Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Salt and Pepper City—Kampot, Cambodia

                                                                       by Jim Goodman

park in central Kampot
       After entering Cambodia from Hà Tiên, the port city at the southwest corner of Vietnam, the journey to Kampot, the nearest city, takes about two hours.  Partly that’s because the road is not in as good condition as those on the Vietnam side of the border.  Lots of potholes slow down progress.  But that gives a traveler more time to appreciate the scenery, perhaps the most attractive countryside in the country.  Lush rice fields and fruit orchards flank the road, while limestone outcrops pop up from the plain, adding various shapes to the landscape.
Chăm girls visiting Kampot
       Villages are usually set back from the highway a bit, with an ornate gate over the entrance road.  If it’s Khmer, it will likely be embellished at the top with miniature replicas of Angkor Wat towers.  Khmer villagers live in stilted houses, often with decorative elements on the corners of the roofs and in the center of the top.  This feature starts to disappear close to Kampot, but shows up again north of Kampot en route to Takeo and Phnom Penh. 
       Many of the villages are Chăm, an Austronesian people who migrated to Cambodia from south central Vietnam in the 15th century after the fall of Vijaya, a once powerful Chăm kingdom, to the Vietnamese in 1472.  In Vijaya, Chăm communities were both Hindu and Muslim.  The Muslim Chăm fled mainly to Cambodia and further on to Thailand and Indonesia.  Chăm villages in southeast Cambodia are recognizable by the images of mosques on their entrance gates.  A few Chăm villages lie close to Kampot and Chăm women in their distinctive black headscarves make regular trips to the city’s markets. 
Teuk Chhou RIver and the old iron bridge
       The city lies mostly on the east bank of the Teuk Chhou River, about five kilometers from the Gulf of Thailand.  Elephant Mountain, with its former French hill resort Bokor, rises to the west.  A relaxed, uncongested city of about 50,000 inhabitants, with its colonial architecture, panoramic riverside scenery and great sunsets, it is becoming a more popular travel destination, including for Phnom Penh residents, since it’s only a couple of hours from the capital.
       No monuments or ruins from the Angkor Era exist anywhere in the province.  The area was part of the Angkor Empire, but although roads connected Angkor’s capital with territories to the north, west and northeast, none of them led to the coast.  The empire was land-based and scarcely involved in maritime trade, obviating the necessity for a good port.
Khmer Buddhist monks in Kampot
       Only after the fall of Angkor and the eventual removal of the Cambodian capital to Phnom Penh did Kampot begin to play, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the role of an important seaport.  Still, the post-Angkor Cambodian state did not get too involved in maritime commerce.  In the late 17th century the country allowed the influx of Chinese refugees from Guangdong in southeast China, fleeing their homeland after the collapse of a rebellion against the Manchu Dynasty rulers.
monument to the salt workers
       Many settled in Kampot, where their descendants live today, but towards the end of the century their leader Mạc Cưu persuaded the Cambodian Court to allow him to build a new port at Hà Tiên.  This proved to be a more important commercial center for Phnom Penh than Kampot.  No roads connected Kampot with Phnom Penh, so during the rainy season goods could not be transported to the capital.  Hà TIên had good, all-year connections north to Châu Đốc, from which goods could travel easily up a major branch of the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. 
       With the establishment of Hà Tiên, even Kampot traders found it easier to ship their goods to Phnom Penh via Hà Tiên.  Mạc Cưu set up a quasi-independent state at Hà Tiên and eventually allied with the Vietnamese and the port became part of Vietnam.  Kampot only revived after the French colonized Cambodia and built roads to Phnom Penh.  In the 1950s, after the country’s independence, the government built up a new seaport at what would be called Sihanoukville and Kampot’s maritime trade declined again.
colonial-era building in Kampot
       While it did not have a very long career as an international trading port, Kampot was still of economic significance because of its local products.  It is the only source of salt in Cambodia.  Its peppers have a worldwide reputation.  And its fruits, particularly durian, are rated the tastiest in the country.
       The salt flats lie south of the city near the sea.  About two hundred families are involved in the production.  In December, at the early part of the dry season, they channel the sea water to flood the adjacent plain, then build a dike to prevent further flow and channel the sea water to the next field.  After the area has been blocked from further flooding, they allow the water to evaporate, leaving the salt crystals in its wake. Collection begins by March.  (Heavy unseasonal winter rains, however, as occurred this year 2018, prevent evaporation and wipe out production.)
river view from the west bank
       All the work is manual, mostly done by women, who carry loads of salt to the factory.  There it is cleaned and dried for 30-45 days and then packed for shipment.  About 5000 hectares of land is devoted to salt collection, typically producing 100,000 tons of salt annually, rich in iodine, with at least 20 tons exported to France.  Most of the rest is distributed within Cambodia, with portions exported to neighboring countries.  In recognition of the value of its salt industry, a monument honoring the salt workers stands in a roundabout in downtown Kampot.
the Durian Roundabout
       No such monument honors pepper, Kampot’s other famous product.  Bit it’s been around longer than the salt fields.  The Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan, visiting the Angkor Empire near the end of the 13th century, recorded pepper production in his account of his exploration.  Pepper plants take three years to mature and are sensitive to sunlight.  So farmers protect them with overhead rows of dried palm leaf branches.  Once they start producing, the plants can last twenty years.
       Kampot pepper vines grow in soil with high quartz content.  Pepper connoisseurs claim it has a taste that lingers on the tongue, rather than, as with most pepper varieties, overwhelming the taste buds.  There are different types.  The black pepper comes from sun-drying green peppercorns.  The red peppercorn is boiled to remove the skin and results in white pepper.  The red pepper comes from peppercorn left on the vine four months longer and has a touch of sweetness.  The stalks are also edible, often served with fried squid.
colonial-era shop houses
       The World Trade Organization has granted Kampot pepper Geographical Indicator status, identifying it as a high-quality product specific to a certain location on earth; in this case Kampot and nearby Kep.  (Other GI status products include Champagne wine and Darjeeling tea.)  It also certifies that no pesticides or inorganic fertilizers are used in the production process. 
       Kampot and Kep are not the only places where this kind of pepper is cultivated, however, and much of what is sold in the Kampot market comes from Hà Tiên and Phú Quc in Vietnam or northeastern Cambodia, where the restrictions on pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not necessarily in force.  Depending on the type, genuine, GI-labeled Kampot pepper nowadays sells for $13-$17 a kilo.  Small packets of 100 grams are popular souvenir purchases.
red sky, red river:  twilight over the Teuk Chhou
       Another major input to Kampot’s economy is its fruit.  Fields and orchards in the province grow durians, mangos, coconuts and watermelons.  Cambodians reckon Kampot durians as the best in the country.  Beneath their hard, spiky covering skin they are soft, delicious and extra sweet.  Durians are notorious for their strong odor though, and people are either quite fond of them or, because of the smell, which is not repugnant but certainly noticeable, avoid them entirely.
       For durian lovers, Kampot is the place to get them.  But its high reputation has meant the inevitable infiltration of other durians, which are indistinguishable from the outside, grown elsewhere and not as tasty, but passed off as local products.  The government is now trying to get a GI status so as to protect and promote Kampot durians over the competitors.  The city is certainly proud of them.  Perhaps the best-known and most photographed building in Kampot is the huge sculpture of the fruit at the Durian Roundabout.
Kampot Music School for Orphans and DIsabled Children
       Kampot’s maturity as a city came during the French colonial period, when it was Cambodia’s main seaport.  French colonists came to live here, build homes and shop houses, paved streets and an iron bridge across the river.  They also established a hill resort at Bokor in the early 20th century, with a church, hotels, restaurants and a casino.  Cambodia’s king also had a house here. 
       After the Second World War, beset by the insurgency in Vietnam, the French stopped taking holidays in Bokor and the place was abandoned.  Decades later Bokor was the site of a ferocious battle between the Vietnamese, basically holed up in the church and hotel and the Khmer Rouge, based in the casino.  The scars of that battle are still visible to contemporary tourists, to whom Bokor was like a preserved ghost town. 
waiting hall at the inter-city taxi stand
       After Cambodia’s independence in 1953 the French residents of Kampot also pulled out, but local Cambodians moved into the vacated houses.  The city did not suffer much damage when the Khmer Rouge captured it in 1974.  As soon as the Khmer Rouge breached the French-built iron bridge across the river, government forces abandoned the city without further resistance. 
       Decades later, these colonial houses have become one of the city’s prime attractions.  Many have been turned into hotels, restaurants and guesthouses.  Several city streets are dominated by rows of two-story shop houses built in the colonial style.  The more modern, post-colonial buildings, as well as the main covered market, are in the northern part of the city.
the city's covered market
       Most city buildings are leftover colonial era structures or ordinary modern ones.  The city has few outright religious buildings, just a small Chinese temple on the river and a modest Khmer Buddhist temple in the suburbs.  But architectural motifs associated with Khmer temples, such as sloping, angled roofs, upturned corners, decorative plaques beneath the roof apex and spires on the top, are part of secular buildings and add to the variety of street scenery. 
       Pavilions in the parks resemble small Buddhist shrines.   The roof of the waiting stand in the western suburbs for inter-city transportation looks like it was lifted from a Buddhist assembly hall.  And a building that from a block away looks like it’s an urban temple compound turns out to be the Kampot Music School for Orphans and Disabled Children.
the walkway along the Teuk Chhou River
       The city stays active all day, people go shopping and boats ply the river, but it doesn’t have a true rush hour.  So it’s a very pleasant walk anywhere, especially along the river’s east bank.  A row of tall shade trees flanks one side of the walkway, which also has street lamps and garden plots, though as yet no cafes or bars except next to the new road bridge at the north end.
       Such establishments lie on the other side of the road, especially in the square near the iron bridge.  After the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, the government repaired the damaged bridge, but didn’t renovate it sturdy enough to bear heavy traffic.  Now it is restricted to motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians. 
Kampot kids playing on a trampoline
       By crossing the bridge and turning right on the other bank one gets a different view of the city and the river traffic and can continue through the riverside neighborhood, mostly Chinese, to the new bridge and return to the walkway along the east bank.  This is absolutely the best place to enjoy the spectacular sunsets that often grace Kampot evenings in the dry season, splashing colors across both the sky and the river. 
       The main pleasure for travelers to Kampot is the city’s relaxed and congenial atmosphere.  Local food is quite good, especially the chicken or fish amok, baked in leaves and flavored with coconut milk.  Because of the large expatriate community, various kinds of Western food are available.  Beer is cheap and most guesthouses have garden bars with extended happy hours.  The more energetic folks might opt for day trips to the beach at Kep, the salt fields, pepper farms or a boat ride up the river.  But for others, pleasant walks, good food and drink and taking it easy while making new friends makes an equally enjoyable way to spend the time.
Kampot's business district
       How long will this situation continue?  Will ‘tourism development’ soon alter the Kampot experience?  Bokor lost its attraction a few years ago with the construction of a million-dollar casino complex.  And this year Chinese investors are pouring into Kampot with their own specific schemes in mind.  The transformation of Kampot into a Chinese-style tourist hotspot may be about to begin.  One can only hope it doesn’t happen quickly.   At any rate, now and in the future, nothing will interfere with those wonderful sunsets.
sunset in Kampot

 * * *


Friday, June 29, 2018

A Religion of Fusion—Vietnam’s Cao Đài Faith

                                            by Jim Goodman
noon prayers at the Cao Đài Cathedral in Toà Thánh
A popular day-trip for tourists out of H Ch Minh City takes them to Tây Ninh, 90 km northwest, to the Cao Đài Cathedral.  They will arrive just before the noon worship services, stay less than half an hour, leave for lunch in a roadside restaurant and then head for a walk through the C Chi Tunnels used in the American War.  The main impression they will have of their Tây Ninh excursion will be the unique architecture of the cathedral, with tall twin towers in front and an long vestibule, the rows of white clad devotees at prayer and, in particular, the great, All-Seeing Eye over the interior altar, on the windows and above the entrance.    
       This eye, the left eye of God (left being the yang side), the iconic symbol of the Cao Đài religion, first appeared in a vision of Ngô Văn Chiêu, a Vietnamese working as a colonial official on Phú Quc Island in 1921.  In his free time he studied about Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, as well as spiritism—the belief humans could contact the deceased and other spirits.  He attended séances and in one of these he claimed messages from Đức Cao Đài, Lord of the High Stage (or Tower), or God, according to his interpretation, that were instructions on the tenets of a new religion for a new epoch.
Cao Đài symbols on the cathedral ceiling
       Moving to Saigon soon after, he was joined by other séance practitioners with similar experiences, particularly Lê Văn Trung and Phm Công Tc.  By 1926 these men had molded the massages of the séances into a specific creed of principles and rules and applied to the French colonial government for recognition as a new religion.  The French approved.  Ngô Văn Chiêu having decided to retire to a life of meditation by then, Le Văn Trung became the first Giáo Tông, or Leader of a Religious Group. 
       The central Cao Đài tenet is that the current age is the Third Period of revelation and salvation.  In the First Period God transmitted his messages through Dipankara Buddha (a previous incarnation of Buddha dating back 100,000 years), Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, and other ancient Chinese sages.   In the Second Period, God’s agents were Shakyamuni Buddha, Moses, Confucius, Jesus and Mohammed.  But these truths were limited to their historical periods and geographical conditions and have been distorted since their introduction.
the Left Eye of God, cathedral windows
Cao Đài pantheon
       The Cao Đài creed aims to become the Universal Religion of the Third Period and draws upon existing religions for its articles of faith.  From Buddhism it adopted the notion of reincarnation and the five taboos against killing, lying, licentious behavior, stealing and intoxication.  From Confucianism it incorporated its social order and code of behavior.  From Taoism it took the yin-yang concept and from Catholicism it got its organizational structure.
Cao Đài temple in Trà Vinh
       The Cao Đài religion assigns nearly equal importance to men and women.  They pray separately during the services, and women enter from the left side, while the men enter from the right.  But the women line up in ranks opposite the men and they can be members of the clergy.  Because the order of the clergy so resembles that of Catholicism, outsiders describe them as priest, bishop, cardinal and pope.  Actually, there are more ranks than these and more words used to identify them.  And the use of ’pope’ to identify the giáo tong is inaccurate, for the Vietnamese word for ‘pope’ in the Catholic sense is actually giáo hoàng. 
      The only position a woman cannot hold is giáo tông.  According to Taoism (or perhaps a Confucian prejudice), yin cannot rule over yang, lest chaos ensue.  Taoist influence also established the veneration of the Queen Mother of the West, a Chinese goddess, as the celestial representative of yin. 
       The binding element in this fusion of beliefs in the years of its formation and growth, distinguishing it from established religions, was spiritism.  The preferred method of contacting spirits was the séance, during which famous personalities, as various as Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, the Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, other Vietnamese personalities, Sun Yat-sen and even William Shakespeare and Vladimir Lenin.  They sent messages regarding finer points of doctrine and organization, sometimes transmitted via automatic writing.  And sometimes blank sheets of paper were locked up in a box and opened after some time, containing messages allegedly written by spirits.
Cao Đài priest
the Covenant with God
       Three of these personalities became important Cao Đài saints:  Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen.  Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm was a famous 16th century scholar and poet during the turbulent time of the usurping Mạc Dynasty, with a reputation as a political prophet.  Victor Hugo, the French novelist whose works Les Misérables and Toilers of the Sea expressed much sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, also was a believer in spiritism.  Sun Yat-sen founded the Chinese Republic in 1911, an event Cao Đài adherents believed helped set the stage for the Third Period.  A painting in a ground floor room of the cathedral in Toà Thánh, reproduced at other Cao Đài sites, shows the three of them signing a Covenant with God.  Nguyễn Bỉng Khiêm holds an ink stone, while Victor Hugo writes with a quill pen and Sun Yat-sen with a brush the words “God and Humanity, Love and Justice” in French and Chinese.
Cao Đài clergy leaving the cathedral
devotee at prayer
       The newly recognized religion set up its Holy See in Toà Thánh, a few kilometers east of Tây Ninh city.  Its membership grew quickly, especially among the peasantry.  But it also became troubled by doctrinal disputes.  Since the principles of the religion came from séances, some new adherents began searching for these messages through their own informal séances.  The leadership decided to officially restrict the practice to two recognized mediums, one male, one female, in the Holy See.  Eventually it published The Compilation of Divine Messages, as well as a Religious Constitution.
devotee with offerings
Cao Đài priest representing the Taoist element
In trying to restrict the séances, the Cao Đài leadership cited the problems of auto-suggestion, message manipulation and interference by evil spirits.  This was already a problem for a newly formed religious organization that promoted the idea of letting God speak to you in your heart.  By the time Lê Văn Trung died in 1934 (or according to the Cao Đài interpretation ‘became dis-incarnated’), eleven small splinter groups had set up their own organizations.  The government eventually banned séances, even in Tây Ninh.
Cao Đài Cathedral in Toà Thánh
       The Tây Ninh-run branch remained by far the largest Cao Đài organization.  Phạm Công Tắc assumed leadership, though not the office of giáo tong.  The Cao Đài message began evolving from then on, taking on a more nationalistic flavor.  Southwest Vietnam at that time witnessed several new Buddhist sects that emphasized temporal works more than spiritual; i.e. involving oneself in improving the world rather than withdrawing from it.  Cao Đài advocated self-cultivation, but also promoted equality and opposed exploitation, factors which spurred peasant conversion.
       Cao Đài had always opposed colonialism as a matter of religious doctrine, but tempered this by calling for increasing dialog with the colonial authorities.  Under Phạm Công Tắc the notion of dialog was all but muted and the religion took on a more openly nationalist stand as the messages revealed by the mediums started criticizing colonialism and its hardships.  At the same time he oversaw the construction of the great cathedral in Toà Thánh, which elevated the Cao Đài prestige and influence. 
cathedral interior
       In 1941 widespread revolts against French rule broke out over much of Vietnam.  In the course of the crackdown, French authorities seized the Holy See at Tây Ninh, temporarily forbade religious services and hustled Phạm Công Tắc and other Cao Đài dignitaries off to exile in Madagascar.  Cao Đài leaders then formed an army, which eventually grew to 25,000, to protect its believers and, hopefully, ally with the Japanese to overthrow French rule.  But the alliance never materialized, Japan lost the war and the French returned.
       However, the re-installed colonial government immediately faced a Việt Minh-led insurgency.  Seeking local allies, the French reversed their attitude about Cao Đài, brought the leaders back from exile and enlisted them as allies against the Việt Minh.  Phạm Công Tắc agreed, but others didn’t and the Cao Đài army was not an effective French ally. 
cathedral garden
       When the war ended and the country was split in two, Cao Đài leaders initially supported Ngô Đình Diệm, but in 1955, after a government raid on the Holy See, opposed him.  They remained just as opposed to the Communists, though, so after re-unification in 1975 the Hanoi government disbanded their army, confiscated their lands and closed their temples.  This was similar to what the government did to all private religious armies (Hòa Hào being another) and establishments—Buddhist, Taoist, Catholic and Protestant included.  Only in the late 80s did the government return the confiscated lands and in 1997, with a far more tolerant policy in place, lifted prohibitions on Cao Đài religious expression.
       In the 21st century religion in Vietnam began enjoying a period of rejuvenation.  Temples and churches drew crowds again and festivals revived.  How much religious sentiment influenced daily behavior again after decades of secular propaganda and the onset of the century’s materialism is debatable.  Yet the revival of piety and respect for tradition is certainly sincere.  For Cao Đài adherents, following the moral precepts and cultivating a personal relationship with God are still the essence of the faith.  As part of their reverence for all life, they are supposed to eat vegetarian food ten days a month and the clergy must abstain from meat entirely.
the other Cao Đài temple in Toà Thánh
       Today, estimates of the number of Cao Đài followers ranges from six to eight million, making it Vietnam’s third largest religion.  Most of them are in the Mekong Delta and travelers can spot Cao Đài temples in most Delta provinces, recognized by their tall twin front towers and the All-Seeing Eye mounted on the front façade.  They also exist further north, as far as Hội An, Đà Nẵng and Huế.  The congregations there are much smaller, though.  Basically the further southwest you go in Vietnam, the greater the number of Cao Đài devotees and temples.
       Tây Ninh is still the Cao Đài heartland and the ostentatious cathedral at Toà Thánh its most splendid house of worship and the model for most of the others in the Mekong Delta.  The front features two tall towers, the entrance between them leading to a long hallway, supported by thick, dragon-entwined pillars, at the end of which sits a huge globe with the Left Eye of God prominent in the center.  The same Eye, inside a triangle, is on the rows of window grilles at either side.  Smaller towers stand on the roof at the halfway point and at the rear.
       A large garden park, with a few towers and other buildings, lies adjacent and a path past statues of other Cao Đài saints and message-bearers leads to another Cao Đài temple in the same compound.  It has just one front tower, but an equally long hallway behind it and is used to accommodate the spillover from the cathedral during services.
Cao Đài priest representing the Confucian element
Cao Đài clergy at Toà Thánh
       Prayer time for Cao Đài devotees begins daily at 6:00 and 12:00, a.m. and p.m.  Services are the same each time, Sunday is no different and there are no special holy days or festivals.  Attendance is not mandatory, but on an ordinary day devotees fill the Tòa Thánh cathedral, at least at noon, dressed in white.  The clergy, who sit in front, wear robes of different colors, symbolizing the three main elements of the faith—yellow for Buddhism, Blue for Taoism, red for Confucianism.
       The offerings they might bring are simple—flowers, incense, candles and water.  Devotees pray while kneeling erect and kowtow at intervals while a priest raps a gong or a large bronze bowl at the altar.  The rituals, which altogether last about an hour, include music and singing, performed on the indoor balcony above the hallway. 
Cao Đài Cathedral services
leading the Cao Đài prayers at Đà Nẵng
       The ground floor is off-limits to non-worshipers during prayer sessions.  Tourists can watch the rituals, but only from the second floor balcony.  This prevents them from disturbing the devotees by coming in to take close-up photographs while people are trying to privately communicate with God. 
       As for the future, the question is how long can the revival of Cao Đài faith continue?  The attraction of religion is decreasing among each younger generation.  Yet a large percentage of the daily congregation at Toà Thánh is young, especially the females, who in any religion are more involved than the men.  Compared to other religions in Vietnam, Cao Đài is the only one with a strong nationalist identity.  It is uniquely Vietnamese and considers itself the universal religion of the future.  Cao Đài devotees associate keeping their faith with retaining their Vietnamese identity in a globalized world.  Perhaps these convictions will insure its survival in the ever more secular-minded times to come.

musicians and singers accompanying the Cao Đài prayers
                                                                               * * *    

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Hanoi’s Roving Vendors

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

roving vendor making a sale
       When first-time visitors to Hanoi begin exploring the city center, they soon become aware of one of Hanoi’s special characteristics, one that distinguishes it from every other city in the country—its roving vendors.  This becomes more recognizable when sitting down for refreshment at one of the sidewalk cafes or street corner bia hơi shops.  As you sip your drink, on the congested street in front of you, besides cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians, pass members of the city’s army of mobile merchants.
       A few are men, but most are village women, wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical cap, often carrying their goods in trays or shallow baskets balanced at each end of a shoulder pole, just as they would in their villages.  These may contain flowers, fruits, vegetables, snacks, or even cooked food and dishes in one and stools for customers in the other.  The poles are slightly flexible and as the vendor walks along the trays seem to bounce evenly up and down, but never overturn while on the move.
bringing in the fruit
vendors on the move
       Besides using shoulder poles to transport their goods, the vendors may mount the items on racks tied to a bicycle, such as sunglasses, cell phones, mirrors, brushes and combs, small brooms, feather dusters and clothing, which they take on foot around their routes.  They could load things like ceramic cups, saucers, plates, bowls, ladles and teapots, or several kinds of fruits and vegetables, in a wheeled cart and push it around.  They could place small items in a tray suspended at the waist.  Or they could bundle their goods on top of their heads as they search for a place to stop and lay them out.
flower vendor on her route
flower vendor stopping for a sale
       Most look for a spot along the street where they can at least temporarily set up.  They may have to move on if the place suddenly gets too jammed so that customers can’t even stop to look at what they have, or if business becomes too slow, or if police are approaching.  They might end up at several locations for the day.  Others, like those pushing carts or carrying goods in a tray, may not stop anywhere, just slowly wander over a specific route.  Besides residents and pedestrians in the area, potential customers could be passing by on motorbike and stop to make a purchase.
Hanoi market in the Lê Dynasty
       How ancient the roving vendor tradition may be is difficult to guess.  Commerce was different centuries ago.  The city had streets specializing in specific items and regular market days.  One could assume there were morning markets of some sort, at least for food and perhaps wandering vendors selling essential everyday items.  Except for the bicycle, people transported their goods through the city like they do today, using shoulder poles, pushing them in carts or carrying them on their heads.  Old engravings and drawings and photographs from the colonial period are the evidence.
       After Vietnam’s independence in 1954 the nature of life and commerce in Hanoi changed dramatically.  The new socialist government nationalized land, resources and industry and took over the administration of production and distribution.  However, the ‘subsidized economy’ also included the notion that the state was responsible for the welfare of the people.  The state also subsidized schools, hospitals and other social institutions.
vendors (left) setting up in the French Concession, 1870s
       A decade later the system began feeling the strains with the beginning of the American War.  After victory and unification came conflicts with Cambodia and China, followed by years of international isolation.  Not only was poverty widespread, especially in the countryside, so was hunger.  Faced with such a dire situation, in late 1986 the Party decided on a drastic overhaul of the system.  Called đôi mới (renovation), the policy abolished both subsidies and control over most of the economy, distributed land and long-term leases of it to the farmers and permitted them to sell their surpluses.  It also allowed individual businesses to set up and the private employment of people as well as self-employment.
hawking feather dusters and  brooms
vendor on her route
       The freedom to decide on their own land use and the right to sell surpluses certainly provided the initiative to produce those surpluses.  Agricultural output rose, as did farmers’ incomes, poverty began diminishing and hunger became rare.  As Vietnam’s national development began taking off, the government was able to improve the infrastructure, extending electricity and new roads to the rural areas.  Villagers in the vicinity of Hanoi could now reach the city markets easier.
cooked food vendor and customer
       While the lives of rural folks improved much after the đôi mới reforms, the end of the subsidized economy also meant that the responsibility for the people’s welfare was no longer the state’s but that of the people themselves.  This was all the more reason to take advantage of the new economic liberty.  They had more responsibilities to bear, and risks, but it was better than the basic, minimum, bottom-line government guarantee of the pre-đôi mới days that they had come to believe they would never get past.
       One consequence of the reforms was the prices of goods and commodities were not determined by a socialist bureaucrat anymore, but by the laws of supply and demand.  They were higher than the ration card days, but more and more of everything was available, especially in Hanoi.  The economy started booming.  Opportunities of all kinds popped up constantly.
       In the countryside, villagers were better off after the reforms, but they were still poor in comparison with Hanoi people.  Even if they were self-sufficient in food production, the cost of everything they needed that they couldn’t make themselves was always rising.  Besides their own domestic expenses, school fees and health care costs, they had social obligations with kin and neighbors within the village, such as weddings, funerals and other events to attend, requiring monetary gifts.  In a money-based economy they needed a supplemental income.  The village didn’t offer any employment.  The only choice was Hanoi.
vendors on an unoccupied sidewalk
stopping to make a sale
       Because most villagers don’t get beyond a middle-school education, they cannot qualify for any kind of office work in Hanoi.  Their only skills were farming and animal husbandry, both useless in the city.  Men could sometimes get part-time jobs in construction work in the village vicinity, close enough to enable them to return home after work.  But for women, the sole option was self-employment as a roving vendor.  It wouldn’t be full-time, for they would return home at important times in the planting cycle and for all-but-obligatory family or village ceremonies.  Some who came from villages close to Hanoi would travel back and forth every day, but most came from further off and worked and slept in the city most days of the year.
       Debt is a prime factor in making the decision to migrate, whether it’s formal indebtedness to a lending institution or informal debt to villagers or relatives.  Nearly always they have to be paid in cash, so a cash income is necessary.  But other reasons can motivate the move, like the desire to build a new house, to finance their children’s higher education, to prepare for wedding expenses or simply to earn money to buy things to improve their home life and impress their neighbors.
roving with a basket of sweets
broom vendor on the move
       When the decision comes to migrate, it is usually the woman who goes.  If she is still nursing children, the husband will go instead.  When she does go, the husband may also go, provided there are enough relatives around to take care of the household.  But that’s rare.  And the work is not very financially rewarding and after a hard day of tramping the city streets, men are more likely to squander their profits on alcohol and tobacco than their abstemious wives and mothers.  A majority of Hanoi’s roving vendors are women who do not intend to have any more children, though there are some who still do and younger ones who are as yet childless. 
mobile buyer, mobile seller
       Roving vendors have been part of the Hanoi scene for three decades now, so standard procedures are in place for getting involved.  The aspiring roving vendor will depart from her village with a few others at the same time and they will join a group of fellow villagers already established in the city.  They will stay at the same place, either in a boarding house or in rented floor space in Hanoi people’s houses.  They’ll sleep side by side, with no real privacy, and be subject to the landlord’s restrictions on the use of water and electricity.  This will also be their support group while in the city and the veterans of this group will instruct the newcomers in the tricks and tasks of the trade.
       They’re already aware that it’s not going to be an easy life.  They did not come here because they were bored with village life and needed something to do, but only reluctantly, out of economic necessity.  They know they will not get rich, but if they are careful, budget-conscious, diligent and lucky, they can save enough to alleviate past debts or cover future expenses.
       The first decision the woman has to make is what product to sell.  Roving vendors sell a bewildering variety of items.  Some are edible and/or perishable like fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Others are not, such as brushes, feather dusters, sunglasses and clothing.  Her support group will have some recommendations, as well as advice on where and how to purchase the items.  The items with the best turnover are fruits and flowers; fruits because Vietnamese like to have fruit after a meal and flowers for their ritual, gift and decorative use.  A lot of competition exists for selling these, however.
fruit vendor waiting for business
vendor with small packaged goods
       The biggest source for wholesale goods is Long Biên market, next to the iron bridge of the same name.  It opens in the wee hours of the morning and roving vendors often get up at 2 a.m. to beat the crowds and get the best selections.  Newcomers quickly learn that among the tricks of the trade are those the Long Biên merchants play on them—short-weighting and concealing spoiled, unsellable fruits in containers the customers are not permitted to inspect.  Even flowers have to be checked, to ensure they are all fresh and not mixed with some cut a week ago that are already beginning to wilt.
       The vendors take their time examining their purchases, comparing prices at different stalls and finally making a selection.  By daybreak they are ready to prepare their loads, determine the prices they will charge and set out for the day.  Veteran vendors will advise the newcomers on how to select a route, based on competition for certain items, space accessibility to lay out their goods, and offer tips like hanging out near restaurants to sell fruits and sweet snacks and how to negotiate through thick moving traffic when crossing busy main streets.
making and selling a meal
       Setting prices is key to whether the day is successful or not.  Potential city customers assume that prices offered by roving vendors have to be lower than prices at shops or permanent market stalls.  The vendor has to add on something, and in the case of fruits purchased by the crate or carton, make up for the spoiled fruits inevitably hidden in the lower layers, but it cannot be as much as retail sellers, who might not mark up the items very much anyway.  Always number-conscious, she will know the cheapest places along her route to have a meal, and will not indulge in any extras.
       She must also be on guard against petty theft, usually by addicts and juvenile delinquents.  Yet even the well-off can play mean tricks on occasion, like taking something in their hands to examine and then driving off on their motorbikes without paying.  This is not a continuous daily hazard, but it does happen.
       The biggest danger comes from the police and their periodic raids on vendors, often involving the confiscation of goods.  City laws forbid roving vendors on a number of downtown streets, yet the vendors often take their chances, for the raids are not a daily occurrence and these streets are the best for their kind of business.
       Hanoi seems to be ambivalent about the roving vendors.  With its plethora of narrow busy streets and exponentially growing congestion, the authorities view roving vendors as impediments to traffic and outdated as a phenomenon in a modern city.  When Hanoi hosts important international events, like the SEA Games some years back, police launch campaigns far in advance to clear all roving vendors out of the city, lest visiting dignitaries view Hanoi as still backward.
vegetable vendor on her route
vendor with conical caps and basketry
       No one has come up with an alternative source of employment for the vendors, however.  Hanoi residents still view their presence as part of the city’s unique culture.  The Women’s Museum has a special exhibit about them.  And no doubt the Tourism Department doesn’t want them to disappear.
       The roving vendors certainly don’t want to give it up.  Hard as that lifestyle is, at the end of their time here they will have earned enough to make it worth it.  Other village women, beset by similar economic problems and inspired by their example, will come to Hanoi to replace them.

roving vendor crossing a busy street

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