When I visited Cho Dem for the first time, I had to stand on my tiptoes and prop my elbows on the table if I wanted to see the toys. I was in awe. Not just with the toys, but with the lights. There were so many lights in such an enclosed space, striped with the black gaits of people in a long, strolling parade that never ended. This gave me a surreal sensation, as if I were standing inside an ever moving Den Keo Quan lantern, but at the same time peering from outside into it.
Years pass, the goods have changed a lot, reflecting Vietnam’s international economic integration, but Hanoians’ enthusiasm for Cho Dem never wavers. For three evenings a week from Friday to Sunday, Cho Dem is still filled with goods and people, excitement and laughter.
The vendors pour out from all the crisscrossing veins of Hanoi’s heart, the Old Quarter, to claim the space they have sat every weekend for the past dozen years. Cars and motorbikes have already been blocked to the streets between Hang Dao Street and Dong Xuan Market’s gates. As afternoon turns to dusk and dusk turns to evening, the lights are turned on. All is set, ready to receive the first wave of visitors at six.
The 4000 stalls and carts make two lines of over 1 kilometer long, with their back against each other, effectively cutting the streets in half. They are set up this way so that pedestrians could make a round of the market and come out right where they come in.
Cho Dem’s main attraction is its variety in goods and affordable price. One could buy anything here, from clothes and fashion accessories to everyday household equipment like bowls and ceramics to electronic gadgets like lamps. Traditional articles are sold alongside modern goods so one could walk away from the newest sets of headphones just to end up in the next booth marveling at colorful paper handicrafts depicting well known Hanoi’s symbols such as the pedicab or woman with a carrying pole. Each stall often belongs to a family, and specializes in one kind of product; the goods are stocked up and displayed in such great amount that the stall seems a world of its own, with the owner in the middle like Smaug watching over its treasures.
For many Hanoians, Cho Dem has become a part of their lives ever since it was reinstated in 2003. They come here every weekend, even if they don’t intend to buy anything, to blend into the moving great mass, to feast their eyes on colorful products both traditional and modern, to stop at a particular article that piques their interest, perhaps haggle a bit with the seller before moving on again. And if one gets hungry, there are always refreshers and food sold by vendors along the way.
More than just a marketplace, Cho Dem also holds significant historical and cultural value. History buffs may want to explore Bach Ma (White Horse) Temple. Said to be the oldest temple in the city and dedicated to one of the four godly animals that guards the old Hanoi, the temple’s red lacquered funeral palanquin creates a sense of time past and silent solemnity.
Cho Dem has neither the impersonality of supermarkets nor the local feel of normal markets. People walk in here and find another world imbued in history and culture, cut from all the hustle of the modern world.