As Le Thi Chi, 41, set up her coconut malt stall on the sidewalk, she asked an adjacent noodle stall security guard if “officers” had been “coming by” lately.
It’s by no means a light question for those who make their living selling food on the street in constant danger of being shut down by local authorities.
But the guard was confident Chi was safe, at least for now, and his response lightened the mood:
“It’s Sunday, they took their wives and kids to the café. They won’t catch you. Don’t worry.”
Chi’s uneasy living is a mobile street shop of five seats she’s constantly moving around to different Ho Chi Minh City Streets in District 1 in an anxious effort to avoid official patrols that fine street vendors. Such patrols can even lead to the confiscation of property or even detainment.
At two of Chi’s usual locations, she’s gotten homeowners permission to sell in front of their houses. Another location she “inherited” from her mother 10 years ago, when she first moved to the southern metropolis.
To fly under the radar, she stays no more than two hours at any one location.
At night, she wanders the city in search of customers, she’ll stop just long enough for not to attract the attention of the city authorities’ so-called “urban order forces.”
She’s been working in fear this way for a decade now.
Street vending, by the government’s definition, entails two characteristics: vendors with mobility of salespoint, and without officially registering their business for approval. The profession is considered a legitimate job by the state, but most street vendors don’t have the resources to complete such official procedures and thus Chi and many other popular sellers are rarely able to do business in peace.
“If I move, they won’t fine me. But I can’t keep moving forever,” Chi says. “I have to stop to give my customers malt. If I am caught at that moment, I’m done for.”
At that point it’s only a question if she can outrun the officers or not.
On the lam
As she was walking in front of Ben Thanh Market at 9 a.m., Chi saw a truck full of urban order officers parked on the other side of the street. Next to it, three people wearing green outfits were confiscating tables and stools placed in front of the Ba An Pagoda. Chi rushed away, lowering her head to hide her face with her conical hat. She crossed the street without looking – ignoring the vehicles honking and passing inches from her – because she felt her only choice was to get out of sight as quickly as possible.
Chi and her little stall then snuck into a deep alley, waiting for the truck to go away.
Just a few days prior, Chi was fined by the officers, something she has yet to recover from.
As she was looking for her cellphone to call her daughter, who had just left home for college, a hand violently grabbed her carrying pole. An officer, in the feared green uniform and badges on his shoulder, was hovering over when she looked up. When her pleading and begging did not work, Chi had no choice but to let the officer take her pole, which she’d been using for a decade.
The exact same thing had happened 10 years ago when she was fined for the first time on her third day as a street vendor. She was surprised to see all her fellow vendors scattering away into nearby houses as she sat in front of a movie theater. Before she could react, a man took her cart away and loaded it onto a pickup truck, along her signs, billboards, tables and stools.
She went to the ward authorities for help retrieving her property, crying her heart out and asking for her belongings back. The officer there said the fine was VND700,000 ($28.62). But everything they’d taken from Chi had only cost her VND500,000, so she walked away, unsure how to continue.
“I never returned to that movie theater,” she said.
That day, she learned that the street vendor life was not a glamorous one, far from their romanticized depictions in art and music.
Many now know that their lives are actually a symbol of chaos and disorder on the street, something that needs to be removed to restore the city’s aesthetics.
Chi always needs her customers, but ever since her second “bust,” she always avoids crowded places as they attract more attention from officers. She settles for less populated places, which are also less profitable, for the peace of mind. Sometimes, she chooses places on the border between wards and districts, a trick that vendors tell one another, as urban order officers can only fine vendors within their areas of jurisdiction.
Chi now has to switch places every few minutes, bringing with her the 15 kg mobile stall of goods. But it’s just another Monday for her.
But, even given all that, thanks to her hard-earned experience, over the past 10 years, Chi has only been fined twice, much fewer than her fellow vendors. The toughest time in her career was the “sidewalk cleanup” campaign back in 2017, when she even contemplated quitting her job.
At noon, Chi would bring out her homemade lunch: some rice and a bowl of shrimp broth and vegetables. Ever since her daughter went to college, Chi learned to be much more stringent with her spending. When her child enrolled in the school, Chi had to spend VND16 million in tuition. Her eldest daughter would finish college in four years, while the younger brother is only in 7th grade. Chi and her husband know finances would be a problem for their family, but she never let her children shoulder that burden. Chi says her mother raised three children as a street vendor, and she is confident she can pull it off as well.
Chi and her mother have spent a total of 40 years as street vendors. They are prime examples of HCMC’s informal workers on the sidewalks: women over 40, no education past 9th grade, immigrants, just trying to keep their families afloat.
A 2019 study by the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, revealed that 70% of street vendors in downtown areas were women, and 70% of them were immigrants. Most of them are over 40, an age group that is no longer in high demand at factories. They choose street vending due to its simplicity and lack of requirements regarding age, gender, hometown, education level or experience.
For people like Chi, street vending was the quickest and cheapest path to start a business. Her coconut malt recipe comes from the traditions of her hometown, where coconuts only cost a few thousand Vietnamese dong, and the carrying pole and other add-ons altogether don’t cost much more: everything costs less than VND500,000. It’s a modest investment for a successful business.
Chi works every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. But despite the constraints, there’s also some freedom in this kind of life. When it rains, or on days when Chi gets tired, she can always go home and rest. She once stopped working for 1-2 months to visit her hometown and take care of her kids. When she returned, the job was still waiting for her.
On good days, Chi can earn around VND200,000 on average. A full month of work nets her around VND6 million, the same as the basic salary of the average factory worker. But in return, she gets total freedom. That is why she’s never considered working in a factory.
“It’s fine doing this job. It’s only not fine when urban order officers come after me.”
Two hours into their afternoon shift, an Urban Order Team 1 pickup truck is already full of “evidence,” to be stashed away at a storage facility.
“The district’s evidence storages are all full. We cannot collect all the evidence, but if we return them, the vendors just do it all over again,” said Le Huu Hung, head of the team.
In the past, when wheeled-carts were still used, the team would haul back 10-20 carts per day, full of confiscated property they used as “evidence’. Owners can come reclaim their goods by handing over fines, while unclaimed objects sit in storage, piling into mountains.
At 6 p.m., as the night falls, street vendors begin pouring out of the streets. The team’s pickup truck and four motorbikes have to navigate through crowds of people to do their job. Usually, a patrol group is made up of three people. But this week, more people were deployed as there were special events going on.
Hung used his hands to signal a rice paper vendor on Nguyen Hue Street. Once the vehicles stopped, eight officers went down and formed a barricade. The vendor, panicking, tried to bring her belongings with her and ran into a nearby apartment complex, but she was stopped in her tracks by Hung. Her pleading did not work, and her stuff was taken away.
After years on the job, the team has learned at least one valuable lesson: never do things alone.
“If you go as just 1-2 people, no one can help if something happens,” Hung explained as to why there are always several officers patrolling at the same time.
As a habit, the team always seizes sharp, pointy objects and stoves first to prevent anyone from getting hurt. There are those vendors who run, but there are also those who fight. Hung and others in the team have all been verbally attacked at least once, sometimes even with physical force.
Late last year, when Hung tried to request a motorbike driver to stop driving on a pedestrian street, the motorist beat him severely. Hung himself did not retaliate.
“Now everyone has devices that can record videos of you. Even when I do the right thing, it will seem wrong. Even self-defense. So, I just stood there,” he said.
As Hung’s motorbike maneuvered the crowd, his eyes looked for street vendors playing hide-and-seek. All of a sudden, he signaled the team to take notice of a woman in a white shirt, trailing behind them on a motorbike.
Everyone understood immediately that she was a spotter.
“The street vendors operate in groups. When they see officers, they would send 1-2 people to follow us like a scout, so our position could be reported,” Hung said.
As a former police officer, Hung knew what to do. He took a sharp turn to the right, taking the woman by surprise and making her speed past the team. When she tried to look around, she was met with Hung’s knowing gaze. Still, the woman did not give up, and had the team chase her the entire night.
After years of experience, Hung classifies vendors into two groups: the “documented” ones, and those in circumstances trying to make ends meet. He said he now knows at first glance who’s an experienced vendor and who’s still wet behind the ears. For those new to the job, Hung usually just gives them verbal reminders and lets things slide.
“We can’t deal with them all, but punishments must be there to set examples. If not, people will just sell things wherever,” he said.
Nguyen Duc Thang, who leads the urban order team of District 1, said the sidewalks are where the stark economic conditions of informal workers in the city are reflected the most. As such, following the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been an increasing number of people fined by the city, as pandemic closures drove large amounts of people out into the streets to make a living.
“Some people asked why we don’t deal with matters resolutely enough, comprehensively enough. In reality, we are breaking our backs here. Fining people won’t solve the root of the problem,” Thang said.
Le Huu Hung also admitted that despite constant patrols, things will just go back to how they were, with vendors adjusting their operations to evade authorities. He proposed that the city should plan separate areas for vendors, so they can make use of official locations for two years before handing it over to somebody else. This could be how the city attempts to support hard-up people in the beginning phases of their “startups”. And officers like Hung will no longer need to engage in endless chases with vendors.
Vendors in HCMC have learned to find their own hiding spots to escape from officers, thanks to the help of people whose houses face the streets. Negotiations with house owners for a vending spot have been a silent contract that many vendors are willing to follow for the sake of survival.
A house owner on Nguyen Thai Son Street in Go Vap District said they first rented out the first floor to a barbershop, but the sidewalk section in front of the house remained empty. As such, they have allowed vendors to rent it: no contracts involved, cash only. Vendors are willing to pay VND2-3 million a month to do business in peace. The sidewalks have therefore become a form of real estate with guarantees generating profit.
In a study on Saigon’s sidewalk life, associate professor of public policy Annette M. Kim said it was a form of cooperation between vendors and real estate owners. She said it was an unsurprising fact and showed the humanity in Saigon’s urban culture – unlike Western cities, where vendors and real estate owners often are pitted against one another instead of sharing space.
Thanks to such arrangements, sidewalk vendors have created a constantly operating ecosystem, and they are so popular with customers that there’s never any downtime on any segment of a busy sidewalk. The sidewalk of Nguyen Gia Tri Street in Binh Thanh District is one example of this ecosystem when it is utilized by different vending carts from morning till night.
In September, the HCMC People’s Council announced a sidewalk fee collection initiative, which should go into effect in 2024. Anyone who wants to do business on the sidewalks, whether to sell goods or rent parking spaces, must do so in locations approved by the Department of Transport and the People’s Committee. They must also register and pay fees. The regulation marks a shift in authorities’ perspective on street vending, and is hoped to bring about a renovation to the city.
But for mobile street vendors like Chi, who move around the whole day, they are left confused by the regulation.
A spot for her usually takes is tiny, and the highest fees she pays are only VND100,000 a month, which is affordable for her. For the past decade, she has never sat still at one place to sell malt, as Saigonese do not usually walk, so if she does not come to her customers, she does not know whether customers would come to her.
But for officers like Hung, they look forward to this novel solution. Once violations can be classified by different geographical areas, their job could be much easier to do. But he’s completely uncertain whether the cat-and-mouse chases will stop once the regulation goes into effect. If spots for street vending run out, vendors will have no option left but to continue roaming the roads, just to make it through another day.
Story by Thu Hang, Viet Duc