by Trung Hieu
HA NOI (VNS)— For so long the office of hustlers, sellers and scammers, the sidewalk is quickly becoming a place where students and even State employees turn to earn some extra cash.
Every night, Ha Noi's sidewalks become packed with a wide range of characters selling an even wider range of products, all with the goal of earning enough money to put food on the table.
Currently, most pavements in Ha Noi are bedecked with street vendors, cafes, teashops and restaurants working from early morning until late at night.
Fourth-year students at Ha Noi Transport University, Le Van Nam and Phan Van Thinh, recently pooled together their money to open a pavement lemon tea shop at a small lane in Cat Linh Street
Their outlays were just a few plastic tables and chairs, some cups and a couple of boxes containing tools for drink preparation.
The duo are only selling lemon tea and some fruit juices, but Nam says the job brings them fun and more income than they intially expected.
"Every evening we sell drinks here and we just feel happy to have many new friends. The extra income also helps us afford the trials of student life," says Nam.
Working while studying means these young men have got a lot on their plate, but depsite running the stall from 5pm to 11pm, they still ensure their learning.
Thinh seems quite the tea shop owner and knows how to make a range of drinks including lemon tea, kumquat tea mixed with honey, mint tea, and yogurt with ice.
He says he is really happy with their little tea shop so far, which is crowded every night, and one day hopes to expand.
"We want to rent a shop but it would require money that we can't afford to spare. This sidewalk venture is also very good, as we do not need much capital but still have many clients," he says.
The pavement has quickly become the place of livelihood for the two young students, who hope to become independent soon.
Another hub of pavement refreshment shops is Xuan Thuy Street, while in the small alleys, many such stalls run by students draw in the crowds.
But it's not everyone's cup of tea. Some people have sought alternative ways to drag themselves through these difficult times.
Nguyen Van Manh, born in the northern province of Bac Ninh, works for a State company in Ha Dong District.
Every evening he pushes round a trolley selling clothes in a bid to earn extra income to support his family back in their home village.
"My salary is just about VND3 million (US$144) a month, and it is spent on my living costs, so I have to do this to bring in some more money for my wife and child," he says.
Manh sells mid-range clothes on Nguyen Khanh Toan Street, starting at 6pm and ending at 11pm.
Being an amateur, he is not quite so skillful as the professional traders in markets, but Manh still gets by.
"Trading on the pavement is pretty easy and not as difficult as I thought," he says. "Customers come along pretty easily, so every day I can sell a few dozen trousers and shirts."
As for the professional sidewalk traders, Manh says that each day they earn a dozen times what he does.
When asked how much money he earns from the venture, he seems excited to share.
"At first, I became a sidewalk seller aiming to make a little extra money. But frankly, the money earned from this part-time job is not only double my monthly salary, but has also become my main source of income," Manh says.
His street vendor job has literally helped his family to survive; each month he can now not only cover his costs for living, but also send VND3 million to help his wife.
For young students like Nam and Thinh, the burden of making ends meet is not as serious as Manh's, but during these difficult economic times, the little money that their families send each month is not enough to live comfortably in the crowded city.
Nam says: "Our tea shop is small, but each evening we can sell between 20 and 30 cups, so we earn at least VND200,000-300,000. In good weather we earn even more."
The two students earn an average monthly income of about VND5 million (US$238) from selling lemon tea and this from very little investment. Nam says: "With an initial capital of just over VND1 million, we had regained our investment after just 10 nights. Now we just work and collect the interest."
Being students and State employees, they only need to spend a few hours working in the evening.
Given they earn a sum double or triple their salary and money sent from their families every month, it's little wonder so many people are drawn to working on pavements.
"Sidewalk culture" has become familiar and common to all of society and having a place where they do not have to worry about rent has made the sidewalk the best place to do business for many immigrants from other provinces.
But this thriving societal sub-culture could be under threat.
Recently, the Ha Noi Department of Transport issued a regulation prohibiting street vendors and markets on sidewalks.
"My questions is if the ban is strictly implemented, how will the tens of thousands of people who earn their living on pavements survive during this hard economic time?" asked a shoe seller sitting on Tran Quoc Hoan Street.
Architect Ton Dai, chairman of the Ha Noi Elder Architects Association, says trading on pavements makes the city vibrant and full of character.
"Authorities should allow street vendors to work in some streets, especially in the Old Quarter to maintain a link between the past and the present.
We need to keep the spirit of old streets alive as it's a unique feature of Vietnamese urban culture." — VNS