The over 100-year-old Ben Thanh market hasn’t changed much for a long time and experience many ups and downs throughout history and war. It’s not only a place where people sell and buy products but it has become the symbol of Ho Chi Minh city. It’s the mix of Saigon in the past and in recent days. The Ben Thanh market is a must-see attraction in Ho Chi Minh city and couldn’t be miss on any Ho Chi Minh tour route.
From a wet market created by street vendors by the early 17th century, Ben Thanh has experienced many ups and downs throughout its history, and is now the oldest surviving market and one of symbols of Ho Chi Minh city. The market was formally established by the French colonial powers after taking over the Gia Định citadel in 1859. This market was destroyed by fire in 1870 and rebuilt to become Saigon’s largest market, which is called Les Halles Centrales. In 1912 the market was moved to a new building and renamed the Ben Thanh Market to distinguish over its predecessor.
The old Ben Thanh market
Ben Thanh market has existed before the French attacked Gia Dinh. At first, the market was located on the bank of Ben Nghe river, near a river port in Quy citadel (or Bat Quai citadel) next to Phung citadel (formerly Gia Dinh citadel). This river port was used to transfer visitors and soldiers and called Ben Thanh (Citadel’s Port). So that the market near this port also was named Ben Thanh. The population of Phung citadel is about 100,000 and the area around Ben Thanh market was the most crowded. Hundreds of boats were moored a along Ben Nghe river with a wide range of goods and looked like a floating city. The old Ben Thanh market was simple with roof tiles.
In February 1859, the French attacked Gia Dinh citadel and Vietnamese soldiers burned entire the citadel, including Ben Thanh market. In 1860, the French rebuilt the market with brick, wood and cogon grass. In July 1870, a part of the market was burned and it was rebuilt again with brick, steel, proof tiles. There were 5 area in Ben Thanh market: food area, fish area, meat area, commodity area, grocery area. The meat area was the most special with tole roof and green floor tiles. The market was always crowded for its position. The French named the street which was in front of the market Charner. But it also was called Guangdong street because there are many Guangdong people did their business on the street. The Rigault de Genouilly street was on the other bank of the canal. It was located near crossroads of Kinh Lon canal and Cau Sau small canal where boats could be moored along the bank. There were some wooden bridges across the canal so that it was convenient for people to go to the market from the other bank.
The market on Charner street – Photo source: unknown
In 1887, the French filled the canal and join 2 streets Charner and Rigault de Genouilly streets into Charner anvenue (Nguyen Hue boulevard in recent days). The area around the market had become more and more crowded with many shops, most of them were owned by the Chinese, Indian and French. However, in 1911, the market became worse and could be collapsed. The market had to be destroyed, except for the meat area with tole roof. The French chose a place, which is near My Tho train station (Saigon station in recent days) to build a new and bigger market.
The new Ben Thanh market
The Marais Boresse pond (or Bo Ret pond) was filled to build the market. It was planned to build 4 streets to bound the market. The South gate was on the street was named in honer of Saigon mayor Place Cuniac. The main gate of the market is a yellow clock tower that becomes the symbol of the city. The North gate was on Rue d’Espagne street, the East gate was on Rue Viénot street and the West gate was on Rue Schroeder street. In 1955, the government of Republic of Vietnam (Vietnam Cong Hoa) renamed 4 street into Le Lai, Le Thanh Ton, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh.
Ben Thanh market at the end of 19th century – Photo source: unknown
The new market was built by Brossard et Maupin company from 1912 till March 1914. The market was inaugurated for 3 days: 28th, 29th and 30th March 1914 with firework, flower car and over 100.000 attendants, including people from other provinces.
Ben Thanh market at the beginning of 20th century – Photo source: unknown
Ben Thanh market has just been finished in March 1914
The market was 13.000m2 large and was tiled with laterite. The Western called the market Le Marche Central and Saigon people called it Saigon market or new Ben Thanh market. These two name were used to distinguish this new market from the old Ben Thanh market with only meat area. After that, the French destroyed the old Ben Thanh market to build Treasury Building. And the new Ben Thanh market has been called Ben Thanh market up till now.
In fact, the Ngo Dinh Diem government planed to destroy the market and it would become a parking lot in the city. A 4-floor commercial center were planed to be built in the area where Saigon Rail Station were located those days and New World hotel, 23-9 Park in recent days. The design had been published on Anh Den Dau (Kerosene Lamp’s Light) magazine by famous architect Ngo Viet Thu, who designed Independence Palace, Phu Cam Cathedral and Hue University’s campus… But it was fortunate, the plan wasn’t successful because of the 1962 South Vietnamese Presidential Palace bombing and problems with Buddhism. From 1st July till 15th August 1985, Ben Thanh market was renovated and repaired.
History of 4 bas paintings on 4 main gates of Ben Thanh market – Photo source: unknown
These paintings were created by artist Le Van Mau (1917 – 2003) – former principle in Bien Hoa Art College and were hung on the walls by Nguyen Tri Dang artist and Vo Ngoc Hao artist.
Le Van Mau – the first person on the left in the photo – Photo source: unknown
After the flood in 1952, Pham Van Nga, Nguyen Tri Dang and Vo Ngoc Hao were sent to Saigon to hang the bas paintings. They were ordered by Brossard et Maupin company. Le Van Mau has finished these paintings with the help of experienced and skillful artist such as Sau Sanh, Tu Ngo, Hai Sang… Le Van Mau used ground to paint and edit based on the reviews of other artists. After that the paint was cut into small pieces to heat in high-heat oven. The heat balance couldn’t be maintained because it was wood-burning oven so that some of pieces are white, some are light yellow like chicken fat.
Nguyen Tri Dang (left) và Vo Ngoc Hao (right) who hang the bas paintings on the wall of Ben Thanh market – Photo source: unknown
Bas painting with cow and pig (East gate) – Photo source: unknown
Bas painting with cow and duck (East gate) – Photo source: unknown
Bas painting squid and banana (West gate) – Photo source: unknown
Bas painting with cow and fish (South gate) – Photo source: unknown
Bas painting with duck (North gate) – Photo source: unknown
Ben Thanh market in 1943 – Photo source: unknown
Ben Thanh market in 1943 – Photo source: unknown
In 1960s, the government has built an iron bridge across the roundabout but it was destroyed for security reason.
The iron bridge across the roundabout – Photo source: unknown
Ben Thanh market at Tet festival in 1971 – Photo source: unknown
Being considered the biggest retail market in Ho Chi Minh city, Ben Thanh market is huge,hot and humid with about 1,600 kiosks and 6,000 vendor stalls. The market sells everything such as clothing, watches, foods, drinks, souvenirs, lighters, coffee, tea, handicrafts, bags, shoes, conical hats, snacks, daily necessities… The goods are made in Vietnam for export or high quality imported items. The market is 13.056m² square with 4 main gate and 12 gates. The South gate is where materials and dried foods are sold while the North gate is colorful with fresh flower shops and fruit stores. The East gate attracts people with cosmetics, candies and cakes and the West gate is special for souvenirs and clothes, shoes, fashion accessories…
The Ben Thanh night market flanks the 2 sides of the Ben Thanh building which are Phan Chu Trinh street, Phan Boi Chau streets and two other streets Luu Van Lang , Nguyen An Ninh which are in the opposite of the East gate and West gate. Vendors will sell their stuffs here after the main building closed. The goods are enormous and visitors can easily pick clothes, shoes, jewelries, souvenirs and enjoy exotic street foods.
Most of stalls are open after sunset but it’s the most crowded after 8:00pm Locals have left their working places or tourists finished their tours and want to take their time to walk around the market under the star, enjoy the fresh air with food and drink or buy something. The night market attracts foreigners for its special interest while teenagers come there to hunt unique items.
There are hundreds of shoes from high heel shoes to sport shoes, from sandals to slappers, from leather shoes to plastic shoes… Most of them are from Vietnam, China and Hong Kong. Twinkle earrings, necklaces made from colorful plastic beads, stone beads ad other materials also popular at Ben Thanh night market. Visitor can also buy fake hand bags and sunglasses at reasonable prices. Clothes are everywhere at the market, the best selling items are T-shirt with Vietnamese flag or text “Tôi yêu Vietnam” (I love Vietnam). Souvenirs are highly recommended to buy at the market because there a wide range of things you can bring home and gift your friend and family.
Food stalls serve different dishes from different regions in Vietname such as Pho from Hanoi, Hue noodle soup from Hue, fermented pork roll from Ninh Hoa, Cao Lau from Hoi An, chicken salad and sticky rice from Tam Ky, soup cake from Trang Bang… In addition, visitors also have chance to enjoy Chinese foods, seafood, barbecue…
Prices in Ben Thanh market are quite high. There are cheaper markets in town, but Ben Thanh’s history and central Saigon location make it the most popular stop for travellers. Go round the market during your first hours of your visit, gather as much information about prices of stuffs you want to buy, so you will know roughly how much for a reasonable price. Start your bargain about 50-60 percent of the offered price, if they won’t sell you the stuff you can walk away nicely, and bargain further up a bit at other shops. At 5.00-6.00 am you can visit the wet market within the main market where you can see live stocks like fishes, eels, pork, shrimps, frogs…