Markets are like museums to me; a series of exhibits, installations and performances that stimulate, engross and compel. They are like theatre, improvisational theatre where the audience participates in the drama. Spirited one act dialogues take place over quality and always over price. This is a kind of operatic bluff, with rising crescendos of argument juxtaposed with gentle smiling contentment at deal's end. Occasionally it is physical and comic: heated pushing and shoving over oranges on scales or the end of a broomstick raised then thwacked across the shoulder blades of a rival vendor trying to steal a customer. Moments of magic for this theatre-goer!
Walking the markets is also a tactile experience in Hanoi. Scope still exists here for customers to scoop up a handful of black beans, feel their smoothness on finger tips before letting them drop one by one back into their paper sack. Removing the outer lettuce leaves, plucking out a wilting sprig of morning glory, even grabbing a hunk of pork for closer inspection - this kind of interactivity, which brings to mind the 'touch and feel box' for kids at the museum, is much more encouraged than admonished. Try before you buy is the prevailing practice when it comes to fruit, with segments of clementine, slivers of mango or single lychees or rambutans offered as evidence of the degree of ripeness, sweetness or indeed sourness. I've seen the locals openly munch on the vendor's supply of nuts while their own are being packaged for purchase.
The sets that provide the back-drop for these everyday human dramas are normally stock-standard makeshift arrangements built with scraps of timber, tarpaulins and rope, sheet metal and plastic. But if one can remove one's concentration for a moment from the action and props of the narrative, sometimes a step back will provide a vista which is majestic and ancient, an almost cinematic moment where the story matters little compared to the grandeur of the scenery. An austere doorway, suitably weathered by age, or the ornate entrance to the Đền Hội Thống (Temple of the Governor), gilded in yellow and inscribed in Chinese characters, add another aesthetic dimension to the spectacle of the market.
Further along, abstract installations that challenge one's intellect and experience may be on display. Tiny freshwater crabs (cua đồng) being pounded alive in a giant mortar and pestle or dozens of frogs captive in a net all jumping up and down but not in time, must surely qualify as avant-garde performance art. And what of the abstruse sculpture of orange-barked timber, rose petal, areca nut and knife - isn't that something to wonder at, ask questions about?
Could it be that the Asian wet market is linked to ritual, myth and ceremony, clearly within the realm of what are traditionally the bastions of a nation's culture, the art gallery and museum.
In Vietnam, given the choice, the market may well be the best place to obtain the fundamentals of the culture.