Curbs on street hawkers divide Hanoi

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

The Vietnamese capital of Hanoi has reached that most awkward threshold of modernisation - the question of what do about street hawkers.

Most regional cities may have long dealt with the issue, some with blanket bans and others with licensing regulations, but Hanoi's case is particularly vexing.

Hanoi is a city that traces its roots back 1,000 years - and for a significant chunk of that time peasants have come out of the Red River Delta to sell their wares in the capital.

The ancient image of a young rural woman sashaying into the city balancing two baskets of goods on a shoulder pole remains one of the city's most enduring sights.

Many still rise hours before dawn to get to the markets in time before heading out to tread the streets with produce.

Remarkably, the rush to modernise has only increased their numbers, part of a flood of hundreds of thousands of rural young people looking to cash in on the city's rush to catch up on its regional neighbours.

The ranks of the peasant hawkers have been joined by increasing numbers of pavement entrepreneurs in recent years as reforms take root.

In the tiny streets of Hanoi's old quarter, growing numbers of cars struggle against hawkers strolling with everything from pineapples, garlic and bread, to motorbike parts in their baskets.

There are pavement hairdressers operating with a mirror tacked to tree trunks, mobile tobacconists with their wares stacked on the gutter blocks and knife sharpeners going door to door. Late at night and early in the morning regular noodle and rice sellers do the rounds, each with a trademark cry echoing deep into alleyways.

The clash of ancient and modern throws up stark contrasts: local businessmen staggering out of bars lubricated on rare whisky at US$20 a shot to buy a hot rice snack from a peasant woman for 2,500 dong (HK$1.20).

It may not be a contrast that is allowed to linger too much longer. Rich and bureaucratic elites are tired of the hawkers cluttering the streets. Envious of clean, well-ordered Singapore, they are determined to spruce up the city ahead of its 1,000 year anniversary in 2010.

They face a struggle, however. A decision by the Hanoi People's Committee to restrict hawkers' movements and issue fines has been delayed from January to July amid widespread complaints from hawkers and residents alike, many of whom are proud of the city's time-worn atmosphere.

Theirs is a symbiotic relationship - service at the doorway, at prices that don't have to cover shop rentals.

Hawker Nguyen Thi Ngan, 32, talks of a struggle that still has its benefits.

'I wake up early every morning to get to Long Bien market by 4 o'clock. Sometimes I have to wait until six to buy enough fruit for the day. Then I walk around the city with my baskets. I sell around 30kg of fruit a day and make 50,000 to 70,000 dong.

'Working like this gives me a lot of space and time when I need to look after my kids.

'If they decide to ban all hawkers, I will have to work in a factory. Where I live there are a few shoe factories but the wages are not high and you have to work until late.'

Trinh Viet Binh, 52, has to battle the hawkers daily as a motorcycle taxi driver but he also enjoys the fruits of cheap prices in a city struggling with inflation.

'I think the government's decision is good because hawkers make traffic very chaotic. They also don't care about hygiene and order. But I sometimes buy stuff from them because you can get good prices from them.'

Turning Hanoi into Singapore is not a battle that will be won overnight.