|Businesses set up their stalls in underground area of the new market.— VNS Photo Truong Vi
by Hoang Anh
HA NOI (VNS) — Her lunch break over, Dat began rearranging flipflops and sandals in her tiny footwear store.
Soon, they were neatly organised in different shelves, making it easier for the customers to make their choice and for Dat to serve them. She had taken over the store when her mother became too old to run it. That was 20 years ago.
Then, the shop in the Mo (Dream) market had a thatched roof which demanded a lot of work when it rained. Now, the market has been rebuilt, and Dat is thankful that the premises are cleaner and safer (from fires).
However, she is not confident that the new market will result in better business.
The market has been rebuilt at the previous location, but it is now part of a mega complex, grandly named the Mo Market Plaza, which has a 15-storey apartment building and a 25-storey office building.
The old market has been pushed down into the basement of these buildings. A long way down. We counted 30 steps.
"We are struggling to survive here. If business does not get better any time soon, I don't think we can afford the new rent and utility costs," Dat said.
The city had ordered the market rebuilt in 2007, reasoning that the stores with thatched-roofs and "basic" infrastructure were not meeting sanitation and fire-safety standards.
This was true, but the old Mo Market was second only to the famous Dong Xuan Market on the list of Ha Noi's traditional markets.
It wasn't a place for the rich and wealthy class. It was a place for factory workers, farmers from outer districts and small-time traders.
However, the Mo Market had two signature features that gave it a special standing in the capital city – the Mo tofu and tradition of holding market-days on the 2nd, 7th, 12th, 17th, 22nd and 27th of the lunar calendar.
Dat said that the Mo tofu fully deserves its reputation. "The tofu is rich in flavour. It possesses a unique combination of smell and taste. I think the secret is the water they use," she said.
While it is named after the market, the tofu can only be made by residents of the Mai Dong Village nearby, locals say, adding proudly that people from far away come to the market to get it.
Dat, who has lived with the market her whole life, became passionate and animated as she talked about the old market-days. They were like festivals, she said. People from outer districts would bring in dogs, cats, pigs and birds as also many different kinds of plants and flowers.
She said she is not sure that the old festive atmosphere can be recreated in the new Mo market.
Reasons to worry
Dat and her fellow vendors have had to wait for almost five of the seven years it took to rebuild the market, and they are apprehensive that it might have been too long.
They are also nervous about their prospects under the new management and its policies.
Chung, who owns a confectionery shop, said many customers had stopped coming to the market, and it would take time for them to return.
While the market's Management Board is not collecting rent right now as an incentive for shop owners to come back, they have announced that the rent for an average-sized stall will be VND2 million (US$95) per month plus utilities.
Shop owners must also pay for two years' rent in advance.
"For some of us it is a lot of money to come up with, especially after we've had to invest in setting up our stalls," Chung said.
Van, who used to own a footwear shop nearby, was upset over how many customers she'd lost after moving down to the new market.
"There is no service down here for my mobile phones. Customers have said they tried calling me a few times but couldn't get through and I've lost a lot of business after moving down here.
"Also, there is no sunlight down here, day or night, and I don't think it will be good for us."
In the groceries section of the market, most shops are abandoned and there no customers to speak of.
"I haven't seen many customers here since the re-opening," Tho, a groceries shop owner, told Viet Nam News. "Many of my fellow shop owners have not bothered to return here to do business."
She said customers cannot get used to the idea of having to park their motorbikes outside and go down the stairs to buy VND5,000 (23 cents) worth of vegetables.
The Management Board has agreed not to collect parking fees for now, so things will get worse once this period is over, Tho said.
Going up is another problem. Tho said a lift to help move goods up would be extremely helpful.
"Our goods are heavy and customers cannot carry them up."
Things are not likely to get any better as cho coc (leaping frogs) stalls spring up around the Mo Market Plaza.
It is much easier and faster to buy vegetables and other things at one of the cho coc shops, because the shopping is over in a minute. Tho said many shops in the old market have not moved to the new one, preferring to remain outside where it's easier to do business.
There is one by the alley on Minh Khai Street, one on Bach Mai and yet another on Truong Dinh, all of them in close proximity to the new market.
Dat was hopeful. "Once they clear out all the cho coc, the market will be the place where everyone goes to shop once again."
Her optimism might be misplaced, given how difficult it has been for authorities to deal with the cho coc in other places.
"We just don't have enough manpower to keep them under control. We clear them in the morning; they come back in the afternoon. There is no end to it," said a senior officer with the Truong Dinh Ward police.
The market won't be able to make a comeback without the market-days, said Tuan, owner of a pet store on Kim Nguu Str. where the event was held for the last six years.
Without the market-days it's not Mo market anymore, he said.
"It's the habit of going (to the market-days). Even if people did not find what they wanted to buy in the first place, they still ended up buying something.
"But it won't be easy to convince people to come back. The market was closed for too long, and people are used to going elsewhere."
Amidst all this uncertainty, there is something to fall back on.
Dat pointed. "You can still buy it (the special Mo tofu) here in the afternoon. It is a small comfort to all those who have spent their lives with the market like me." — VNS