Street vendors see no end to sidewalk wars

By Quynh Nguyen   March 16, 2023 | 03:15 pm PT
Three times a day on average, whenever Hanoi street vendor Han Le gets wind of an approaching police patrol, she quickly deconstructs and hides her sidewalk shop beside West Lake.

After about an hour of hiding all her tables and chairs in her house, Han, the owner of a 20-year-old sidewalk cafe on the capital’s most famous lake, goes back out to the street and arranges everything back on the sidewalk as usual.

Han, 45, said she was too familiar with Hanoi's sidewalk clearance campaigns.

"Every year there are one or two periods like this, which can last for a few weeks or several months. But when it’s over, everything comes back to normal and nothing changed," she said.

Hanoi is conducting a sidewalk cleanup campaign by removing obstacles such as billboards and awnings that encroach on streets and sidewalks starting from this month.

Compared to previous campaigns, Han said this year’s sidewalk clearance enforcement was more strict. Instead of patrolling once a day, now it's three times a day and normally coordinated to hit vendors at peak hours, right when they’re enjoying their largest number of customers.

Motorbikes park on the sidewalk of Hang Ga Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi on March 9, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Motorbikes park on the sidewalk of Hang Ga Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi on March 9, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Whenever inspection teams are spotted, sidewalk vendors, like Han, have to stop everything and scurry to hide their shops. Those who are caught by police have to halt operations altogether and move to another part of the city.

According to Thanh An, 70, who owns a small tra da (Vietnamese iced tea) shop on Hang Ga Street, Hoan Kiem District, sitting on the sidewalk to enjoy tra da and food associated with Hanoi culture is difficult to give up.

"If I don't sell tra da here, someone else will. Instead of chasing us away, why don't the authorities find a way for us to keep our business on the street without violating the regulations?" An said.

The sidewalk clearance campaigns are no longer strange to the people of Hanoi. However, they are only effective for a few months. When the inspection teams are gone, the sidewalks return to their normal state, which is being occupied by makeshift shops.

According to traffic expert Nguyen Xuan Thuy, former director of the Transport Publishing House, the fact that these sidewalk clearance campaigns only last for a short time doesn’t help solve the problem.

"If they are banned in this place, they will go to another location to do business. Not only does it affect the interests of those involved, but it also takes up a lot of resources from the authorities," Thuy said.

A ward leader (who asked not to be named) in Hanoi shares the same opinions, saying that these campaigns are like "throwing a small stone into the ocean". The patrol teams cannot be on duty 24/7 due to a lack of human resources. In addition, shopping and selling goods on the street and in local markets has become an entrenched part of Vietnamese culture.

"Even when we chase them away or fine them, they are only temporary solutions. Instead, I think there should be other solutions such as setting up a market, leasing space or finding a plan to support people who make a living on the sidewalks," the ward leader said.

Since the coffee shop is the only source of income for four people in her family, Han said she is willing to pay a fee to use the sidewalk properly instead of being sneaky during the clearance campaign. The revenue from her coffee shop decreased by one-third during a clearance round in February alone.

Quoc Tuan, 40, owner of a phone shop in Hoan Kiem District, doesn’t do business on the sidewalk but he wants to use the area in front of his house as a parking space for customers.

"My store is often crowded, but parking on the sidewalk is prohibited and there isn’t any parking lot nearby, which shows customers away and affects my business," Tuan said.

Requests like Han’s and Tuan’s have been somewhat recognized by authorities. The Department of Transport proposed a project to the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City in February that would collect fees for parking, advertising and doing business on sidewalks.

But expert Thuy said that according to Vietnam’s Law for Road Traffic, sidewalks don’t belong to anyone, so they "must be used for pedestrians and not a place for business or parking."

Nearly 3,000 VnExpress readers shared Thuy’s opinion and said they didn’t like the idea of collecting sidewalk parking fees, according to a survey reported on February 7.

A vehicle of sidewalk patrol team in Hang Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi on March 8. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

A vehicle of sidewalk patrol team in Hang Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi on March 8, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Dr. Phan Le Binh, a lecturer in Infrastructure Engineering at Vietnam Japan University, said that solutions to the sidewalk problem should be flexible and adaptable to different and changing conditions, instead of applying the same rigid and extreme measures everywhere all the time.

"For decades, we couldn’t resolutely deal with the sidewalk problem. It’s not feasible to apply extreme measures now and suddenly make it difficult for households who make a living on sidewalks," Binh said.

According to Binh, there should be a different measure for each specific case. For streets with wide sidewalks but low pedestrian flow, it’s not necessary to save all the space for pedestrians. For example, some hospitals in the city lacked parking space, while the sidewalk is very large. Authorities could easily calculate and then fairly allot the right amount of space for hospital parking and another amount where street vendors could legally operate.

He added that places where many foreign tourists gather in the evening show also allow street vendors.

For small-scale businesses such as tra da stalls or motorbike repair shops, Binh recommends drawing lines on the sidewalks to clearly specify the areas for business and the space for pedestrians. If it’s approved, these households would need to sign a commitment not to cross the line and be responsible for their space.

"Over time, as the sidewalk increases, we will consider the option of gradually extending the area for waking and returning them to pedestrians," Binh added.

For Han, she still thinks that the sidewalk clearance campaign this time will share the same result as the previous ones.

"This is a never-ending war if both sides can’t find a common solution," she said.

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