Is Sidewalk Culture at Risk in HCMC?

Working - Saigon/HCMC: May 25, 2017

Getting rid of sidewalk vendors would definitely change the way Saigon feels, looks and smells as we know it today. University of Southern California (USC) Professor Annette Miae Kim provides some insight on what could be lost if the sidewalks are cleared.

How did you become interested in Ho Chi Minh City’s sidewalks?

I have a personal family background – my father was born in North Korea, so I was interested in these Asian communist countries who were starting to make reforms, and I came to Vietnam with my advisor as a grad student and just really liked it there. While I was living in Saigon in 2000, researching [my book, Learning to be Capitalists], I would walk on the sidewalks. I loved living in the city but could never quite put my finger on what exactly was so wonderful about living in Ho Chi Minh City.

SidewalkImage source by Hoang Thach Van

What did you find out when you began researching sidewalks for your second book, “Sidewalk City”?

Basically, one of the biggest things I found out is that sidewalks are a very democratic space. People from different classes were coexisting and hanging out with each other and helping out each other. There’s an incredible amount of sharing of the sidewalk space. There’s a social system that allows people to take turns.

How do you think the sidewalks in Ho Chi Minh City differ from sidewalks in other cities?

After organizing an international conference about global street-vending where I could compare it to other places, it became clear to me that Vietnam is very different. Usually the store owners are the ones most vehemently against street vendors because they think it’s unfair competition and/or they’re degrading the physical environment and they’re going to lose their real estate value. But in Ho Chi Minh City while these arguments are also made, there are also so many accounts in which the store owners were helping [street vendors] out. They were hiding them during police raids, they were giving them free water, free electricity, they would store their goods overnight for a small fee.

I realised that there’s a high degree of legitimacy in Vietnamese culture, especially in the South, and that there’s a lot of accommodation made for vendors.

Do you think the sidewalk clearing campaign we’re seeing today is different from any past attempts?

SidewalkImage source: infonet.vn

I think what was really remarkable was how [District 1 Deputy Chief Doan Ngoc Hai] was towing government cars and demolishing government office buildings. I hadn’t seen that before, and I think that’s why it’s gotten a lot of attention. It’s a “no one’s above the law” kind of act, and I haven’t seen that before.

Are you aware of any options or alternatives that might be available to street vendors if this initiative takes away their place to work?

I haven’t heard of any government suggesting what the alternative would be. With a lot of migrant populations and immigrants – not just in Vietnam, but globally – I think, a lot of times the city’s approach is “just don’t be here”, and not really thinking of alternatives. We’re seeing an anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the globe, and people have not come up with good ways to deal with the fact that millions of people are already here.

What about motorbikes, and how the sidewalks are used as parking lots?

They take up a lot more space than vendors. In my book, we meticulously measured the use of sidewalk space and found that vendors take less space but employ a lot more people. And I think it’s really serious how, as incomes have grown there are so many more cars. The city really wasn’t built for that many cars. There really needs to be serious control of cars, because that’s going to lead to gridlock.

Are there any other cities that are incorporating vendors in different or innovative ways, so residents get the best of both worlds?

SidewalkImage source: thanhnien.vn

What I brought to [the HCMC city planning department] was the example of Boston’s Freedom Trail. It’s like a red painted line that goes around the city, so tourists can follow the line as they walk around. What’s neat is that it goes from historic things as well as shopping as well as different ethnic towns like little Italy and Chinatown. The city planning department was intrigued by that. They invited me to make a mock proposal for HCMC, and it was approved by the People’s Committee to be a pilot project.

The whole approach was that you don’t need to radically change things and sanitize the city. People want to see the regular living life of Ho Chi Minh City.

SidewalkImage source: phunuvietnam.vn

When you go to Ho Chi Minh City, what are some of your favorite street foods?

So many things! I love nuoc mia, and all the drinks. I get xoi, the sticky rice, and banh mi. And lots of the snacks, like the crackers and cookies that they grill on the sidewalk.

Banner photo by Travis Hawk