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Love it or hate it, Ben Thanh Market is one of the most recognizable features in Saigon.
Having said that, as far as markets go, Ben Thanh Market tends to bring out the best and the worst in Sai gon markets.
On the one hand, the prices at Ben Thanh are higher than at other markets because it gets so many tourists; many of its stalls are filled with tacky touristy items that you will see every where you go; and you get harassed, grabbed and pressured by sellers like at no other market in Saigon.
On the other hand though, Ben Thanh Market is a hugely vibrant and colorful market.
Some of the other markets around Saigon can be very sleepy at times, especially after lunch, but because of the busy tourist trade in District 1, Ben Thanh Market is always filled with the sounds and smells of commerce as people bargain and negotiate.
And if you are a foreigner the best things about Ben Thanh Market is that most of the sellers can communicate in English to some degree, and even if they can’t there is the ever present calculator to help smooth over any language difficulties.
And while many of the shops do contain only tacky touristy items, Ben Thanh Market does also have a good range of clothes shops.
And when the doors of Ben Thanh Market close at about five or six in the evening, the night market starts up outside.
Spilling over into the neighboring streets, the night market is just as vibrant as the inside market, filled with clothes and shoe stalls and a dozen or so semi permanent restaurants.
It is a colorful location where you can rest in the cool evening air and try some Vietnamese food and unwind after a long hard day’s shopping or sightseeing.
Historically Ben Thanh market, in a round-about-way, has its origins way back in the 17th century.
At the start of the 17th century vendors would group together on the streets near or around the Saigon River, near where soldiers would land and merchants traveling up and down the river would load and unload their goods for sale.
Over the years this impromptu market became known as Ben Nghe or Ben Thanh Market due to its location near the wharf (Ben) and the Turtle Citadel (or Quy Thanh).
When the French conquered the Saigon Citadel in 1856 though (Saigon at the time was fortress), they rebuilt a large thatch roofed mud-floored Ben Thanh Market near what is today Ham Nghi Street and Nguyen Hue Street (Ham Nghi and Nguyen Hue were canals at the time).
Located conveniently near the wharfs, this market did a rip-roaring trade, but perhaps a victim of its own success and popularity, the thatch roofed market burned to the ground in 1870 in a large fire.
Afterwards the French rebuilt the market in the same location but with steel frames, this new steel framed market became the largest market in all Saigon.
In 1912 under the orders of the Saigon Mayor, Ben Thanh Market moved to a new building located on marshy ground opposite the Quach Thi Trang Square at the end of Le Loi Street.
They named this new market the New Ben Thanh Market.
The old Ben Thanh Market is now popular as the old Market in Ton That Dam Street selling canned goods, drinks and fresh foodstuffs, although it operates on a much smaller scale after loosing much of its area to the treasury office and the Banking Institute over the years.
The New Ben Thanh Market was officially opened in 1914 in a grand ceremony, with throngs of people coming in from nearby provinces to see the new market.
Now only known as Ben Thanh Market this is the Ben Thanh Market you can see and visit today.
While Ben Thanh Market went through a major renovation in 1985 to make it bigger, the clock tower and the southern gate are still the original 1912 building.