At 4am while you’re either sleeping or throwing back questionable tequila in some god-forsaken late-night bar, Nguyen Thi Tam is starting her day. The street vendor awakes in the house she shares in Hanoi with eight other women (some of them relatives) from her home province Phu Tho, picks up her bamboo shoulder pole and baskets, and begins her 16-hour day.
Tam is one of thousands of street vendors who earn their living on the streets of Hanoi every day, peddling everything from fruit and noodles to masks and lighters. Humble vendors like Tam occupy the same streets as convenience stores, chain restaurants and plush hotels in Vietnam’s capital, vividly illustrating the inconvenient truth that the fruits of the country’s rapid development aren’t being enjoyed by all its citizens.
I met Tam on Dinh Liet Street in the Old Quarter while she was finishing her lunch, some bánh đúc (a savoury type of cake with meat filling) that one of her loyal customers had given to her. Tam has sold sweet potato, cassava and khoai sọ (another type of root vegetable) on the streets of Hanoi since she moved to Hanoi from Phu Tho a decade ago.
Like many of the internal migrant workers in Vietnam, Tam left her rural hometown due to a lack of economic opportunities. The 45-year-old said she has two daughters and a husband who works as a farmer, and she had to come to the city to create a better future for them and herself.
This desire to provide for her loved ones must be what keeps Tam going, as her job is incredibly physically demanding. As well as working for 16 hours straight, Tam lugs around about 30kg of root vegetables on her shoulders, often in the blistering heat and pounding rain. On top of all that, the city police and even some other citizens make her life difficult.
While we were talking it also became apparent that shopkeepers with a permanent set-up weren’t keen to have Tam hanging around. One man who ran a trà đá stand took some persuading to let Tam sit there with me for a quick drink, and we swiftly moved on as she felt he wanted her gone.
The profit margins are slim as well, and a good day for Tam is making VND100,000, which makes sense considering the sweet potatoes go for VND40,000 per kilogram. Though the work is tough, and Tam admitted she was “fed up” with it, she feels she has no choice but to keep going. While it’s clear to see Hanoi and Vietnam in general has developed rapidly in the ten years since Tam moved to the capital, it’s harder to see how development has helped people like her.
The street hawker has two daughters back home in Phu Tho, one of whom has just finished high school, while the other has recently graduated from medical school. While you may think this is an example of upward mobility, the elder daughter can’t find a job in medicine and works in a textiles factory.
Though her home province is filled with such factories, Tam said she couldn’t work in one due to ageist hiring policies, despite being only 45, many of these (often foreign-owned) firms don’t hire workers close to retirement age to avoid paying their pension contributions.
Despite the rapid changes in her society, Tam said she thought street vendors would still be around ten years from now, largely because poor people will still need to take to the job to make a living. All this points to the obvious truth that Vietnam’s rapid economic development has left a vast amount of people behind, particularly those in rural areas. Tam agreed the country had changed since she moved to the city, but maybe not for the better:
“The rich only care about money, not the general public.”