If you’re looking for recommendations for things to do and places to see in Southeast Asia, most people will probably point you towards the sprawling ruins of Angkor Wat, the towering karsts of Halong Bay, the bustle of cities like Hanoi and Siem Reap, or the exceptional cuisine found throughout the sub-continent. However, there’s one special highlight that I love recommending to visitors, and it’s not one that shows up in most guidebooks: go grocery shopping.
Markets in Southeast Asia are an unforgettable experience. Often open-air, with hodge-podge aisles of stalls carrying everything from produce and fresh spices to live chickens, these bustling bazaars are one of the best ways to experience local culture in the region. Chatting with vendors (through our bilingual local guides), you can find out about unique delicacies, strange fruits, and much more. Need examples? Here are a few things I’ve discovered in Southeast Asian markets.
- The World’s Best Pho—At the morning market in Luang Prabang, people start their day with a hearty bowl of pho, a soup combining sprouts, rice noodles, and meat or fish with a fragrant broth. It was so interesting to see the mix of people stopping by—a mix that included everyone from businessmen in suits and ties to local farmers in town for the market. It’s clearly a beloved dish for locals of all economic means—and when I tasted it I could understand why.
- Exotic Fruits—Dragon fruit, durian, rambutans, lychee, star fruit, papaya, and pineapples: you name it and you’ll find it in a Southeast Asian market. It was so fascinating to discover and taste these vibrant fruits I’d never heard of…and learn about their uses from vendors.
- A New Breakfast Drink—A real treat while shopping was to pause in a stall for an “Egg Drop coffee.” Vietnam is known for its thick, dark, aromatic coffee—often served fresh to order with a mini drip filter right on top of your mug. In this beverage, a raw egg is dropped into the drink, which cooks it instantly. It’s then heavily sweetened with evaporated milk, butter, and cheese. The result is both delicious and quite filling…and so thick that your spoon can stand up in the middle.
- Bird’s Nests—At a market in Hoi An, I spotted what looked like small piles of lacy potato chips at one stall. As our guide explained, these were actually birds’ nests, made by swallows from their own spit. Believe it or not, they’re the basis of a popular soup served on special occasions such as weddings throughout the region. One bird’s nest can cost the equivalent of several days’ (or even weeks’) wages…so I didn’t buy any.
- Wasp Liqueur—Speaking of unique specialty items, our guide pointed out something that I never would have found on my own. Wasp liqueur is a drink made by (what else?) adding dead wasps to a bottle of highly-potent alcohol along with corn syrup or sugar cane for flavor. It’s sold in recycled plastic water bottles—a novel way to keep them from ending up in the landfills. It’s sold for…ahem…medicinal purposes throughout the region.
- Live Chickens, Fish, Frogs, Eels, Ducks, Turtles…—One thing that really amazed me in a number of markets were the live animals. Chatting with a vendor in one market, I got an explanation. He was shocked to find out that animals are sold already dead in American markets. “How can you tell whether it’s fresh?” he asked. It turns out that the best way to guarantee that your food is not past its date is to see it butchered in front of you or to take it home live.
- Floating Food Stalls—One thing that surprised me wasn’t what I found in a market, but rather where I found the market itself. Specifically, we were in the midst of a boat trip across Halong bay when tiny skiffs began chugging up to us. Aboard each of them, vendors sold everything from freshly caught fish to locally grown produce and snacks like nuts, chocolate, and chips. Some even sold bowls of Pho made fresh on board or hot cups of coffee. These floating markets also served as the owner’s homes, so it was great fun to interact with the children on board.
- Khmer Scarves—Of course, it’s not just food that you find in these markets. Along with vegetables and piles of spices, I spotted cell phones, tee-shirts, lacquer boxes, and much more. Something of particular interest to me was Khmer scarves. Traveling throughout the region, I noticed that many men, including our guides, wore a particular style of scarf. These colorful striped or checked items were worn in a variety of ways, including folded into a makeshift shoulder bag (our guide was happy to demonstrate the technique). I spotted some for sale at a market in Siem Reap—the perfect gift for friends back home!