and soul of the city. They’ll teach you when the locals like to wake up, what they like to eat and what they’ll pay for a pair of flip flops. (This is vital information).
Originally built by the French colonial authorities in 1889, Dong Xuan Market is the biggest indoor market in the city and sells pretty much anything you can imagine at wholesale prices. The building’s original facade has been updated over the years due to the occasional fire, flood and war. Today, its exterior recalls the sloping roofs of the original 1800s design. Inside, however, it’s a somewhat austere affair. For what’s essentially a large concrete box, Dong Xuan doesn’t want for color. Bolts of vibrant silk and cotton, garish T-shirts, and bags of spices fill the thousands of individual stalls. Downstairs, there’s a huge wet market selling fish, seafood and sacks upon sacks of freshwater snails. Dong Xuan is open from 6am until 7pm. The Vietnamese get up early (probably to escape the oceans of tourists who flood in by late morning) so, for the best possible Dong Xuan experience, get there before 9am. Besides, how else are you going to get the best prices on a mixed sack of frogs and catfish?
Markets have a huge social function in Vietnamese culture. Dong Xuan has spent over a hundred years serving a commercial purpose – originally for a colonial power. For a look at a truly Vietnamese market, the century-old Hang Be Market is required viewing. Covered by a layer of striped canvas, each vendor at Hang Be has a spot that’s decided by the market collective. Infringing on another vendor’s space is a huge taboo, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t push their luck. As such, Hang Be feels about as jam-packed as any space I’ve ever been. For the sake of your blood pressure, leave your bulky rucksacks at the hotel. From grilled pork and vermicelli noodles to crispy spring rolls, Hang Be is a street foodie’s dream come true. There’s even a local legend that food bought from the market tastes better than anywhere else in the city. There’s only one way to find out.
Floating markets are a bigger part of the culture in the south of the country – the Cai Be Floating Market in Tien Giang is probably the most famous – but tucked away in the heart of Hanoi, there’s a charming example of Vietnam’s relationship to its rivers. The Banana Market sells mostly, well, the clue is in the name. Every day, hundreds of boats arrive in the city bearing the staple Vietnamese crop. If you’ve ever wanted to see a Vietnamese woman carry their weight in fruit on their head, while rowing a boat, this is the place; the market offers an unmissable glimpse into daily life in Hanoi. Directions: when you arrive at Hàm Tử Quan street, pass by a restaurant’s parking area to reach the market.
Spread over three floors in the heart of Hanoi, Hang Da is one of the best places in the city to explore for used clothing, fabric and imported wine. If Vietnamese sizes don’t fit you, you can come here to find high-quality pre-loved garments from the US, UK, Japan and Europe. Also, if you rock up early, the bun cha (chargrilled pork with vermicelli noodles) stall downstairs is an unbeatable spot for breakfast.
If the jet lag’s worn off and your body isn’t forcing you to wake up at the crack of dawn anymore, then a night market may be more your speed. From 6pm every Friday, the roads between Hàng Đào Street and the Dong Xuan Market fill up with vendors. It’s an energetic affair, with street musicians on every corner, brightly decorated stalls, and vendors hawking the sort of knick-knacks and gewgaws that the locals don’t give a second glance. What makes the Night Market worth a visit is its food. The streets are crammed with food carts selling every street snack imaginable. It’s definitely worth booking a street food tour if you want to spend a couple of hours being told which delicious goodies to stuff your face with. Hanoi Street Food Tours offer loads of local insight and their private tour includes all the food (and beer) you can handle.
Vietnamese tailors are renowned in Asia, and buying a custom suit is high on the list of lots of visitors to the country. While Hue and Hoi An are probably more well known as destinations for the well-dressed, Hanoi has some serious fabric wizards, and they all shop at Cho Hom. This wonderfully eccentric indoor market boasts the biggest selection of fabrics in the city. Also, its ground floor has a huge produce section, where you can get unbelievably fresh fruit for fair prices (if you’re willing to haggle).
Being fairly traditional places to shop, many markets in Hanoi are mostly frequented by the older generation; younger people tend to head to the big shopping malls outside town, with their bowling alleys and Western brands. The exception is Green House Market. Located in between several high schools and the city university, Green House Market is the saviour of many a broke Vietnamese college student. It sells a bewildering variety of goods, from food and coffee to clothing for every occasion. If you ever needed to kit out an entire apartment in a matter of hours, this is the place to do it. The irregular hours that students keep means that the Green House Market is open early, closes late and is busy the whole time in between. Go alone early in the evening, sit down with a coffee and strike up a conversation with whoever ends up at the next table.