In the misted hues of dawn that seep down the stirring streets around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, deep in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a marching army is preparing for the long day ahead. In fact, though there is barely enough light to see, most of Hanoi’s roaming street vendors, countless in their number, rose from their shared living spaces in the narrow side-alleys three hours ago, in the darkness of 3am. Now they occupy the sidewalk: slicing vegetables, preparing tofu puddings, readying for 6am when the race begins.
Walking by them, their anonymous faces are lost beneath conical hats, but each one houses a story of poverty and survival. Most begin in the countryside to our north, around the Red River Delta where many of the estimated 1.2 million migrants who move from rural Vietnam to the big cities each year originate. Almost every vendor in Hanoi is a rural-urban migrant. They form one of the largest labour migrations in the nation’s history, seeking a more secure existence as agricultural profits dwindle, productivity plummets and farming land is snatched for construction and industrial zones (Eidse, Turner and Oswin, 2016; VGSO, 2011).
But the cities can barely cope. Hanoi is at breaking point and a dearth of formal work for the influx of migrants, the majority of whom have received just seven years of schooling (Jensen and Peppard, 2003), means that most must seek informal work – unregulated, insecure and untaxed – often as street vendors, or xe ôm (motorbike taxi) riders. And so their motorcycles and handcarts become their mobilities, their key to a more aspirational future, while the side-walks that they occupy become their lifeline (Turner and Hanh, 2018).
However, there is a catch. The vendors here, around touristy Hoàn Kiếm Lake, are technically illegal. While informality was embraced when Vietnam began to liberalise its economy, now the informal workers are considered a hinderance to Hanoi’s own vision for a more prosperous future. The municipal authorities argue that informal traders give Hanoi a bad name, while bustling street food stalls, thousands of motorbikes and roaming vendors clog the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians into the road, slowing traffic and bringing this city of eight million to a standstill. The authorities have run out of patience. Now they are reclaiming the sidewalks for themselves (Endres, 2014; Lincoln, 2008).
As such, Hanoi’s informal workers have found themselves in a bind, caught between the lived reality of their precarious everyday existence on the sidewalk, and the authorities’ vision for a more orderly, civilised and modern future, where sidewalks are imagined as places of smooth mobility, rather than places to mingle and interact (Eidse, Turner and Oswin, 2016). Street vending was banned from 62 streets and 48 public spaces in 2008, including around Hoàn Kiếm Lake and its surrounding affluent homes, while in a similar bid to ‘civilise’ Hanoi, xe ôms face sporadic fines and are staring down the barrel of a complete ban on motorcycles from downtown streets by 2030 (Turner and Hanh, 2018).
Consequently, there is a contest taking place on these streets between two alternate visions of the future. One is defined by the sharing of space and the liberty of informal trades. The other is centred upon Hanoi’s ambition to become an economic super-hub by 2050, a ‘second Singapore’, characterised by modernity, order and symbolic of national progress. As a visible presence at the heart of the capital, Hanoi’s informal workers are seen to obstruct Vietnam’s passage to modernity (Kurfurst, 2012).
However, without viable alternatives for the thousands of rural poor who arrive each year, the stringent rules imposed upon these streets are destined to fail. Sidewalks are a lifeline and the handcarts and motorcycles provide social mobility for millions. While the authorities favour ‘modern mobilities’, such as cars and public transit, and attempt to impose this vision with sporting events such as Formula 1, Hanoi runs to the soundtrack of more ‘primitive mobilities’. The masses depend on them for their income, and to accrue ‘social capital’ – the network of relationships that people call upon at times of need (BCNUEJ, 2018; Turner and Hanh, 2018).
The result is that Hanoi’s streets have been transformed into ‘sites of contestation’ (Endres, 2014), with an everyday battle fought on the sidewalks between these competing visions. As the harsh midday sun beats down, the movement of the vendors is still fleeting as they look to secure trade in the congested urban marketplace, and evade the police who are always on their trail. Fortunately, they have devised some ingenious methods to navigate the constraints (Turner and Schoenberger, 2012).
As the lunchtime rush rises to its zenith, Hanoi’s informal workers deploy ‘everyday politics’ – quiet, mundane and subtle acts of defiance – that allow them to negotiate their place on the city’s sidewalks (Kerkvliet, 2009). National legislation such as the vending ban is enforced by local ward officials, which means there is scope for resistance as officials, often corrupt, adapt rules to ‘local conditions’. Only the Công An, public security officers, can impose fines and so vendors operate along the border of municipal wards so they can flee if chased, or vend down sideroads where patrols cannot go. Practitioners have learned the routines of officers, so they can flout the law in lucrative areas, but only when they know the officers are off-duty, such as during lunchbreaks or on Sundays (Turner and Hanh, 2018).
Social capital and the exchange of information are pivotal. Informal workers warn each other of approaching police and enter financial agreements with neighbouring stores where they hide until the police have passed. ‘Identity management’ (Turner and Hanh, 2018) is equally vital and informal workers prepare stories to win police empathy, explaining their poverty or showing medals of their wartime heroics, and with remarkable effect. Indeed, even in semi-authoritarian Vietnam, where defiance is often rejected as futile or just outright dangerous, ‘everyday politics’ have allowed informal traders to rework their power relations vis-à-vis state officials and negotiate their right to restricted public space. Many have developed resilient relationships with the police and, ironically, have found corrupt officials whose empathy they have earned to be among their more trusted customers (2018).
Consequently, while at first glance Hanoi’s informal practitioners have been squeezed to the margins of society, ‘everyday politics’ has allowed them to negotiate their use of public space and assert their ‘right to the city’: a term posited by Henri Lefebvre (1996), a French Marxist scholar, to describe the ability of urbanites to occupy and reform their environment. The result is that ‘clean-up’ campaigns across Vietnam are stalling. In Saigon to the south, intermittent ‘civilising’ efforts have run out of steam as everyday resistance by informal workers has finally swayed officials to their side of the argument, something that many would find difficult to fathom in a one-party, socialist state (Kerkvliet, 2009).
Once more Hanoi is flooded gold as the weight of a long day vending pulls on spines. Just a decade ago, five hours of vending may have sufficed, but today ten hours may not be enough to meet basic needs as competition and living costs rise. School fees alone can swallow half a vendor’s salary of around $132 per month and so as evening draws in, still the vendors toil, capitalising on the evening rush as commuters halt their motorcycles to barter with vendors they have trusted for years.
It is an often-hidden reality of the clean-up campaigns. While informal workers are worst hit, everyone has felt its effects. Many Hanoians still depend on vendors and xe ôms for essential supplies, while spontaneous encounters and sidewalk eateries remain something that few are willing to let go. But as the wealthy secure their private property and align with the state in their determination to ‘clean-up’ the sidewalks, society is indeed migrating to closed, private spaces, such as dreary chain cafés or private apartments. Yet not everyone can share equally in these spaces and so the inner-city becomes a place for a ‘selective’, rather than a ‘general’, public (Harms, 2009).
As such, the contest between the competing visions ricochets through all corners of society. In its bid to create a modern, orderly space, the state risks disrupting the rhythm of everyday Hanoian life: the informal and spontaneous interactions that make life interesting, affordable and give everyone their sense of place (BCNUEJ, 2018). The contest over Hanoi’s streets looks set to run. Without viable alternatives, the vendors and xe ôms cannot yield. The victor of the competing visions, if there shall be one, will be determined by everyday contests that play out on the city’s sidewalks.
Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ). (2018). ‘How informal use of public space makes Hanoi more livable,’ BCNUEJ. Available at: http://www.bcnuej.org/2018/01/11/informal-use-public-space-makes-hanoi-livable/ (accessed 01 April 2020).
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Turner, S. and Schoenberger, L. (2012). ‘Street vendor livelihoods and everyday politics in Hanoi, Vietnam: The seeds of a diverse economy?’, Urban Studies, 49(5), pp. 1027-1044.
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About the author
Michael Thorogood is a young writer and filmmaker from London. He recently completed his master’s studies in Environment and Development at the LSE, where he wrote a dissertation on the securitisation of climate refugees. Prior to this, he studied International Politics at the University of Surrey in Guildford. His research interests include urbanisation, climate security and forced migration. His first book, Sahara, Souk & Atlas, will be published in December.