The Banana Lady was just one of the many old ladies hawking produce at Cho Dong Ba, a market in Hue overwhelmingly manned by women, from butchers and noodle vendors to florists and shrimp paste sellers. She was probably closing on 80, thin, with hollowed out cheeks, a light purple cardigan and flower-print trousers. She seemed caught in a permanent squat whenever we walked past.
“Dao,” she said to me. At least, that’s what it sounded like. I can’t pretend to speak Vietnamese. She gestured at my face, passed a hand over her own. Her face was shielded by the nón lá, that conical hat so many vendors wear – no sunblock needed, and perfect for plunging your vision into instant darkness whenever you need a quick nap. I pulled the brim of my hat a little further down to shade my face from the hot mid-morning sun, and she nodded, her lips set in a firm line. For an instant I saw my grandmother. Well-meaning old ladies are pretty much the same all over Asia in this regard.
She pulled out notes of different denominations from her wad of cash, depending on the bunch we picked up. Eventually, we carried home a bunch of yellow ones lightly spotted with black for 10,000VND.
Living in Japan with access to just one or two varieties of bananas imported from the Philippines, I forgot that there exist dozens, hundreds of banana types on this planet. In the Hue markets we often saw them in big bunches and clusters, thick, fat fingers on their stems. Do people buy them, and wait until they’re ripe and yellow before eating? Or is there a use for green bananas that I don’t know about? We did see the young banana flower quite often in salads and alongside soup noodles in Saigon, often julienned into a tangle of gently bitter curls.
We ate our bananas on the train to Saigon and found seeds towards the bottom of each banana, small round black seeds which made me feel like I was spitting out beady eyeballs. This was the first time I’d ever had bananas with seeds in them. I wanted to bite down on them to see if they’d break but carefully rolled the banana flesh around my mouth instead, removing them with teeth and tongue.