It was dawn in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and the first smell that hit me was of grilled beef, instantly arousing my appetite despite the hour. But I couldn't eat just yet. Too much to see.
I had come to explore one of the city's vast indoor markets, about the size of your average convention hall floor and twice as crowded. Everywhere, vendors cleaned and chopped, washed and peeled.The food was sold whole (and often alive), or prepared for cooking (lemon grass was trimmed and minced, shallots peeled and chopped), or fully cooked. Huge pots of stock simmered on small gas stoves, and vendors offered roasted pork, iced coffee, even crisp-fried insects.
Brushing aside preconceptions about the Third World versus the West, I found myself asking whether I had ever been in a finer market than this one - for its variety, beauty, freshness and the appreciation of food it represented. Sure, in France or Italy, there are terrific markets. But better than this? I don't think so, at least not for me.
Look at the fruit: the spiked, football-shaped durian, which smells like strong cheese; the fearsome-looking but mild-flavored dragonfruit; mounds of cherry-size plums; and some fruits so strange that on second glance they might have been fish, or even meat - I'm still not sure.
I bought some jackfruit, which tastes like something between a pineapple and an overripe melon, dipping the yellow fruit into the mixture of salt, sugar and minced chilies that came with it. The combination of sweet fruit and piquant dip was exciting.
Chickens and ducks clucked in cages while their vendors squatted to eat their morning pho, the omnipresent meat soup. A dozen jars of herb and spice pastes, looking like acrylic paints, caught my eye; I was invited to taste, and was jolted by the superconcentrated tastes of Southeast Asia: chilies, mint, cilantro and lime.
Disconcertingly - but not surprisingly - the market lacked refrigeration, despite temperatures that never failed to reach 90 degrees. Ice was a rare sight, reserved for the most fragile items, like squid.
But freshness was never sacrificed. Later on, in the Mekong Delta city of Soc Trang, I decided to see how this was made possible. I awoke at 4 a.m., crawled out of bed, drank some leftover coffee and walked from my hotel to the center of town.
I was already too late: the food had begun arriving a few hours earlier. And as I soon learned, this was typical: the markets are stocked in the middle of the night, when temperatures are relatively cool.