Night-time economy: Vietnam yet to see the light

By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam, Nguyen Dong   September 19, 2019 | 04:46 am PT
Night-time economy: Vietnam yet to see the light
A man buys sticky rice from a restaurant in Hanoi after midnight, September 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.
In Vietnam's cities, the economy continues to hum even after midnight, in the dark, though authorities expressly forbid businesses from remaining open then.

"Sticky rice, miss! Have some sticky rice and park your motorbike over there," a young man with a fancy hairstyle and in a pair of shorts, a fake branded T-shirt and honeycomb sandals calls out as he attempts to block a motorbike on the street.

The woman on the motorbike quickly steers away to avoid him and the smoke of grilled meat coming from a nearby charcoal stove.

It is past midnight, but the lights are still shining bright on the ‘Fried sticky rice, mung bean sticky rice, banh mi pate, stewed chicken’ sign at the De La Thanh-Giang Vo intersection in Hanoi.

In front of the eatery, another young man is still fanning and flipping fat-dripping meat skewers while four young women are preparing sausages, sticky rice, eggs, and pickles.

Most eateries in the area close at midnight without needing to be told by the police. This little street corner is however an exception. Two sticky rice outlets, a pho eatery and a perch and rice paper stall are still filled with customers while the road is packed with taxis whose drivers await their turn.

And just like that, a ‘night food street’ has sprung up in the heart of Dong Da District.

Five kilometers away, Hang Bo Street in Hoan Kiem District is full of signboards made of decal papers advertising ‘Dried squid, stewed chicken noodle, poached brain, duck embryo.’ The night breeze carries the smells of herbs, mugwort and dried squid while on the sidewalk youngsters enjoy grilled squid and smoothies and fiddle with their phones.

From an alley leading to Dong Xuan Market, a woman emerges pushing a cart packed with a pair of yokes, a pot of broth, plastic stools, and chopsticks.

Within minutes of being arranged at the Hang Chieu-Hang Duong intersection, the stools in her pho stall are all occupied. This small stall, which starts at 3 a.m., has been in this corner for three decades.

Such traces of the need to make a living, to hang out past midnight are evident everywhere in this city of eight million people. But to serve them, small businesses have to flout authorities' midnight curfew.

"Let's close now," a voice rings out of a megaphone from a passing police car. It is 13 minutes past midnight, and a truck with blue license plates belonging to the Thanh Cong Ward police is making a turn from Lang Ha Street into De La Thanh Street, marking the beginning of the night patrol that will last until 3 a.m.

The truck stops in front of a noodle shop while two civil defense officers set up position on the sidewalk.

The sticky rice eatery's roller door is immediately lowered, probably for the only time in the day, and the lights on the signboard outside are turned off.

However, inside, the lights are still on and customers are still enjoying their meals. In front of the door sits a young man to collect money from buyers, hand them their food and regulate traffic.

Customers still come, park their vehicles on the road and wait as the restaurateur delivers their sticky rice through the gap under the half-closed door.

Customers sit inside the half-closed door of a restaurant in Hanoi, after midnight in September 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Customers sit inside the half-closed door of a restaurant in Hanoi, after midnight in September 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

The other side of the street belongs to Giang Vo Ward, and there the lights are still on and the smell of food still fills the air.

Some 10 minutes later a Giang Vo police truck finally appears but it still takes another three reminders from the officers before the eatery at number 536 starts picking its chairs and tables from the sidewalk and its customers start leaving.

Every time a police truck passes by, the owner quickly lowers the roller door and turns off the lights. But once the truck disappears from sight, he turns the lights back on and raises the door, revealing glass cabinets full of bread, Vietnamese sausages and boiled chicken.

Despite the police patrols, business carries on along this 100-meter stretch of road.

De La Thanh is a street of two disparate worlds. During the day it is full of shops selling altars and other objects used for worshipping.

But at night it is a shining star that often finds mention in articles about the Hanoi food scene as home to same-price sticky rice outlets that are open through the night.

Market forces

This corner of the capital is a prime witness to the struggle between the free market and administrative management.

Ha, now 33, still has memories of her house back when it was filled with the smell of timber instead of the smell of meat that now dominates it. In the 1980s and 1990s her parents had jobs while the front of the house was rented to a carpentry shop.

When Ha was in second grade, her mother started selling homemade sticky rice in front of the house, and achieved instant success. She started with just one pot, then it became two and then three, the carpenter moved on, and she opened a full-fledged sticky rice eatery.

The first few years saw her close the eatery much earlier in the day once the sticky rice sold out. But as time went on more and more customers began to come in the evening, and some even criticized her for closing too early.

Over the last quarter century many food outlets have opened and shut down in the area, but only Ha's sticky rice eatery and the neighboring pho outlet still exist. This is because local people have grown familiar with their food and know that no matter the hour the two are always open.

"Starting from around 2008 people started hanging out at night a lot, and later and later as time passed," Ha says.

She has taken over the eatery from her mother and hired more employees after it started doing business overnight.

Hanoi has in recent years been full of construction works, and night shift workers order sticky rice and sandwiches by the hundreds every day. And even at 2 or 3 a.m. Ha's eatery has young couples in fancy clothes waiting for their food after a night out.

"It is a normal thing. It is people's right."

But to enjoy that "right," people coming to food outlets after midnight must bend double and pass under half-closed doors as if they are doing something illegal and clandestine.

At midnight the ward police's mini trucks slowly roll through the streets as officers on megaphones remind businesses to pack up their chairs and tables, turn off their lights and close their doors. It is illegal to do business after this hour.

The street erupts into activity as people hurriedly grab chairs, turn off lights and rush indoors to finish their half-eaten meals. Occasionally, as a car or motorbike passes by, diners tilt their bowls to check in the vehicles' headlights if any food is left.

"Tackle businesses that operate after midnight" is always one of the Thanh Cong Ward police's start-of-year resolutions. Every day from 11.30 p.m. to 3 a.m., a patrol team of two police officers and three civil defense officers are assigned to deal with eateries that operate past the curfew time to maintain public order.

Three years ago there were nearly a dozen households running post-midnight eateries here. But following drastic action by the police, most of them have closed for good except for the sticky rice and pho eateries.

"Their business location is their house and they have been doing business for over 20 years, so it is very difficult to shut them down [at midnight]," a spokesperson for the local police said.

But it is not for want of trying: they have confiscated the two eateries' furniture and pots, issued fines of VND200,000 each time and, once, even attempted to check customers' IDs, only to be met with angry reactions and insults.

The eateries rarely resist, but their customers were another story.

Police stop at a restaurant in Hanoi to order them to comply to the citys mid-night curfew, September 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Police stop at a restaurant in Hanoi to order them to comply to the city's midnight curfew, September 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

In the last six months the police have fined them 10 times and summoned their owners to the police station 16 times. Each time the owners were required to sign pledges not to repeat their violations, but nothing has changed.

Lieutenant Colonel Le Quang Tien, chief of the Thanh Cong Ward police, laments: "We have caught them so many times that it has become boring. If we fine then, it can only be very small amounts.

"Whenever we impose fines, they say they cannot sell during the day, and at night they finally get some customers but we chase them away. It is such a pain."

One time the police attempted more drastic measures, and one of the owners decided to counter it by opening the house doors and turning all the lights on at 3 a.m. just as the police patrol was about to finish for the day.

When questioned by officers, the owner argued that they were merely opening their house door to prepare food to sell in the morning, and denied having kept the eatery open overnight.

Though the officers knew full well that the eatery had in fact been open the whole night, they could not do anything since the law does not allow them to enter people's houses after 10 p.m. without a warrant.

Ward police have direct contact with the public. They are each other's neighbors. So even though years have passed the eateries still operate surreptitiously while the ward police still persevere in their mission to shut them down.

Night economy

The night-time economy is considered a new solution in crowded cities where, despite rising higher and higher above the ground and going deeper and deeper below it, infrastructure is still insufficient to meet people's needs.

Time is thus the only remaining exploitable resource.

Darkness covers the Amstel River and the 800-year-old red-brick buildings of Amsterdam.

When the leaders of the Dutch capital go to bed, Shamiro van der Geld, a 32-year-old black music producer who wears shorts and has a nose piercing, takes over the city.

From 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following day he is the mayor of the city, the night mayor.

During his three-year term he will work as a bridge between city hall and the city’s night-time businesses and residents.

His brief is to ensure Amsterdam is an attractive, safe place where no one feels bothered and the night-time economy is constantly growing.

The night-time economy concept first appeared in the 1980s, when Europe's industrial cities started having an identity crisis following their transformation from production centers to consumption centers.

The night-time economy was arguably conceived to pull them back from the brink of ruin, and thus warehouses were turned into bars, workshops became dance floors.

In its most basic form, it was associated with self-indulgent drinkers. But nowadays it includes a lot of economic activity that takes place between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. encompassing food, entertainment, arts, healthcare, education, transport, and construction.

New York has been the world's preeminent sleepless city since the 1950s, and night-time economy is estimated to be worth $38,000 per second. But it was the Netherlands that systematically ushered in the concept.

In 2003 Amsterdam created the position of night mayor, whose role was to formulate a plan to develop the city at night both culturally and economically.

Other cities like Sydney, London and New York followed in its footsteps and established consultation committees with members drawn from all fields such as music, retail, sports, food, criminology, and public safety.

When he was elected the first ever night mayor of Amsterdam in 2012, Mirik Milan realized the difficulty facing him: If a problem arose, the city and police's first reaction would be to shut places down and ban stuff, a sure way to economic ruin.

Dr Vo Tri Thanh, director of the Institute for Brand and Competitiveness Strategy, agreed that governments should not ban the night-time economy but instead have policies to develop it while balancing its benefits and disadvantages.

"The night-time economy is an inevitable development of the market. Regardless of whether you want it or not, it will exist."

A night-time economy does not only come from the needs of the city's residents to stay up. It also brings opportunities to promote growth.

That is why the government has instructed ministries and localities to study the model in China, where businesses that operate overnight even get cash support from the government.

A quick interview of tourists in Da Nang, the city with the fastest tourism growth rate in Vietnam over the past decade, revealed great demand for more night-time activities.

An American tourist wanted more restaurants to be open at night, while a Japanese wanted more places for shopping. An Irish visitor asked for street performances.

Da Nang tourism authorities have said they are aware of tourists' demands and admitted that night-time experiences the city offers visitors are "not as good as expected" though that is when the city is at its most beautiful, becoming a "city of light," and the weather is pleasantest.

Thanh said possible conflicts between economic activity and ensuring security and order could be resolved by creating pilot models in certain geographic spaces or within regulated time frames or both.

"With the young population, growing middle class and rising incomes, Vietnam's tourism has potential, which means demands for entertainment will also increase. This is essential for the development of the night-time economy.

"But there will be many difficulties, especially with perception and behavior issues related to Vietnamese people's traditions, culture and lifestyle. Therefore it is even more necessary to trial it."

At noon one day in September Ha sat by her eatery door and sighed, wishing she would be allowed to remain open overnight. But when told she should try proposing this to authorities, she was immediately dismissive.

"How can we propose it? We commoners cannot make such proposals."

She did not know that in other places in the world commoners like her do have a decisive say in the multibillion-dollar night economy.

In 2011 Sydney authorities invited 822 citizens of all occupations, ages and neighborhoods to take part in a survey called ‘Everyone has an opinion’ which asked them what they wanted the city to be like at night.

The survey's findings were central to creating OPEN Sydney, a policy framework for the night-time economy.

In Vietnam, while waiting for authorities to finish studying a model, a mini truck with blue license plates and five police officers still makes a turn every night from Lang Ha to De La Thanh, and an officer on a megaphone urges eateries to close their doors and turn off their lights.

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