Thirty-five years ago, before helmets were ubiquitous and when bicycle passengers were the norm, a summons from my mother to ride with her to the market brought my own agenda to an end. I could be languishing in the shade, in my cool summer togs laying brick pathways in the dirt behind the flower beds. Or, we were entertaining friends, racing around the cement slab out back and trying not to stub our toes on a harsh metal pipe emerging from the middle of the patio. I might be reading when the call came, lying on my stomach on a wooden bench, sheltered from the sun by the overhanging roof and re-living a Narnia volume or one of the many cheap Scholastic books we owned.
But I would drop everything when I heard the call. I’d trot into the garage, where my petite mom steadied the bike so I could clamber up onto the cushioned bench behind the seat. Then a couple of steadying pushoffs with her foot, a moment of balancing, and we’d sail out of the garage and down our driveway, navigating an unpaved road flanked by cinder block walls.
I don’t remember what routes we took: there was the “old market” and the “new market.” There was a busy main street where we would have coasted along the edge, passing grand government buildings–since this was the provincial capital–and a prison, and the clock tower. But I remember taking the crumbling route beside the Mekong River, where we bumped along a light brown road paved in a way that always made me think of the peanut brittle pictures in our Candyland game. It was a quiet place, a low wall along the river on one side and older residences along the other. We often passed a huge tree wrapped with vivid colored cloth–a religious site–but I don’t remember whether that was on our way to the market or not.
I was glad that we usually went to the new market, dense with vendors and full of things to see–and smell. My mom would park the bike, and we’d head into the cluster of tattered large umbrellas and canopies, under which sellers heaped low tables with produce and other goods. Our flip-flops on the rough pavement splashed droplets of muddy water on our calves as we threaded our way through the network of makeshift stalls. Some sellers sat on low stools with red plastic tubs in front of them. Their merchandise, the most lively, might be a shifting network of sliding eels, flopping fish, or frogs hopping and scrambling to escape. My mom told me about the huge lizards sometimes offered for sale, struggling against ropes.
Vendors called out their produce prices per kilo, and sometimes offered a kong tam, some small toy or gadget free with purchase. Us kids loved the little freebies. “Here.” My mom would say, surprising us with a little bag of plastic parts. “This was the kong tam.” What did my mom buy that fit in her bike basket? Probably a kilo of oranges, a green papaya for our favorite spicy salad, red peppers, limes, garlic, tomatoes. By then, she’d already be running out of room. We always had grilled chicken and sticky rice with our papaya salad, so we’d enter a big building where fresh meat was set out on tables. A raw meat odor, not terrible, but not pleasant, either, filled the place.
Other waves of smell were less neutral. Some led to food items I couldn’t necessarily identify and knew I didn’t want to eat. Perhaps it was plah dak, a favorite fermented fish mixture that we preferred to omit from our green papaya salad. Maybe something else from the water, like tubs of dried shrimp, were causing the thick, wafting scents. Sometimes we would walk past steamers on the ground displaying eggs with a bit of shell removed so I could glimpse the little curled-up poultry specimens inside.
My mom treated us to street food when we accompanied her. She’d hand me coins, and pleased with her idea, instruct me to buy a small loaf of French bread and then a sausage from the ropes of hot meat hanging in a stall. The sausage, stuffed with rice and other things, burst when I bit into it, and it was tart inside. Deep-fried Vietnamese spring rolls were our favorite, though. The vendor would draw out the crispy brown rice paper roll and then snip it into bite-sized pieces with large scissors. You could get sour and spicy sauce for dipping, whatever you chose always involving crushed peanuts. If we got thirsty, my mom bought us Sprite, orange Fanta, or Thai iced tea. The refreshment was served in a plastic bag secured on one corner with a rubber band for a handle, a straw thrust into the opening.
Then we’d pedal homeward with our plastic bags of food in the basket, me careful to keep my feet angled out or resting on bolts, away from the spokes of the back wheel. We’d pull up in our driveway, my siblings running out to yell, “Did you bring us a prize?” And “Thanks, Mom!” for any plastic doodad or candy dispenser in delicate colors she’d hand out. My ride at an end, I’d take my candy and head out back, this time to my swing, to pump it as high as it would go toward the open blue sky while simultaneously clutching my market sweet and belting out a song from our Snow White story tape.