What the future holds for Vietnam's street vendors
'Street vending is a vital component of city life that should be embraced and nurtured, not shut down.'
Nearly a decade ago, 37-year-old Nguyen Thi Mo chose to abandon her farm and move to Hanoi to make a living off the streets.
“I had no choice,” she said. “What else could I do? The farm was taken to make way for an industrial zone.”
To make ends meet, Mo has to start her day at 4 a.m., when she collects goods from a wholesale market before roaming the streets on her old bicycle. “The bicycle is my family's only source of income.”
In a fast-developing city like Hanoi, it’s not difficult to spot women wearing iconic conical hats pushing bikes filled with fruit, vegetables, flowers and kitchen utensils. Hanoi is a gem when it comes to streetside vendors, who ply their trade day and night.
In the midst of this development, many city-dwellers find they do not have the time to go browsing in supermarkets, and find it easier to grab the food they want from the vendors that roam the streets.
Demand still exists, and street vendors remain ubiquitous.
Informal workers in Vietnam form a large portion of the urban workforce, accounting for a quarter of the total and a half of non-agricultural jobs, French research group IRD estimates.
Mo is one of the many rural folks who have flooded the city in search of greener pastures. Most peddlers in Hanoi are from northern provinces in the Red River Delta, said Nguyen Tuan Minh, a researcher who just fininished his doctoral thesis in France on street vendors in Vietnam.
The crisis of the agriculture sector has forced a large number of farmers and laborers to seek livelihoods in cities, Minh explained.
Around 1.2 million people migrate to Vietnam's cities every year, official data shows, making up 20 percent of the country’s urban population.
Fast-paced urbanization is making it difficult for big cities to provide jobs for these people. For those who have never gone to college and have no expertise like Mo, it’s nearly impossible to find a formal job. They have no choice other than selling their wares on the streets.
“Street vendors are everywhere around the city, but we don't know how many there are because they're constantly moving,” said a member of the research team. City-level data for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City suggests that street vendors form around 11 percent of total non-agricultural informal employment. “But there could be a chance we have underestimated the number of street vendors,” he added.
Vending is for the tough
Surviving as a street vendor requires a certain amount of skill, and competition is cutthroat.
Limited start-up costs and flexible hours are some of the factors that draw street vendors to the occupation.
The number of street vendors has been increasing. “There was no competition or overcrowding 10 years ago,” Mo recalled. “The space we have to work in is practically the same, but there are so many new people working now.”
With this massive expansion, competition among street vendors has been heating up. For most of them, it’s all about earning every single penny they can, which they count every day.
Nguyen Van Thang from Thai Binh Province, who has been selling hot tofu pudding dessert on the street for over 10 years, said: “I used to spend 5 hours a day to earn enough money to live on, but now with this cut-throat competition, it takes at least nine or maybe 10 hours.”
According to Minh’s calculations, the vast majority of street vendors earn less than VND3 million ($132) per month, compared to the national income average of $180. For vendors of seasonal goods, they also have to cope with fluctuations in supply and demand.
Working outside, hawkers and their goods are exposed to the hot sun, heavy rain and extreme weather. Without a roof to protect their wares, weather can cripple their businesses. With global warming, outdoor workers might not be able to take it by 2050, according to a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in July 2016.
However, street vendors’ worst fear is not their peers or nature; it comes from the authorities. They are on the constant lookout for police, who can seize their goods at a moment's notice. For those who have old bicycles like Mo, running is an easy option, but for those who travel by foot with baskets of goods, there is nowhere to run.
“I have to memorize the time and the routes of the police patrols and move as soon as I catch a glimpse of them,” a street vendor selling Vietnamese donuts in the Old Quarter told a reporter. “It's risky and stressful".
Street vending generates enormous controversy among policy makers and researchers. Is street vending legal or illegal?
The Vietnamese government issued a decree in 2007 stating that street vending was allowed providing the vendors followed certain rules, such as not blocking the sidewalks or roads. That would mean all hawkers violate the rules. “They can do business legally but in a sneaky way,” Minh, the researcher, said.
Recently, Hanoi has been cleaning up its sidewalks, saying they are only for pedestrians and not for private use.
The General Statistics Office last month revealed that individual businesses, including street vendors, contributed around 11-13 percent to the economy in the first quarter of this year. Clearing the sidewalks may affect some individuals, but the impact "will not be that heavy," said an official.
Street vending has paved the way for petty crime and disrupted order in the city, a police officer in the Old Quarter, who asked to remain anonymous, told VnExpress International. Some vendors trick foreign visitors into buying things at unreasonable prices, he added.
Taking a different view, urban planning scholar Annette M. Kim said she did not think sidewalks should be exclusively for pedestrians; they should be multi-functional and give vendors a chance to make a living, which in turn will benefit the whole of society.
Critics are also afraid that the sidewalk cleanup may have unexpected consequences, arguing that a ban is useless without solutions for street vendors.
Some ideas have been proposed such as setting up designated areas for vendors or finding them alternative jobs, but how these ideas can be implemented remains a puzzle.
Minh suggested founding an association to protect the livelihoods of thousands of street vendors across the country. Its objective would be to look for long-lasting and sustainable solutions to the problems faced by street vendors.
The association would help give street vendors a voice on the issues they face, and allow them to work closely with state and municipal bodies.
Minh hopes to set up the national association first then join an international alliance called StreetNet, where members exchange information and ideas on critical issues facing street vendors, market vendors and hawkers.
He also emphasized that clearing the streets is not the best answer. It would be better if authorities issued guidelines for vendors. He also urged authorities to take regulations on street vending seriously.
"Street vending in Vietnam is a vital component of city life that should be embraced and nurtured, not shut down," he said.
Photos by Gia Chinh, Quynh Trang
Videos by Gia Chinh, Nhung Nguyen