Food-Buying Habits in Hanoi

Article excerpt


As the second-fastest growing economy in Asia, with its GDP rising by 8.4 per cent in 2005 (Bradsher 2006), change in Hanoi is constant and readily apparent. Cars are proliferating, motorbikes jam increasingly crowded streets, new buildings rise up even in established neighbourhoods, new urban districts encircle the city, and the government predicts that by 2020, 45 per cent of the population will be urban, up from 26 per cent in 2005 (Webster 2004, p. 14); World Bank 2007). In this paper, we have chosen to focus on a small aspect of the ongoing changes, because we believe it will help understand some of the effects of the development and urbanization processes on rural households in Vietnam.

The changing food-buying habits of Hanoians represent the effects of higher incomes and changing tastes as a result of twenty years of change in the economy. In addition, what these urbanites choose to do in the ways they shop for food affects rural families whose agricultural lives are also changing as a result of the economic changes occurring in Vietnam. The kinds of places from which urbanites choose to buy food may not directly affect the food-growers themselves: city dwellers still need rural people to grow their food for them. Rather, the methods by which the food gets from the farm to the table reflect those other changes going on in Vietnam. The group most likely to be adversely affected by the attitudes of food-buying customers is roving street sellers. Therefore, this article focuses on roving street sellers who are rural people and whose presence in Hanoi has increased in recent years along with the increased difficulty of surviving on agricultural incomes alone.

In previous articles, we have written about the jobs of many of these sellers, who sell from baskets suspended from poles carried on their shoulders as they work in Hanoi (Jensen and Peppard, 2000 and 2003). These published pieces are the result of 379 interviews conducted in 2000, but in the years since then, we and our students have talked with more than 700 other roving street vendors. The overwhelming majority of these sellers, more than 90 per cent of whom are women, do not live in Hanoi: they are temporary migrants of some sort. That is, they retain their rural residences but come to Hanoi either on a daily basis, returning home each night, or as circular migrants who come for days, weeks, or even months at a time before returning to their families. Those who come to Hanoi for extended periods return home for parts of planting and harvest seasons, for ceremonies, and for child rearing and household chores. These sellers have been widely seen in older Hanoi because they are numerous and because they walk many kilometers each day. Because they do not grow the produce that they sell, they rely on wholesale produce markets for their wares. One reason they have to walk so far each day is that there are few wholesale markets, which means that after they buy their goods early in the morning, they often must travel far to the parts of the city in which they usually sell.

As far back as 1998, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) noted in writing about Vietnam that "farm families can rarely survive ... unless they are successful in finding or creating supplementary household or off-farm sources of income (UNDP 1998, p. 27). Roving street vendors come to Hanoi because, as the UNDP noted, the incomes their families earn from farming are inadequate (Jensen and Peppard, 2000 and 2003). The income they earn in the city ranges from US$1 to $2 per day on the days they work, which means that because they do not work every day throughout the year, their average daily earnings are much lower than even those small amounts. However small, that income is essential to their families' survival and to their ability to retain their rural residences. (See also Nguyen 2005 and Djamba, Goldstein, and Goldstein, 1999.)

We have studied and written about the close ties to rural life and the "business" practices of these street vendors. …