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Street vendors: vital, vibrant part of Ha Noi

Update: June, 29/2014 - 18:04

by Trung Hieu - Thanh Hang

Walking around the streets of Ha Noi, you can easily spot street vendors.

They are mostly women, shabbily dressed, walking painstakingly and patiently with a heavy burden on their shoulders.

These vendors are generally from different rural areas, who flock to the city to earn a living.

Their goods are of all kinds, from "seasonal food" of Ha Noi like com (green rice flakes) and different fruits to the ordinary food like sweet potatoes, maize and bananas. These things are rarely sold in major stores, but people can buy them at just a few thousands dong.

Each seller is like a "mobile shop". They stop temporarily on the sidewalk when a client calls.

Their clients are usually local residents, who just stand at their front door and call out for the food.

The street vendors have become familiar to Hanoians. For foreign tourists, however, the vendors are from the fancy pictures they see occasionally.

It is not clear when the hawkers first made their appearance, but their images have been associated with 36 old streets of Ha Noi in the postcards of the early 20th century.

Over time, the city grew. Many old jobs disappeared, giving way to a tinge of regret. For example, the paper-making villages in Buoi and the leather tanners on Hang Hanh Street disappeared. Only the vendors are sometimes seen on the streets.

People in the Old Quarters still prefer quick buying and selling with these vendors. Therefore, that old way of earning a living still exists on the busy streets.

Amidst the bustling capital city, peddlers, alongside the ancient architecture and the street names like Hang Dao and Hang Ngang, always remind one of images of an old Ha Noi.

"People think differently, but I think the street vendors are part of this city. I understand people make their living. For me, it's tradition," Josie David from Switzerland said.

That may be the reason why many foreign tourists like to take photos every time they encounter a street vendor, but for those who earn their living on the streets, it's an existence without capital or shops, their bamboo poles helping them make ends meet.

The city administration prohibits hawkers on some streets, but if the authorities listen to the opinions of foreign tourists and have effective management, the vendors can perhaps become the reminiscent images of Ha Noi.

This is clearly reflected in the works of photography, films and arts from the last century to date. In each work, there is a feature of the capital city with the look and feel of many dimensions of urban life.

Nguyen Thanh Tung, a Hanoian who claims he loves the city very much, says he's willing to ignore some unscrupulous sellers.

"Authorities should clearly mention the streets that vendors are banned on and for what reason. Let the vendors be free to earn their legitimate livelihood, bringing convenience and a little joy to local residents."

He wonders aloud what will happen if the city's streets do not hear the call of the peddlers at night, and don't see the rural women with their shoulder poles, who bring seasonal food to the people?

"How boring the streets will be! And then, we'll see how profound the statement by Chua Beng Huat, a renowned Singaporean professor of urban studies, is, who said after observing activities of peddlers in Ha Noi's Old Quarter, "One day, somehow, this city will hire vendors to reconstruct its history."

Hoang Phong Van, another Hanoian, says there is no country in the world that has dared to guarantee jobs for most labourers. "Working as street vendors has created countless jobs and contributed significantly to the stability of society and to the GDP of the country annually," he says.

"Someone was surprised that during the economic crisis, Viet Nam was still ‘normal'. It was thanks to the ‘informal economy' on the sidewalk, that helped to fight the crisis aftermath," he says.

According to Deputy Director of the city's Department of Trade, Nguyen Thi Nhu Mai, the department has held a survey on the status of vendors in the inner districts. Accordingly, there are about 5,000 vegetable sellers and about 9,000 fruit sellers.

Among the vendors, women accounted for 93 per cent, with an average age of 40 years. About 70-80 per cent of them are from provinces, she says.

Ung Bich Thuan, a Hanoian woman, says she believes that the vendors also want to build their own "brand names".

"They also want their trade to thrive in the long-term. So, don't carry prejudices that they will ‘play dirty' or cheat during transactions," she says.

Perhaps, the authorities could do well to guide vendors to obey regulations and instruct them to behave well with tourists.

Maybe later, when the city further develops, the peddlers will exist only in memory just as the other jobs. The stories about them will only be pictures, to take people on a nostalgic journey because everyone knows, nothing lasts forever.

"As for me, I think it is time street vendors are recognised as part of Ha Noi's culture. Do you agree?" Van says. — VNS

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