My kind of market

Animated ... a chicken at a Vietnamnese market.
Animated ... a chicken at a Vietnamnese market. Photo: Alamy

"What are we getting for lunch?" I yelled in Khien's ear as we roared through Dong Mang, a small Vietnamese town on the road to Da Lat.

"Chicken," he yelled back from the front of the motorbike, dodging a car and narrowly missing a stray dog. "We will cook it later."

OK, I thought. Chicken. Of all the things I've eaten in Vietnam, that will be up there with the least adventurous. It's no snake or fried insect, but it sounds good.

So the two of us motored through town towards the central market, dodging the usual honking melange of scooters and trucks and pedestrians and livestock that litters a typical Vietnamese road.

The market was the sort you would find in almost every town in the country, with tarpaulin sheets rigged over a concrete floor, large stacks of fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs laid out on wooden benches. Khien wasn't mucking around, heading straight towards the back to find his chicken lady. I just tried to keep up.

Now, if this were a normal market, I'd have been stupendously bored already. When I picture markets, I think of the arts-and-crafty ones, the type some people could wander around for hours without the slightest intention of buying things, just handling all the goods and saying things such as, "That's quite nice. That'd look good in the lounge room."

I hate those markets. All the goods either look exactly the same as each other to me, or they're nothing I would ever want to buy anyway. And if you're not going to buy anything, what are you doing there?

Food markets, however, are different, particularly food markets in foreign countries. They're fascinating - a window into the culture. I could conceivably buy everything that's on display and, even if I don't, the act of looking is experience enough.

Whether it's cheese stalls in Paris, mystery meat on a stick in Tanzania, fresh vegies in Bologna or weird nutty things in Moscow, I'm interested.

You see some fantastically strange things in food markets. There's a stall in Phonsavan, Laos, that sells bats. Not single bats, mind you, but bats tied together in little bundles of three. Because, really, why would you want only one or two bats?

Go to Tsukiji fish markets in Tokyo and you'll find seafood you didn't know existed, the sort of strange things that should be wobbling through horror-movie sets, not presenting themselves on your dinner plate.

I find it all amazing, so I could have happily followed Khien around that market in Dong Mang for hours, prodding vegetables and tasting fruits.

Old women grinned toothless grins at us as we wandered by, imploring the Western guy to buy large bagfuls of whatever it was they had for sale.

But Khien had come for chicken and it was a chicken we would have. The two of us made our way towards a small stand at the back of the market, me marvelling at everything around, before we arrived at our destination and the realisation finally dawned.

We weren't here to buy chicken - we were here to buy a chicken. And when you buy a chicken at a Vietnamese food market, it tends to look a little more animated than the ones in the frozen section at Coles.

These chickens were proper chickens. Clucking, pecking chickens. Living chickens. "Which one do you like?" Khien asked, pointing at the 10 chooks nervously pacing around the little enclosure.

I wasn't totally comfortable with this state of affairs but what can you do? I didn't want Khien to think I was, well, chicken, so I surveyed the pen of potential lunch. Having never chosen my meat with such freshness, I wasn't sure what to look for. They all looked scrawny and feathery to me.

"What about that scrawny, feathery one?" I said to Khien.

"OK," he nodded. "We get that one."

It's good to witness this sort of thing, I guess.

If you're a meat-eater, if you're comfortable with your choice to dine on animals, then you should be able to watch how your food really makes it to your plate. It snaps you back to cold reality.

But that didn't make it fun, standing there while the lady did what needed to be done to our scrawny little chook, working so swiftly that within a few minutes she presented Khien and I with a simple plucked carcass, the sort you'd find in the frozen section at Coles.

Lunch. Into a plastic bag, into Khien's backpack and then off on the motorbike to a clearing in a forest where we'd be able to start a fire and cook our prize. Organic and fresh. Free range, I assume.

But, sadly, also a little chewy.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

Have you had any interesting experiences at markets while travelling? Eaten or bought weird and wonderful foods? Post a comment below.

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