Before dawn the sprawling complex slowly starts to hum to life, and just as the first rays of sunlight appear on the horizon, the place is abuzz with vendors selling vegetables, meats, fruits; women and men buying for the family’s food for the day.

The Nghia Tan market in Cau Giay district in Hanoi is a typical traditional market where food products – vegetables, fruits, pork, chicken, fish, seafood, beef – from the nearby provinces congregate and make a stop for retailing among Hanoi’s urban population. Its typical, majority clientele are women – mothers, grandmothers, or nannies whose tasks include the occasional trip to the market to get provisions.

This week, the traditional market received more than its typical visitors. A group of researchers from Vietnam and abroad came to the market to observe its offerings and dynamics. The market, regular it may seem, is a place that can offer important insights as to why the Vietnamese eat as they do, which could also help explain why even though the national prevalence of overweight and obesity among children under 5 years old in 2015 was at 5.3%, big cities, for example, Ho Chi Minh, had seen their starting statistics jump three-folds over the past ten years; or why micronutrient deficiencies among pregnant women and children has not improved; or why more and more Vietnamese suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes.

Found around 10 kilometers from the peri-urban area, at what researchers call the “rural-urban transect,” the Nghia Tan market becomes even more useful as it appears to contain insights on food system and diet transitions.

As Vietnam continues its transformation – from an impoverished, agrarian society into an urban-centered, low middle-income economy – so does the Vietnamese diet.

The unusual market guests, researchers with the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), are trying to find ways to help ensure that the dietary shift and changes lean towards nutritious, safe, and affordable, for the food consumers and producers alike.

They do this by studying the different market dynamics and policies in both rural and urban settings and how changes to them could potentially impact consumer behavior. By mapping the various foods and products that enter and leave the market, with a little help from technology and information provided by the sellers themselves, they see all facets of the market’s operations, and they step closer to making changes or “upgrades” to the market, or recommendations, in order to help make market activities: more efficient, so as to halt food loss and wastage; nutritionally sufficient, so as to be able to provide healthy options, including fruits and vegetables, to consumers; and quality-conscious, so that consumers could be assured that the food they buy had been handled and stored according to acceptable safety and quality standards.

Focus on the consumer

But first and foremost, researchers with A4NH study the consumers and what makes them buy and eat what they do, including how diversity of options in the retail market and food environments influence their decisions.

Take Pham Huong, for example, a mother to a 7-year old boy. Huong goes to the Nghia Tan market at least once a week to buy some vegetables – only those that have tough, thick shells or skin such as pumpkin – and meat – only beef, and never pork, chicken, fish, or seafood.

She says that a lot of negative news talking about the amount of chemicals, including pesticides, on agricultural products such as leafy vegetables, pork, chicken, fish, and seafood, from around ten years ago, had pushed her to limit the kind and amount of food that she got from the wet market to those that she thought would be “safe.” She claims that only 20 percent of the household’s weekly food consumption comes from the traditional market; the rest comes from trusted sources – relatives, friends, or neighbors that grew vegetables or produced livestock – or from the modern supermarkets, whose quality and safety of food products, she believes in.

Although based on current research, Huong may be worrying unnecessarily about the safety of pork from wet markets, in terms of chemical contamination. Contrary to previous mass media reports and the general public perception, health risks due to chemical hazards in pork appear to be less serious. A research on pigs in Nghe An and Hung Yen provinces completed by A4NH in 2017 showed that nearly none of the samples exceeded maximum, allowable residue thresholds.

A4NH contributes to discussions around food safety – a popular topic – in Vietnam, particularly on pork, which accounts for 75 percent of total meat consumed daily by households. Researchers work with a coalition of national and international partners to improve pork safety. They also study the impact of and ways to mitigate the threat of aflatoxin, a mold that affects crops and that can be harmful to humans and animals, as well as the risks associated with chemical hazards including antibiotics, heavy metals, and banned chemicals in pork.

The same research project had performed a first-ever quantitative assessment of Salmonella contamination in pork, and which revealed that the annual salmonellosis incidence rate among consumers in the provinces was between 11 and 18 percent, which means that 1 to 2 out of every 10 people got sick yearly from consumption of boiled pork. A staggering USD2.5 to 7.6 million is spent on hospital costs in Vietnam yearly due to food-borne diarrhea.

By working to raise consumer knowledge on where their food comes from, the food’s “traceability,” researchers at A4NH and partners are helping build a generation of empowered consumers that can demand accountability from producers for their food’s quality and safety.

Photos by Pham Le and Madelline Romero / CIAT

The 2018 Program Management Committee meeting for the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health ( was held in Hanoi from March 20-23.

Performing research in the priority countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, and Vietnam, A4NH is led by the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI) and implemented with Bioversity International, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Wageningen University and Research.

In Vietnam, it is coordinated by CIAT and works with the aforementioned organizations, as well as national partners including the National Institute of Nutrition, Hanoi University of Public Health, National Institute of Veterinary Research, Vietnam National University of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, and Markets and Agriculture for Cities.

Photos by Pham Le and Madelline Romero / CIAT

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