18:38 (GMT +7) - Wednesday 20/09/2017

Society

Out of place

Released at: 10:16, 22/05/2017

Out of place

Photos: Viet Tuan

Removing street food vendors from sidewalks hasn’t really made anyone happy.

by Le Diem

It’s lunchtime but the noodle soup cooked by 60-year-old Le Thi Khe in a small laneway off Dinh Tien Hoang Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 is going cold as no customers have come to eat. She’s often had the same problem in recent times, after she was forced to move from the sidewalk at the front the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities to the laneway. For ten years prior to that, she had a steady stream of students and workers from around the area. Her loyal customers must now look for her new location if they want to enjoy her noodles.

Obviously, Mrs. Khe did not want to move from the place that helped her earn a living for more than a decade. But she had no choice. Like hundreds of thousands of other street vendors, she now struggles for a livelihood, after authorities in big cities intensified a campaign to reclaim sidewalks for pedestrians by clearing away all types of commerce.  

A family behind every shoulder pole

Since Vietnam opened up its economy, private enterprise has blossomed. It also paved the way for the appearance and development of street businesses for those who don’t have the capital to lease a shop, conduct marketing, and develop distribution channels, according to economist Pham Chi Lan. In a country where motorbikes are far and away the most popular form of transport and on which people can easily pull over to the sidewalk, street businesses offer many different things, such as haircuts, gasoline, clothing, and, particularly, food. Street food and drinks are the liveliest businesses in this unofficial economy.

However, it has resulted in pedestrians being crowded out along the country’s sidewalks, not just by businesses but also by motorbike parking. They have been forced out on to the street at certain points, where traffic poses a threat to their safety.

Local authorities made a previous attempt to ban people from doing business on the sidewalk or using it for any other individual purpose. Police patrolled occasionally. But it wasn’t effective. The latest campaigns have been more intensified, as police were mobilized to raise public awareness, ask local business not to take over the sidewalk, remove private businesses that encroached on sidewalks, like shops and restaurants, and stepped up patrols. But only when they began the campaign did they see the tears of people, especially street vendors, and realize there was a family behind every shoulder pole.

Like Mrs. Khe. Originally from Hue, she went to Ho Chi Minh City with her shoulder pole and noodles when her youngest daughter was 17. She is now 28 and also carries a shoulder pole and noodles in another part of the city to raise two kids and support her mother with her father’s kidney problem. “All of our living costs and his treatment during the last seven years have been paid for by us carrying shoulder poles,” she said.

After being forced from her regular location, Mrs. Khe’s income has halved. “Most of our customers were loyal, but now we must rely on passers-by, so it’s unstable,” she said. “Earnings are falling but it’s still better than nothing.”

Despite earning less income, Mrs. Khe and her daughter at least had somewhere else to start over again. Many other street vendors had nowhere to go and try to keep working their “patch” without drawing attention.

Selling iced green tea, a popular drink, in front of the Hanoi Hospital of Ophthalmology for 25 years, 66-year-old Tran Manh Quang was able to raise his kids after his wife passed away. Now his daughter is grown up and has a job but she has two kids to take care of, so he continues to work so he isn’t a burden.

As the sidewalks are cleared, he’s tried to still sell his tea. He disappears when the police come by and reappears when they leave. He must keep a look out and act quickly, or his means of earning a living will be confiscated and he’ll be fined. So he carries very little, just a few plastic stools and a basket for the tea. When the time comes to disappear, he’s gone in a flash. He has also, of course, seen his earnings fall from the latest crackdown. Many of his customers, including the loyal ones, don’t want to sit on a small stool and hold a glass in their hand, rather than sit at tables and chairs, like before. And they don’t want to have to leave their drink and disappear themselves when the police turn up. With patrols passing a few times a day, Mr. Quang can at least joke that he’s getting more exercise than he used to. 

After recognizing the problems some vendors now face, authorities have introduced a number of measures to help them out. 

A Facebook fanpage, called “Am thuc duong pho Quan 1” (street food in District 1) was launched by Ho Chi Minh City authorities, to introduce street food to customers. Street eateries and vendors are encouraged to register on the page and provide their phone number, so that those who are interested in their products or services can contact them and have it delivered. Products are also tested for hygiene standards.

But it’s not much of a solution. It requires a smartphone to access the internet and Facebook, and most street vendors can’t afford one. Many are middle-aged or poorly educated, and some have never even touched a smartphone or heard of Facebook.

One of the advantages of street food is its convenience. People can easily have it anywhere, anytime. In the morning, they can drop by for a nice hot breakfast. No one wants to wait in the office and then eat something cold when it’s finally delivered. And street vendors who join the Facebook page need at least one employee to deliver their product to customers, so prices will rise. 

Setting up specialized areas for street food was also proposed in Ho Chi Minh City, and will start in June. The arrangement is based on what happened in Singapore, which also cleared its streets of vendors and moved them to dozens of food centers. A market for street vendors with 20 households has already opened at Pham Van Hai Market on Pham Van Hai Street in Tan Binh district, from 6pm to 11pm daily. Three zones in the city, on Nguyen Van Chiem and Chu Manh Trinh Streets and part of Bach Tung Diep Park, are to pilot the sale of street food by vendors from 6-9am and 11am-1pm, with 70 booths in total. The poorest vendors in the area will be selected and pay no fees to set up at the locations. Sidewalks wider than three meters will also be divided into two parts with a line; on one side for pedestrians and on the other side for street vendors. Authorities in Thanh Xuan district in Hanoi, meanwhile, are encouraging street vendors to move to the local market, where they can take up a space for free for three months. 

Such efforts have received a mixed response. While some are happy to move to a stable, legal place, others are concerned these new areas won’t attract customers, as they are not that convenient. People are used to buying street food in different places, but now it will be gathered together in a place they must travel to. “When people come to the hospital where I sell my tea, they can easily have a cheap drink while waiting for their test results,” said Mr. Quang. “But nobody’s going to walk or ride for 15 or 20 minutes to get a cup of iced tea.” 

Agreeing, Mr. Tuan Anh, one of his regular customers, said that iced tea is the most popular, convenient and cheapest beverage and normally available on every corner. If people have to go to only one place to drink it, it loses its appeal. And he just wouldn’t bother going somewhere far from his office to have breakfast as well.

Economist Ms. Lan said that before implementing the campaign,, authorities should have done more research and found a balance on the issue of sidewalk use. In his book, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, said the country had tried but was unable to clear its streets of vendors until other jobs were created for them. It took the country of 5.4 million population ten years, from 1971 to 1980, to be successful. How long will it take Vietnam and its population of 94 million?  

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