For ten years, Le Thi Thuy sold bánh cuốn (rice noodle rolls)in front of the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. She and her husband remember it as a busy, but also tense, experience. “Back then, if there was a policeman or urban security officer in sight I would tremble in fear and get ready to run away,” she recalls in Vietnamese. As an unregulated street food vendor, law enforcement officers could have made her life difficult, even confiscated her stall.
Ho Chi Minh City, the largest urban centre in Vietnam, is home to an ever-growing array of modern skyscrapers and glitzy hotels—a visual manifestation of the country’s growing economy. Amid the glass and steel temples to commerce, however, the city’s traditional sidewalk culture remains a vital part of daily life. Street vendors like Thuy are go-to breakfast, lunch and dinner stops for everyone from sanitation workers to suited-up professionals opting to squat on stools while enjoying quick meals.
But this culture has faced increasing pressure from city leaders, especially in District 1, the commercial heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Doan Ngoc Hai, the district’s vice-chairman, has been so committed to an aggressive sidewalk clearing campaign that he is sometimes referred to as “Captain Sidewalk”. His efforts are aimed at ridding the area’s pavements of cars, motorbikes and street vendors obstructing walkways. The vision is to create a clean, orderly “little Singapore”; a nod to the neighbouring city-state often held up by governments and administrators as a model metropolis.
The initiative was at first met with applause. Although sidewalks are meant for pedestrians, they’ve long been appropriated by traffic in Ho Chi Minh City—vending carts set up shop on them, cars use them as extra parking lots, and motorbike drivers treat them as a shortcut to get around traffic jams. Walking around this hyperactive city can be a nightmare.
However, enthusiasm for the campaign waned once images of crying street vendors hit social media. Hai’s policy has been criticised as cold and heartless, robbing low-income hawkers of their livelihood.
“What will I do for work if they force me to stop? Older people like me can’t get other jobs”
“What will I do for work if they force me to stop?” an elderly vendor toldSaigoneer in 2017. “I have a heart condition and need to work to afford medicine. Older people like me can’t get other jobs.”
Hai has also come up against his own colleagues, with warnings to watch himself when dealing with vehicles sporting diplomatic plates and the setting up of a task force that essentially undermined his authority. Such incidences, among others, have turned Hai’s crusade into an on-again, off-again effort struggling against controversy and entrenched interests. After a hiatus of about half a year, he resumed his work in mid-May after withdrawing his resignation from the vice-chairman position.
Working in a designated zone
One of the more permanent results of Hai’s campaign has been the creation of two “street food streets” in District 1. It is at one of these zones—a 15-minute walk from her original location—that Thuy now sells her bánh cuốn. She’s been operating a stall, with official permission, for seven months.
It hadn’t been a voluntary choice: Thuy at first resisted the idea of moving. “We had a lot of customers back when my wife was still selling food at the zoo, therefore she didn’t want to go,” her husband Phu explains. “She kept up the same life, being chased around for a while, and then the police caught her and brought her into the ward office and basically made it compulsory for her.”
The zone, located on Nguyen Van Chiem Street, hosts 20 stalls, but not anyone can get permission to set up shop.
“You have to be a resident of Ben Nghe Ward and living in a poor household with a certificate of poverty,” Thuy explains in Vietnamese. “Then you’ll get a spot here, and there are 40 households here already.” (Administratively, Saigon is broken up into districts, which are further divided into wards—Ben Nghe Ward is part of District 1.)
The food zone operates in shifts, with one set of vendors working from 6am–10am, then another serving from 11am–3pm. Those in the morning shift push the carts, kept in a nearby parking lot, into position. The afternoon crew puts them back in the lot when they’re done for the day.
Ward officials oversee all the administration work in the zones. “The registration process came with a card, name tag, and food hygiene and safety training,” Thuy shares. “There are also health checks, and there’s no way someone else can work here without being registered.”
She’s now happy to be in the vending zone, saying the security of an officially sanctioned space is good for her business. Unregulated street vendors routinely play cat-and-mouse with the authorities—scattering at the sight of law enforcement only to resume their position once the coast is clear. In comparison, Thuy says her new setup is “better and more stable, and I don’t have anything to be afraid of.” Because each vendor is only allowed to sell a specific dish or beverage, she also doesn’t have to worry about competing with another bánh cuốn stall in the same zone.
Phu agrees. “You could only stand there and keep an eye out,” he says of their previous spot. “You wouldn’t even dare to sit. The nervous feeling was draining.”
“I’m not even talking about them catching you and confiscating your stall; just the thought of running from them while pushing the stall is already painful,” he adds dryly.
Now, he says, there are frequent and thorough hygiene checks by the city and clinics. “It’s a tight system, but it’s good in that way,” he says. “You know, if something happens, if something goes wrong while we’re working, they’ll come and help us handle it.”
It’s far cry from before the food area was established, when vendors had minimal support. “Back then, everyone was on their own, with no organisation, no nothing,” Phu says. “It was like living in the wild… no one would help you! But now, if there’s just something you have a question about, you give the ward a call, and they’ll come and help you figure it out. That’s what I like most about this whole thing.”
While Phu feels like the establishment of this specific street food zone has been a success, he also acknowledges that there’s a long way to go. The zone is merely a small part of District 1—the sheer number of street vendors working around town is a challenge for the city’s leaders. Beyond that, Ho Chi Minh City has 23 other districts in which many street vendors continue to run rings around the officials.
“The city can’t even fully manage Ben Nghe Ward, not to mention the whole district!” Phu exclaims. “And then there are people from north and central Vietnam, since everyone comes to this city to make a living. Those people have either gone back to their hometown [since the campaign began] or accepted the fate of being chased and captured on the street. In a city like this with that volume [of vendors], it’s impossible to manage.”
The apparent success of the Nguyen Van Chiem street food zone, along with that of the similar zone in nearby Bach Tung Diep Park, has led officials in other parts of District 1 to express the desire to create other designated vending areas. Thus far, however, no other such zones have opened.
A desirable change?
For some, however, the question isn’t whether Ho Chi Minh City could create more street food areas, but whether the city should. Annette Kim is an associate professor and director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of California and a leading expert on Ho Chi Minh City’s pavement culture. She wrote the 2015 book Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City, in which she argues that planners should embrace this aspect of urban life, instead of trying to regulate it into something unrecognisable.
“One Singapore is enough… Vietnam has something else to offer the world”
“One Singapore is enough,” Kim says in an email. “Vietnam has something else to offer the world that I hope it will consider how to express value for. My research has shown that people from around the world who come to Vietnam love its beautiful, humane and delicious approach to life in public space.”
Phu, for his part, fully endorses the new system. “I feel really great about this, it’s really civilised,” he shares. “Not only does it solve the problem for us of where to work so we can provide for our children, but the leaders also help to solve any problems while keeping a positive relationship between sellers and customers through health and food hygiene checks. We didn’t know any of that back then!”
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