At the wet market, Bridget stumbles into a comedy of errors

Having been in Vietnam only a matter of weeks and still filled with enthusiasm and girlish bravado, I decided to cook a Vietnamese feast for some friends. Surely such a simple endeavor couldn’t be too difficult. Armed with an illustrated English cook book by a famous chef who had recently traveled this region, I simply needed to translate the ingredients into Vietnamese for a shopping trip at a local market. I soon discovered that even with Google as my guide, I couldn’t find reliable translations for such simple ingredients as lettuce, chicken breasts and spring onions, never mind the more difficult items I would need like palm sugar, pork belly, kohlrabi and kaffir lime leaves.

Not one to be easily beaten, I set about creating a visual shopping list. I found photos of all the ingredients I required and formed a foolproof plan to show them to the lovely ladies of the wet market ensuring the meal would all come together somehow. Vietnamese wet markets are amongst the most colorful and vibrant that you will find anywhere in the world. They are in the quiet streets of city centers and suburban neighborhoods. The stall holders shade their wares from the sun with an array of brightly colored awnings strung across the streets that bathe everything below in an inviting iridescent light. It becomes a kaleidoscope of fruit, flowers, meat and fish. One of my favorites, in District 3, feels like a perpetual street party. The alleys are filled with voices and laughter, bobbing conical hats, goods being fetched and carried and impatient motorcyclists wriggling through the crowds. The whole event is a feast for all the senses which I could happily sit and experience for hours.

My appearance at the local wet market always causes amusement. Apparently, they don’t get many Westerners down that part of town. A ripple of laughter runs through the stalls as my first lady vendor giggles at my complete inability to pronounce the Vietnamese name for tomatoes and lemongrass. I’ve reached my limit. It’s time to bring out the photo shopping list. People appear from cool shadows, tip out of hammocks and gather round to look at this strange document. But I soon discover a problem. The sellers are not very visually oriented so they find it difficult to decipher some of my photos and argue amongst themselves about what they may or may not represent. Nonetheless, the cooking ingredients gradually come together in the fruit and vegetable section and friendly vendors point me in the right direction for chicken and fish.

Amongst the poultry stalls I find a display where all the individual parts of the chicken are laid out in full view from head to intestine, feet to liver, wings and heart too, like some ‘assemble your own chicken’ kit. I soon have some meaty breasts and then pick up gorgeous fresh prawns and lean pork on my way back to my bike. I don’t really want to leave; next time I will bring my sketch pad I think.

Oh! Coriander! I forgot the coriander! I rush around the vegetable stalls but, unbelievably, I cannot see any anywhere. I need to ask for some but I don’t know the name. What’s worse, I don’t have a photo of it on my shopping list. I improvise by whipping out a pencil and drawing a coriander leaf on a scrap of paper but there is a lot of hand waggling going on as the crowd try to tell me they don’t understand my drawing. Then one young man thinks he understands what I want. A message is sent through the ranks of the market to some poor soul who was apparently enjoying his siesta under a table in a storeroom somewhere. Ten minutes later, he appears at my side with a broad grin and an expression of pride and achievement written all over his face. Everyone nods and grins as he presents me with… a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums. No, not chrysanthemums! I can’t help but laugh!

A professional artist working in Vietnam, Bridget March has lectured at Leeds College of Art (UK) and practiced as a freelance product designer. She specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and the richness of smaller town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget also holds drawing classes for beginners and improvers in Saigon. Find more of her work at BrushWithAsia.blogspot.com