For the past decade, Nguyen Thi Lan has risen at 3am to boil up a pot of sticky rice. Before the sun comes up, she packs it into a bamboo basket, secures it to her bicycle and begins the long ride to Hanoi. In the city, she serves up scoops of rice sprinkled with dried pork, peanuts and sesame seeds and on a good day she will return home with $3.50.
Lan has no choice but to do this work ever since most of her family's rice paddies were "reclaimed" by local officials, she says, and sold to developers. Far from grumbling about the long hours and meagre pay, Lan says the money has allowed her to send her children to school and ensure they do not go hungry.
But from 1 July, Lan will no longer be able to sell her packets of sticky rice in the city because street vendors will be banned from commercial streets. Lan says her family will starve.
"We will all go hungry," Lan says. "We are poor people. We have no land. We are dependent upon the street."
Mobile vendors have been an integral part of Hanoi's street life for centuries. Women in conical straw hats, balancing twin baskets suspended from bamboo poles, are one of the city's most enduring images.
Selling goods from bamboo baskets and bicycles also provides income to villagers with little education and few other means of support. According to the Asian Development Bank project, Making Markets Work Better for the Poor, an estimated 5,000 mobile vendors – mostly women - operate in the city centre. Like Lan, most are the family's main breadwinners.
Photo: Martha Ann Overland/IRIN
|These women will be banned from Hanoi's streets as of 1 July 2008|
Vendors also provide a service. In a country that has yet to develop a supermarket culture, mobile vendors provide city dwellers with everything from cheap fruit and vegetables to bras and live tropical fish.
To the People's Committee of Hanoi, however, they are a menace. As the capital modernises, cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and street vendors all try to squeeze through the Old Quarter's narrow lanes. With shop wares spilling on to the sidewalks and instant hairdressers and bike repairmen to dodge, walking down Hanoi's congested streets is not for the faint-hearted.
The ban is designed to make the city more habitable, says an official from the Hanoi Trade Management Division, who asked not to be named. "It is to beautify the city," he said, referring to Decision 02, which bans mobile vendors from 62 streets. "Hawkers are a major reason for traffic problems. We believe that once the ban is enforced it will help improve urban sanitation, food hygiene and ease congestion."
On the run
Hanoi has no programmes to help mobile vendors find alternative employment. No NGO has taken up their case. These traders do not belong to a labour union. Because they are literally on the run all the time, they are notoriously difficult to organise.
"What will we live on?" asks Ng Thi Hoa, pausing nervously before setting down her baskets. If she stops too long, police can give her a Green Ticket, which varies from 20,000 (US$1.15) to 50,000 dong (US$2.90) depending on the infraction and is supposed to go to a street cleaning and waste removal fund.
Photo: Martha Ann Overland/IRIN
|Vegetable sellers will no longer be allowed to ply Hanoi's busiest streets beginning 1 July|
Hoa sells bundles of incense sticks, earning about 7 US cents for every pack she sells. Out of the $2 or $3 she earns, she has to pay 70 cents for a place to sleep – a mattress on a floor in a room shared with other market women. Food and shelter take up half her earnings, the rest goes to her children in her village. "The entire family depends upon the sale of these ancestral offerings," Hoa says.
But not everyone sees the ban as spelling the vendors' demise. The status of Hanoi's street hawkers is very murky, says Paule Moustier, a food marketing researcher with CIRAD, the French institute that studies agriculture in Asia. One regulation calls it illegal and another one taxes it with the Green Ticket.
"The new ban essentially recognises that they can carry out activities but in restricted areas," says Moustier. By establishing that they are legitimate, it would be easier to organise street vendors and minimise harassment from officials, Moustier argues.
For now, Hoa's plan is to outrun the police when the ban goes into effect, making working conditions even more desperate. But with all her family's land gone and two children back home, a life on the run, she says, is better than starvation.