It was a chilly night Saturday but groups of friends gathered around food booths at St. Mark the Evangelist in West Hartford as a combination of delicious scents wafted through the air: grilled meats, baked goods and of course, pho. A live band played pop music from Vietnam and other parts of the world — like “Jamaica Farewell” — translated into Vietnamese.
It was the opening of the Vietnamese Night Market, held bimonthly during the warmer months at the church. The open-air event is a celebration of cooking and community, offering a variety of food options, all of them homemade by parishioners and with proceeds benefiting the church.
“The market is so fun and exciting. Everyone loves it,” Ánh Đôn Lê, a member of the parish council, said. “It brings Vietnamese people together and lets us introduce our culture to others.”
As emcee and host of the event, Lê, who owns nail spas in Southington and Windsor Locks, was greeting diners and getting them hyped about the event.
The Rev. Tuan Anh Dinh Mai, known to everyone as Father Andy, is the pastor of the quasi-parish of St. Andrew Dung-Lac, located at St. Mark, that has become a social hub for 250 families, coming from as far as New York and Massachusetts, who attend Mai’s weekly Vietnamese-language Masses. Mai founded the night market in 2019 and the families of the parish comprise the market.
But people from all walks of life are welcome at the market, to delight in a wide range of freshly prepared Vietnamese dishes for on-site dining or takeout. Some vendors bring prepared and packaged foods to sell.
“It’s not just for Vietnamese. We get people here speaking Chinese, English, Cambodian, Thai, Laotian,” Mai said. “People work hard all week and want to relax with friends on Saturday night. Saturday is friends’ day. Sunday is families’ day.”
The market did well in 2019, its inaugural year, and less well during the height of the pandemic. It started again on May 7, and will run through Oct. 15. On May 7, the crowd of hundreds bundled up in coats against the low-50s temperature and stiff wind. “We got a good crowd even though it is cold. More people will come when it is warmer,” Mai said.
Among the dishes are pho, banh mi, stir fry, shrimp-taro pancakes, fried quail and chicken, grilled meats, pork patties, coconut snails, spring rolls, duck eggs, soups, baked goods, desserts, beer, wine and sugar cane juice fresh pressed while you wait.
Most of the booths are simple tables under canopies, with seating in a separate area. Zen Nguyen of Hartford was an exception. Her wooden food cart, with straw on the roof and a few barstools, featured a sign “Pho Hung.”
“I am from Hanoi. A long time ago, Hanoi had simple carts on the street, just like this. Even when it was cold, people wanted to sit down at the carts outside and have something to eat,” Nguyen said. “We serve traditional beef pho, nothing else.”
Toan Nguyen of Windsor runs a booth where he grills skewered veggies and meat: lamb, chicken and pork. He enjoys interacting with people and making them food.
“It’s a beautiful place for us to have fun. And we find happiness in service,” he said.
Thuy Le of West Hartford visited the market as a customer, with friend Tran Nguyen of West Hartford. “I like eating here because a lot of these dishes, they would take hours to make if I made them at home,” Le said. “I just want to come here and eat a lot.”
Vietnamese Night Market starts at 6 p.m. on May 21, June 4 and 18, July 2 and 16, Aug. 6 and 20, Sept. 3 and 17 and Oct. 1 and 15 at St. Mark the Evangelist Church, 467 Quaker Lane South in West Hartford.
The parish website is at facebook.com/gxandrewdunglac.
Susan Dunne can be reached at email@example.com.