Described as Vietnam’s version of the ice-cream truck, people selling a range products from their bicycles can be seen every day in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. But why do they choose to navigate their day and do business on a bike, rather than setting up shop like so many other vendors?
Hat is a former rice farmer from Binh Dinh Province. She started selling traditional Vietnamese cakes and candy two years ago and has no desire to change her job. Covered from head to toe to protect her from the sun, she also wears a non la, the traditional Vietnamese conical hat. The bicycle is packed with countless treats that include glazed banana chips and sweet-smelling rice puffs, known in Vietnamese as com trang.
“This job is easy, not too tough,” she says. Manoeuvring the bike around throngs of people and speeding motorbikes, she shows her two years of experience in the trade. The average price of one item is VND15,000. She says you can find many customers when you move your product on a bike. Hat has 30 to 40 customers per day, and in her two years has never experienced a problem with theft.
“There is no busy time,” she says. Sometimes there are more customers than others. Business goes up and down. So long as she doesn’t stay in one spot for too long or get close to any established market places, Hat is able to go wherever she pleases to sell her traditional sweets. Her revenue at the end of a working day is anywhere between VND400,000 to VND500,000.
Why did she make the change from rice farmer to bike vendor? “It’s easier,” she says. She rides the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to support her two children and is the only person in her circle of friends that sells from a bike. Hat limits her route to District 5. She works from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week.
Cuong sells guava. He transports the product by bicycle but chooses to stay in one place at certain times of the day. Originally from Hanoi, Cuong moved to Ho Chi Minh city over 10 years ago for reasons linked to geomancy, the old superstition in Asian cultures that your year of birth, coinciding with your location, may deliver good or bad luck.
“I have a friendly face, they love me,” says Cuong of his customers. The melon-like, hardskinned fruits from the myrtle family, tower high above his bike seat in a dishevelled pyramid. There is a set of scales set up next to his bike, ready to weigh an order and charge by the kilogram. He admits that the price isn’t set and may change from day to day. He attributes the success of his business to his friendly and warm attitude.
Cuong didn’t finish school, but selling food is a family business. He works in District 5 during the morning and the afternoon is spent delivering to three restaurants he has ongoing con-tracts with. His wife sells food at a fixed store location in District 10. The daily profit from his guava sales is approximately VND200,000 per day.
“I want to give them the best life,” says Cuong about his children. He will continue to sell guava until his third daughter has graduated from school and then he wants to retire. With a ongoing contracts his face, he describes his job as fun and more like a hobby. He works from 6am to late afternoon, seven days a week.
Hoa is a flower seller who bases herself close to Dong Xuan Market in Hanoi — risky business for someone selling from a bicycle, as the authorities routinely patrol the area and penalise those who don’t pay to set up their own stall.
Her name means flower, which might be one of the reasons she decided to take up the trade, although certainly not the most prominent. Hoa used to carry building materials before giving it up to sell flowers three years ago.
“It was hard work, and I’m too old to do it now. This is easier, but the hours are difficult,” she says. Hoa wakes up at 3am every day to buy the flowers from the market, and then she arrives in Hoan Kiem at 8am, and stays there until 9pm, unless she manages to get rid of all her stock earlier than that.
“I really like selling flowers, and I’m too old to do anything else now anyway, this is the only job left that I can do,” she says. There’s a lot of competition around, but Hoa seems to be on good terms with the other vendors, the atmosphere is one of mutual support rather than ruthless acquisition.
It’s not a particularly good living, but Hoa takes home enough to support herself which, given the hours she spends selling flowers, is very little. Hoa manages to cut down on operational costs by keeping mobile, the same as most of Hanoi’s flower sellers.
We ask Hoa if she’ll pose for a portrait with us. “Of course,” she says. “But you’ll have to buy some flowers first.”
The Tao Pho Man
Uoc sells tao pho, a drink made from tofu and traditionally hailing from China — variations of it are now popular throughout Southeast Asia. We find him set up with his bicycle close to the infamous Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
At 66 years of age, Uoc has been selling tao pho for seven years now, and has kept to this spot on Ma May throughout his career as a bicycle vendor. He wakes up at 4am every day to buy tofu and make the tao pho, and then he heads out to sell it at 8am, and finishes by 2pm. If it rains, he goes home early.
“I like doing this job a lot. Before doing this I was a soldier, and when I retired the government gave me some money which I used to set up this business,” he says. It’s enough money to support his life, he says, and he can spend time with his friends after he finishes.
Many of Uoc’s customers are loyal regulars who call him on his mobile to place advance orders. “They know I made good tao pho, so they keep coming back and ordering more.”
Do tourists ever buy his drink? “Sometimes, but mostly Vietnamese buy it. The tourists stick to the beer.”
Photos by Sasha Arefieva and Bao Zoan