Saturday, April 19, 2008

Saigon’s Largest Market

Saigon Stories would like to begin the tale of HCM City’s largest market by talking about a bus line.Well, the line is Ben Thanh-Cho Binh Tay (Ben Thanh-Binh Tay Market), which is numbered “1” in the city’s bus system. Saigon Stories does not think that this bus line is so numbered by chance. Its sure is one of the busiest bus lines in HCM City. And it also links Saigon’s top-two markets–Ben Thanh and Binh Tay.If Ben Thanh is the city’s number-one retail market, then Binh Tay is the largest wholesaler. According to Hoi dap ve TPHCM (FAQ About HCM City) Vol. 4, Binh Tay is located on an area of more than 26,000 square meters (Ben Thanh is less than 14,000 square meters). The market occupies the whole block bordered by four streets. It has 12 gates on its four sides with the main entrance facing Hau Giang Street. Binh Tay is in District 6, but it is just a few minutes on foot from Districts 5 and 11, two commercial hubs of HCM City. From the main gate, one can see Cho Lon Bus Terminal which is just one block away and is the last station of the Ben Thanh-Cho Binh Tay line.Also according to FAQ About HCM City, Binh Tay has about 1,500 stalls in its main roofed area and more than 1,000 on its three sides. A great variety of goods are available at Binh Tay, ranging from local foods to manufactured items. Archives show that of these, foods account for the largest number of stalls.Traders from the Mekong Delta, the south’s eastern provinces, and southern central and mid-central Vietnam form the bulk of Binh Tay’s clientele. The market is a domestic commercial center and a hub for exporting local manufactured goods to several foreign countries, especially the neighboring Cambodia, with main items being garments, plasticware and spices. Although wholesaling characterizes the main business mode at Binh Tay, visitors can buy one or two items at many of the market’s stalls at prices often cheaper than those offered at other markets.The construction of Binh Tay Market was financed by Quach Dam (1863-1927), a Chinese tycoon in Vietnam. It took three years, from 1928 to 1930, to complete the market. Binh Tay was once called Cho Lon Moi (New Cho Lon) to distinguish it from Cho Lon Cu (Old Cho Lon) which it was built to replace.At first, it was difficult to attract traders to the new-built Binh Tay because they were accustomed to trading at the old market. But it later turned out to be one of the south’s most hectic commercial centers.Another distinguishing feature of Binh Tay is that it has an open area right in the middle. The area now looks like a garden with many green trees and three ponds. At the center of this “garden” is a big sandstone base where there used to be a bronze statue, about two meters high, of the market’s founder, Quach Dam. After Vietnam’s reunification in 1975, the statue was moved away from the base, and was later transferred to the HCM City Arts Museum where it remains until today. Now a small alter is sitting on the top instead of the big statue.In 2004, Lam Dien of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper wrote an article about the statue, raising the question on whether it should be returned to its original location. The article quoted Dr. Dang Van Thang, then acting director of HCM City Arts Museum, as saying that the statue should be brought back to Binh Tay. “In my opinion, if a statue of Quach Dam is to be built for Binh Tay Market, the existing one should be used because doing so is to return the statue to its right place. The statue has historical value as it is closely attached to the history of the market.” Four years has elapsed but Quach Dam’s statue is still in the back yard of the museum.By the time Saigon Stories visited Binh Tay Market last Friday, a group of French tourists were in the “garden” area, taking pictures of the sandstone base. The everyday number of foreign visitors to Binh Tay Market is not small. Therefore, foreign tourists will sure find Quach Dam’s statue more interesting to them.Now it’s your turn. Go to the central bus station near Ben Thanh Market and hop on a bus of Line 1. Pay VND3,000 and you’ll be sitting on an air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz bus with 47 seats available. At off-peak hours, it will take you only 25 minutes to travel from Ben Thanh to Binh Tay and vice versa.
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