'Stinky tofu' vendors in Saigon chased away by neighbors

By Bich Phuong   July 13, 2023 | 02:15 am PT
Several HCMC food shops have had to close down because neighbors cannot stand their signature "stinky tofu."

La Phuc Khang, the owner of a mobile vendor that sells fermented tofu at the Tran Quoc Thao apartment complex in HCMC, said his shop opened in early June and is packed with customers every day. However, people living in the apartment complex were not too keen on that.

"During the first few days of opening, I had to close up shop every 1-2 days to deal with the smells, because the neighborhood complained about it. I installed high-capacity ventilation hoods and even used activated carbon to get rid of the smells when I fry the tofu, but it never completely went away," Khang said.

La Phuc Khangs stinky tofu cart at Tran Quoc Thao apartment building in District 3, HCMC. Photo by La Phuc Khang

La Phuc Khang's cart selling stinky tofu (Dau Hu Thui) at Tran Quoc Thao apartment building in District 3, HCMC. Photo by La Phuc Khang

He said people told him that the smell of the "stinky tofu," a fermented tofu dish, had spread throughout the neighborhood, "going up to the 4th floor and can still be smelled even 100 m away." Some neighbors even came to the vendor themselves to berate him. Unable to reach a compromise, Khang was forced to close up shop, which had only been open for 21 days. He also lost six months' worth of down payment on the space he rented.

"The whole neighborhood reported the matter to the ward authorities, so I was forced to stop business and look for a new area," Khang said.

Hanh, another stinky tofu vendor on Nguyen Thai Son Street in Go Vap District, said those who sell the particular dish often find it difficult to secure a place for business. She said she had been selling the food on the street for three years, and had to change locations three times.

She used to push her mobile cart around Ba Chieu Market in Binh Thanh District and Nguyen Dinh Chieu Market in Phu Nhuan District. The tofu's signature smell permeated the entire area, as Hanh could not afford ventilation hoods. As such, both merchants and locals reported the matter to authorities and asked Hanh to leave.

"I had moved to this alley on Nguyen Thai Son Street for around a month. I rented a small house for business, and invested in a ventilation hood to deal with the smell. But it's hard to completely deal with it," she said, adding that during her first few days at the new location, locals also complained about the smell.

A portion of stinky tofu is served from a cart in HCMCs District 3. Photo by VnExpress

A portion of stinky tofu is served from a cart in HCMC's District 3. Photo by VnExpress

Thanh Trinh, who lives near a "stinky tofu" vendor on Nguyen Thai Son Street, said she often had to walk past the place "very quickly," adding that the heat and the smell of the tofu is a nightmarish combination.

Van Khanh, another HCMC local, said she was "stunned" by the smell of fermented tofu when she was on a trip to China back in May. The dish is a trademark of the Tuojiang Town, where several vendors sell the food on streets throughout the town.

Khanh said the fermented tofu sold in Vietnam is less smelly than that sold in China. Some vendors said they adjusted the recipe so the smell would be less prominent in the Vietnamese version.

After closing up shop, Khang scouted multiple locations in Districts 1, 3 and Phu Nhuan to find a place for business, but has not been able to find any. Renting a house is too expensive, while selling on the street risks raising the ire of locals.

"I had no choice but to look for places further out in Tan Binh District, and I hope I can go back to business next week," he said.

Stinky tofu draws crowds in HCMC. Video by VnExpress/Anh Thu, Tuan Viet

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