Street life, the only life they know

October 04, 2018 - 09:00

After a little over six months living in Việt Nam I think I have learned a fair old chunk of the language. Certainly enough to get me by.

I can ask for a beer, two beers and even three. I also know how to tell a Grab driver to turn left, right, and even carry on straight ahead.

Cool tools: Mechanic Nguyễn Văn Hùng says he loves working on his street corner. — VNS Photo Paul Kennedy
Viet Nam News

By Paul Kennedy

After a little over six months living in Việt Nam I think I have learned a fair old chunk of the language. Certainly enough to get me by.

I can ask for a beer, two beers and even three. I also know how to tell a Grab driver to turn left, right, and even carry on straight ahead.

Another phrase I’ve mastered is “không, cám ơn”. For those of you not as linguistically proficient as me, it means “no, thank you”.

This is a much needed phrase when politely declining the services offered by those who ply their trade on the streets.

It could be to the guy who wants to clean your shoes, the woman offering to sell you gum or the cyclist hoping to give you a tour of the city.

In other countries I’ve visited and lived in, hawkers are a complete pain in the backside. Constantly in your face trying to sell you whatever it is they are selling.

Bitter taste: Tea seller Phùng Thị Lý struggles to make ends meet in bad weather. — VNS Photo Hồng Vân

Not so in Viet Nam.

Sure there are plenty around, and on the whole, 99 per cent of them move on when you say in their own language, “no, thank you”.

But here, especially in Hà Nội, I look upon them differently than vendors in say Ibiza, the Caribbean, or even London.

Some of us lucky enough to be living in Viet Nam may find these guys irritating and one or two are admittedly more pushy than others, but we need to delve into their lives a little bit.

Street life has always been part of this country’s culture. The image of a vendor selling her goods from baskets hanging from a pole balancing on her shoulders is synonymous with Việt Nam, engraved in its DNA.

Take a stroll through the Old Quarter and there are plenty of tourists posing for pictures while carrying the tools of her trade and wearing her conical hat.

Pedal power: Cyclo rider Nguyễn Mạnh says he’s made lots of friends through his work. — VNS Photo Paul Kennedy

Street sellers here certainly take it up a notch.

Need a haircut? Head to the streets. Looking for a mechanic to fix your clapped-out motorbike? There’s one over there. Want to get an extra key cut for your apartment? Try the guy by the side of the road.

Or how about a manicure, cup of tea, massage or even, and I’m not kidding here, getting your ears cleaned. These are all services provided yards from the busy traffic on the streets of the capital city.

But this isn’t just some fly-by-night chancer trying to make a quick buck at the expense of a gullible expat, this is their profession and should be treated respectfully.

Chances are the sweet potato seller got up at the crack of dawn, earlier probably. Collected her wares from either a farm or market, travelled 25km or more on a bus then spent the day in blistering heat walking the length and breadth of downtown Hà Nội in the hope of heading home to do it all again the next day with somewhere in the region of VNĐ100,000 (US$4.30) in her pocket.

Her parents did it before her, and chances are her children will take up the reigns in years to come.

To many, the man who fixes mopeds on the roadside may well be in the way as they hurry to get to work.

Cut above: Barber Trần Đình Đoàn earns his living at the wall of the Temple of Literature in downtown Hà Nội. — VNS Photo Hồng Vân

But to those with a flat tyre or a key locked in the compartment under your seat, he is an angel sent down from heaven above and a knight in shining armour rolled into one.  

The streets of Hà Nội are vibrant, alive and unique. They are colourful, noisy, congested and yet strangely calm.

And in my eyes the reason for this is simply, it’s because of all those people working on the streets.

They are the lifeblood of Hà Nội. They are the city’s heartbeat, pumping each beat with every step they take.

For many of them, life on the streets is, to quote Randy Crawford, the only life they know. Take them away and you rip the soul from this city.

So next time you feel bothered, hassled, annoyed of vexed because a woman in her 70s wants to sell you some chewing gum for the princely sum of around VNĐ5,000 (roughly 20 cents) stop and think before giving her your response.

You could dismiss her with a wave of your hand pretending she doesn’t exist, you could also politely decline her offer by saying the words “không, cám ơn”. Or, and here’s a novel idea, why not say “Yes, I would like to buy some chewing gum.” 

Now, where's my phrase book? — VNS


Life on the streets

Barber Trần Đình Đoàn said: “I do about eight haircuts a day. I have loved cutting peoples’ hair since I was small.

“I used to work but after I retired I decided to carry on working as a barber.

“My customers are diverse. I get boys, shoe shine boys, newspaper delivery boys, middle aged, old people.”

Tea seller Phùng Thị Lý said: “If it is rainy, there are very few customers, and my income is not enough to cover my living expenses, especially for milk and food for my children.”

Cyclo rider Nguyễn Mạnh Cường: “My customers are mostly foreign tourists. I take them to Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter and museums. I like foreign tourists, they are friendly.

“Now I only work part time until about 3pm then I got back home to pick up my grandchildren.”

Mechanic Nguyễn Văn Hùng said: “I love everything about working here. I just wish that I will be healthy and don’t have to ask for anything from my children. My children have their own little kids to care about.”