Fish Out of Water

The local market is a place often overlooked by people on vacation busy checking off other “must see” sights on their itineraries. Not surprising, who wants to visit a grimy old dilapidated wet market when you’re on holiday? From a photographic point of view however, it’s actually one of the best places to capture some exotic images of people at work.

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My love hate relationship with wet markets in Asia stems from the fact that they are often filthy and smell nasty. However, I’m resigned to venturing out to these places over and over simply because they are highly interesting, bustling with energy and I just love to photograph people in their local habitat.

The Xom Moi Market in Nha Trang, Vietnam is a short walk from the popular beach street area. It’s a familiar sight I’ve seen in markets around Kuala Lumpur, Goa, Phnom Penh and many other places in the region. It’s characteristically wet and icky but did not smell bad, at all. Which is unusual for a market such as this.

The seafood section boasts some of the freshest catch I’ve seen yet. Fish in shallow containers of water still alive flap violently as they hit chopping boards truly giving new meaning to the idiom “fish out of water“. And close by, baskets stacked high with live crabs surreptitiously plot their get away only to be caught and tossed back onto the heap. “No one’s getting out alive!” the lady screams as she picks up a runaway crustacean.

No, I’m just kidding.

Elsewhere, buckets overflowing with prawns and shell fish get cleaned ready for packing while over at the squid stations, tentacles get snipped off with an unlikely tool, a pair of scissors. Nothing goes to waste. And while all this is going on, there are some indulging in a steaming hot bowl of Pho. The contrasts of raw chopped up seafood and a couple of chopsticks at work are stark at best.

The chicken lady over at the other end of the market parades a string of her prettiest chicks with a few more on death row in cages awaiting customers before she wields her deadly knife for the eventual kill. The meat sections are a grizzly sight with carved up carcasses and table top counters stacked with slabs of red meat getting sliced and diced expertly by the ladies who trade here daily. It’s like a slaughter house from a bad horror movie.

I think I’m going to be vegetarian for a while after seeing all of this.

Housewives with their little red clutch bags are everywhere poking at and checking out the merchandise on offer while waving their arms all over the place bargaining briskly for the best possible prices. Some are chatting while others compare notes of what they’ve bought and perhaps even planning for what to cook for lunch.

Over at the vegetable and fruit sections, the ladies look like they are surrounded by mini gardens of produce over flowing from their baskets ripe for the picking. Vivid greens and eye-popping colours everywhere. Fresh tropical fruit, pineapples, mangoes, bananas, guava, dragon fruit, you name it, they got it. And you’ll never hear me say this about any other market I’ve ever visited, the fruity odours here were extraordinarily fragrant and aromatic.

At Xom Moi nothing is frozen, supermarkets as we know them are child’s play by comparison. This here is the real deal, warts and all. It’s as fresh and gory as it’ll ever get.

Friendly and warm, the people here appear to know each other from the surrounding community. I’m pretty much the sore thumb in this crowd, the fish out of water so to speak. With raised eyebrows, many are amused by my presence, I’m neither dressed for the occasion nor do I have a little red basket in need of filling. Constantly being stared and smiled at, I’m the lone gunman with a camera who came by to take photos of something no-one else wanted to see and who left without buying anything.

The Roving Photographer
March 13, 2016

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