Saigon leader accuses sidewalk cleanup campaign of being ‘inhumane’

By Tuyet Nguyen   November 15, 2017 | 11:34 pm PT
Saigon leader accuses sidewalk cleanup campaign of being ‘inhumane’
Food vendors on a sidewalk in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
The city's chairman thinks a more subtle approach is necessary rather than kicking poor vendors off the sidewalks.

Saigon’s sidewalk cleanup has been met with both accolades and raised eyebrows since it took to the streets at the start of the year, but in an unusual twist, the city's government leader has expressed his concerns for the way the campaign is being implemented.

“Some people sell their goods on the sidewalk to feed their families. An unsubtle approach can really affect their lives, especially poor people. It’s inhumane to push them away,” Nguyen Thanh Phong, chairman of the city’s People’s Committee, said at a meeting with constituents in District 1 on Wednesday night.

Phong, who praised the sidewalk cleanup in the central district during its early days, now says it needs to be better executed.

Doan Ngoc Hai, vice chairman of District 1, started the campaign in early February to take back the sidewalks for their original purpose. He has pledged to turn the district into a “Little Singapore”.

His team has put up barriers and deployed police to stop motorbikes from driving on the sidewalks. They have also been towing vehicles, including government and foreign diplomatic cars, and destroying any invasive constructions that spill out onto the street, some of which belong to five-star hotels.

However, street vendors across the district have been left devastated, with many seen crying and yelling when police or soldiers seize their food stands.

People in the district said that the actions taken against street vendors are not always necessary.

Resident Nguyen Thi Xuyen said at the meeting with Phong that many people in her neighborhood are angry about an instruction to remove all roof canvases from street stalls in the area.

“The canvases protect the vendors from the sun and rain, and they do not bother pedestrians at all,” she said. “The person who gave this order is just heartless.”

Phong said he would look into the matter.

He said the city is going to officially review the district’s sidewalk campaign in the near future.

The campaign hit a four-month hiatus before resuming in August, when the de facto frontman Hai asked for “carte blanche to punish anyone that breaks the rules, even officials”.

But last month, the district made a move to tone down the campaign.

District chairman Tran The Thuan established an inspection team made up of traffic and public order officers that will only respond when grassroots officials, local people or the media report a problem.

The team is required to submit a specific action plan for Thuan to sign off before it acts, according to the new rule.

The decision is in sharp contrast to Hai's methods, which involved leading a team of police and security agents through the district day and night to uncompromisingly punish any sidewalk encroachments they found.

This video shows how the district was reclaiming its public walking space three months into the campaign.

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