There’s a block of Ba Trieu Street that on first glance, looks like any other street in Hanoi. There are boutique stores, decrepit government buildings and street sellers peddling their wares. In fact, you could easily walk down the block without ever noticing the eyes peering down at you. Look up though, and you’ll see them. From 158 Ba Trieu to 176, eight different pictures of old ladies above eight different peanut stands glare disapprovingly onto the street. Each picture is printed in a markedly similar way, with the face of the woman enclosed in a circle, most of them with the words ‘bà Vân’ printed on a sign that advertises roasted peanuts.
You could be forgiven for cowering in fear from such a bizarre sight, the cackles of each ghostly visage ringing in your ears.The truth about these peanut stands though is far more unsettling than any tale that’s ever been told around a campfire. Each shopfront is done up to look like the original Ba Trieu peanut stand, right down to the pictures, each of which supposedly shows the real bà Vân.
The identity of the real bà (which means grandmother) Vân was a mystery to many Hanoians until recently, when local media found the original octogenarian peanut seller at 176 Ba Trieu. Bui Thi Vân was born in 1930 and has been roasting and selling peanuts from the same spot for 50 years. It’s the family trade, and Van says they’ve been selling peanuts to wholesalers and consumers for generations.
When I met her in the ancient house behind her stall on Ba Trieu, it was easy to forget Vân was 88-years-old. She spoke loudly and passionately about her peanut business, gesticulating and pointing fingers when the subject of the copycat stalls came up. Oh and don’t call her ba, it’s cụ (great grandparent) Vân now.
Before she sold peanuts, Vân sold tea on the streets after being laid off from a garments factory due to a workplace accident. Once she started focusing on selling the nuts though, her business quickly took off. Originally Vân roasted and sold the peanuts from the Ba Trieu house, but when she began selling up 100kg a day, she had to expand and set up a factory of sorts on nearby Mai Hac De Street. “They sold like hot cakes,” she said. “That’s why others started copying.”
She wasn’t sure exactly when the other sellers began pretending to be her, but the intent was obvious: to fool consumers into buying from them. Vân’s reputation as selling Hanoi’s best peanuts had quickly spread, and her neighbours were keen to take advantage.
Some of the other shops even claim they are run by Vân’s children and grandchildren, something she disputes vigorously, as her business is staffed by those family members. Indeed, when I met her, one of her grandchildren was manning the stall, a niece was hanging out with Vân and her son was running his own stall out of his house on Xa Dan Street.
Sick and tired of others profiting off her reputation, Vân and her family applied for trademark protection in 2012 from Vietnam’s National Office of Intellectual Property. Vân said she received the protection in 2013 under the name ‘cụ Vân’ and indeed her products and signage are decorated with the stamp and the documents protecting her brand that she showed me looked legitimate.
Unfortunately, getting the trademark seems to have done little to deter the copycats. According to Vân, the intellectual property protection authorities can’t do anything to stop the other sellers as they use the name ‘bà Van’ instead of ‘cụ Van’, which her brand is registered under.
While foreigners may be amazed to find that the other sellers get away with imitating Vân so easily, intellectual property protection doesn’t amount to much in Vietnam. The country is attempting to improve this (largely so it can join major free trade deals that require strong intellectual property protection) but when companies like Apple can do nothing about their logo being ripped off, you can the see tough spot Vân is in.
“There’s nothing I can do, so I have to let them be,” she said while angrily waving her finger, before charitably admitting the other peanut sellers have to make a living too. As for those other peanut stands, the people working had widely varying responses when asked about their business model.
While some had no interest in being interviewed, two women running one stand were evasive. When asked if they were the real bà Vân stand, they were vague, simply saying that Vân was a common name, and that’s why their stall was called that. Another, Nguyen Anh Tung, explained the stall he was at was opened by his mother ten years ago and it was her who named it bà Vân. Tung said he wanted to change the name and branding once he inherited the stall and make his own way in the peanut game.
This is at least one encouraging sign that cụ Vân may eventually be free of the copycats that have plagued her business. For now though, she’ll have to keep soldiering on as she has for the last 50 years, selling the tastiest peanuts Hanoi has to offer. And if you don’t agree after trying them, you’re nuts.