Hanoi’s Covid-19 fight leaves street food vendors in the lurch

By Long Nguyen   March 3, 2021 | 11:15 am GMT+7
The latest Covid-19 outbreak has left Hanoi’s street food workers high and dry as the city has allowed restaurants and coffee shops to open again, but not street food stalls.

Nguyen Thi Nhung, 39, decided to stay back in Hanoi instead of returning to her hometown for the Lunar New Year holidays (Tet) because she hoped to open her tea stall soon after the national break.

But two weeks after the holiday ended, her hopes have been dashed as the tea stall remains banned from opening.

Beginning Tuesday, indoor coffee shops in the capital city have been allowed to welcome their patrons, but outdoor ones like Nhung's tea stall, closed since February 16, will remain closed until further notice.

"It is like an everlasting earthquake shaking my livelihood, but I have no choice but to cling to whatever I have and wait," Nhung said.

Suffering Nhung’s fate are thousands of street food vendors in the capital city, mostly low-income residents. The Covid-19 pandemic has robbed them of their livelihood and left them in dire straits.

A street food vendor in Hanoi, October 2017. Photo by VnExprress/Giang Huy.

A street food vendor in Hanoi, October 2017. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Le Thi Chinh, 47, who runs a xoi (sticky rice) stall near the Gia Lam Bus Terminal, has earned next to nothing since early February. The diabetes afflicted woman ticked off what she lacked.

"Money to rent the house, to pay for my children's education, to buy my medicines... I made nothing last month."

Her four-member family has to depend entirely on her husband, who earns around VND8 million ($349.15) per month working for a paper-making factory in Hanoi's Long Bien District.

In their cramped accommodation, Chinh's pots, stove, dishes and other materials for her xoi stall lie idle in a corner. She has no idea when she will be able to light up her stove again.

"I have cut our spending on food and milk for our sons. I cannot send them to my hometown because traveling back and forth costs a significant amount of money," Chinh said, adding she used to earn up to VND600,000 ($26.19) per day.

All street vendors selling tea, fruits and noodles around the bus station have disappeared since the latest Covid-19 outbreak.

Since the social distancing campaign last April, street food vendors have suffered badly. In addition to the closures mandated by authorities, pandemic fears have also kept patrons away when they open.

According to the General Statistics Office (GSO), the unprecedented impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have forced 32.1 million Vietnamese workers aged 15 or above to either lose their jobs or have their working hours reduced in 2020.

Informal sector dependents like Nhung and Chinh, having no social support and living far from their hometowns, are likely among the hardest hit, says sociologist Trinh Hoa Binh.

"Who knows what will happen if there is another year of Covid-19?," Chinh said sadly.

Something’s better than nothing

Some street food vendors are trying to cope with the situation by finding some job, despite much lower earnings.

In Cau Giay District's Nghia Tan Market, where many street food vendors ran their businesses before the city banned them, some have begun working as delivery men, women, or temporary motorbike taxi drivers.

"Prices keep going up after Tet, the only thing stands at zero is my income," said Le Van Tinh, employee of a pho stall outside the market.

Since the holiday ended, he has worked as a delivery man for "anyone who wants to send their goods to their patrons." If he’s lucky, he can earn around VND200,000 a day. His wife, meanwhile, is staying back in their hometown in Bac Giang Province, working as a trash collector.

A small number of people trying to stick to their livelihoods are delivering food to their customers.

"They do not allow me to sell my fish noodles on the sidewalk, so I cook at home and my husband delivers them," said Le Thanh Hoa, owner of a noodles stall near the My Dinh Bus Terminal.

Hoa said Covid-19 fears keep many of her patrons away, so she has only around 40 orders per day, "but it is okay as long as I can make some money during this storm."

Many other street food vendors have opted to stay back in their hometowns until they can reopen.

"So we can save some money because things are more expensive in Hanoi," said Tinh, explaining why his wife has stayed back in Bac Giang Province since Tet.

Foreign tourists enjoy beer and food at the intersection of Hanois Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets before the pandemic. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Foreign tourists enjoy beer and food at the intersection of Hanoi's Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets before the pandemic. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

No support

Last year, the government rolled out a VND62 trillion ($2.6 billion) support package to help around 20 million poverty-stricken people and small businesses affected by the pandemic.

But most street food vendors are unable to get any support because of complex procedures.

When Nhung applied for the governmental support, she was told by local authorities she was disqualified because she had violated regulations that prohibit peddlers from selling goods on the streets, and because she had no business license.

Nguyen Hong Dan, deputy director of the Hanoi Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, once said the slow progress in handing out the aid is mainly due to the difficulty in verifying workers who do not have formal contracts.

Several local officials said it was a "headache" to determine the incomes and nature of applicants' work.

"These informal workers and officials are both in a difficult situation," sociologist Binh commented.

This year, Nhung, hoping life will return to normal soon as people have learned from several outbreaks, has given up on the idea of looking for help. She knows the only one she can rely on is herself.

When she heard that the city has allowed coffee shops to open on March 2, she was happy, thinking street food stalls were in the same category.

"But I was wrong. Now I have to keep waiting until my tea stall can have patrons again, or until I am drained by this pandemic and have to find a different path."

 
 
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