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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