|Illustration by Trịnh Lập|
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
It happened in Hà Nội many years ago, even before the Đổi mới (renewal in policy) kicked off in the 80s. But it happened again recently when a TikToker complained about her experience on a side street where she was eating bún chả (pork grill with fresh rice vermicelli).
"I was eating bún chả, seated on the stools of a tea seller without having tea, but I was rudely told to go away!" she moaned.
The incident took place last week, but it got many people talking.
In the narrow streets of Hà Nội's Old Quarter, every inch counts. A street side phở shop could be selling beef noodles only, and the neighbours next door take care of selling tiny little cups of hot or iced tea, or breadsticks to diners, and as customers you pay them separately.
Before the economy started to flourish in the 1990s, Vietnamese living in the South who came to Hà Nội were taken by surprise when phở shop owners did not provide tea cups for their customers. After having phở, they'd be asked by a tea seller to buy a small cup of tea. "Why doesn't the phở shop just provide the tea?" visitors would wonder.
The answer was to give that share of the service to a neighbour, who needed that job to provide for his or her family.
Perhaps, the most popular shop that runs using this model is Phở Thìn at 67 Đinh Tiên Hoàng Street by the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. You enter Thìn's shop, order your bowls of phở, then turn around to order your tea, plus some breadsticks as a side dish. But you sit on the territory of the noodle shop, so it's not required you have tea to have your bowl of beef noodle soup.
A handful of cafes have been flourishing around Phở Thìn by the lake, as the shop caters to about five times its capacity, and both the phở shop and the nearby cafes have taken advantage of the boom in trade.
But other business operators may not be as lucky as Phở Thìn's owner to have a space of their own. Some food sellers do not have enough seats for their customers, and place them to sit in the neighbouring tea shops, with an unspoken condition that they order drinks afterwards. This is also normal, if you have your drink in a café nearby.
Trouble arose when this TikToker didn't want to have tea on a stool, and got told to sit somewhere else, as their seats were for tea drinkers.
If it wasn't during peak time during lunch, when there were fewer customers, then the TikToker would be given a seat. But during a busy period, it's understandable.
Before đổi mới, the hardship of a centralised post-war economy and limited service meant people accepted the harsh treatment of restaurants and street side stalls.
After many years of the market economy, customers are now served and treated better. But this incident brings with it all the harsh stories from the past, reminding people that this type of co-existence is indispensable, as long as the premises and spaces of shops in the Old Quarter are still limited, as they always will be.
Hà Nội can be beautiful, but it is also notorious for the attitude of some rude sellers. Phở stalls with owners who constantly yell, and porridge shops with scowling staff have all made their name and done well. Frequent customers may laugh it off, as they know not to trigger busy shop owners with clumsy requests or picky demands. But their shrill voices may scare away those of a gentle disposition, or those who simply dislike being shouted out at, especially when they are the customers paying for the food.
On the one hand, this business model can be deceiving to visitors or tourists because they are left feeling perplexed and not knowing what to do, or simply feel hurt by the rough and no-nonsense attitude of the local sellers.
On the other hand, it shows a tight-knit sense of market sharing and benefit reaping for both sellers, who cooperate on common ground. In a food court of a supermarket or food festivals, or at the airports, different shops sell food and drinks, and customers get a seat in a larger common sitting area. It works for everyone involved, the customers, the food sellers and the seating area operator.
If you're new to town, and cannot figure out what's going on, just ask a customer at the next table or seat, and they will be more than happy to guide you.
It is hard to draw the line between tiny little shops, placing their items side by side as if they were in one shop, but they actually belong to two different sellers, and the rule of thumb for visitors is to ask. Ask, and the rightful owner will respond to you.
This pressure gets less in the outer district, where shops are more spacious and sellers are under less space-pressure. They can offer you free seats when they're not too crowded.
In any circumstances, just ask your neighbour, and travel with an open attitude when experiencing different situations. In Hà Nội at least, you will be very glad you came. VNS