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Saigon street food: ‘There’s no future for my son selling food this way’

Vietnamese street food is modernising with western tourists using YouTube and local blogs to find the best dishes, but 78% of vendors still work illegally.

On weekdays, the Trâng family starts thinking about lunch at 6am.

More specifically, that’s when they begin preparing gà chiên muôi ot or “fried chicken salt chili,” the popular dish that serves as the cornerstone of the lucrative lunch service they’ve been operating in the 3rd district of Ho Chi Minh City for three decades.

The family prepares more than 15 distinct dishes daily (plus rice, water-spinach soup, and iced green tea) out of the stall-sized kitchen in their modest three-room apartment. At about 11 am, they lower the goods to the ground floor using a makeshift pulley system, walk less than 100 metres around the corner, and set up shop on a shaded patch of sidewalk next to an electrical transformer. Over the next two hours, a throng of roughly 150 diners – from office workers in suits to motorbike taxi drivers in flip flops – come for lunch, paying 30,000 VND ($1.40) per plate.

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Le Thi Lang, 56, prepares a sauce for Ga Chien Muoi Ot on the stove. She prepares at least 15 dishes for each lunch service. Photograph: Vinh Dao
The Trâng family is one of countless informal street food vendors in Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City, 11% of the workforce are street vendors, part of the 51% of the total workforce in the city employed in informal, non-agricultural work, according to government-collected data.
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A pulley system that was designed and built by Trang Ding Bo is used to transfer the dishes to his daughter below. Photograph: Vinh Dao
However, despite its ubiquity street vending in Vietnam exists in a grey area. While registration with the government is dependent on surpassing a certain threshold of earnings, a2014 report on Vietnam’s informal economy by the UN’s International Labour Office estimates that up to 78% of these home-run business operate illegally.

In spite of this legal ambiguity, Vietnamese street food has not just become part of the cultural fabric of Vietnam, but also a cuisine that’s imitated, fetishised, and replicated in cities all over the western world. In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a cottage tourism industry around helping westerners find the best street food as well as YouTube videos and English language blogs providing directions to popular but hard-to-find vendors.

However, amidst Ho Chi Minh City’s increasing luxury stores and air-conditioned shopping malls, it’s easy to overlook the fact that this celebrated and ad-hoc industry is one born squarely out of a lack of economic opportunity and a dearth of jobs in the formal sector.

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Finished dishes await in the Trang family flat. The Trang family have lived in the flat for over 30 years. Photograph: Vinh Dao
According to Lisa Barthelmes, a PhD candidate studying Vietnam’s informal economy at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Vietnam’s Doi Moi economic liberalisation reforms of the mid 1980s aimed to create a modern country, and thus street vending in the urban realm was seen by the government as “a visible manifestation of backwardness”. But 30 years later, as any pedestrian on Saigon’s teeming sidewalks can see, the industry is far from in decline. Although unregistered street vending is still not sanctioned by the government, Barthelmes explains why it has flourished in spite of economic reform.

“After Doi Moi, rural Vietnamese suddenly needed cash because formerly subsidised state policies like education and healthcare were abandoned, so they couldn’t live off their farms anymore,” Barthelmes said. “Simultaneously, movement and residency were much less restricted, so all of a sudden the government couldn’t control the rural-urban migration that usually happens when an economy is liberalised.”

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The Trang family prepares for the daily lunch service. The family usually starts their day at 6:00am and usually doesn’t finish preparation until 11:00pm. Pictured are (from left to right), Trang Dinh Bo, 59, Trang Thi Bich Nhu (Thao), 31 and Le Thi Lang, 56 Photograph: Vinh Dao
The economic challenges of making a living in the informal economy are not uniform among all street vendors. Those familiar with Ho Chi Minh City’s street food economy say it can be broken down unofficially into a three-tiered system. The bottom tier are hyper-mobile street vendors who serve a single dish, carry their wares on their backs as they move around the city, and are often rural-to-urban migrants scraping by on very low earnings.

 

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