When John Coakley first came to Hanoi he was surprised to see groups of people sitting on stools along the footpath. He wondered whether it some sort of special event, but he soon learned it was the way most Vietnamese ate food and sipped on drinks. He soon started doing likewise. But recent efforts by authorities to clear the footpaths in major cities has him worried that he and other fans of street food and drinks may no longer be able to enjoy it.
Not only phở but dozens of other Vietnamese street food have been praised and voted on to global lists of the top street food by media outlets such as the BBC, CNN, TripAdvisor, the New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, and National Geographic.
No one knows exactly when and how street food emerged in Vietnam. Some believe it originated from small village markets on dirt roads and down laneways way back when. Stalls and vendors carrying their wares on shoulder poles began selling noodles, rice soup, and cakes, which proved to be a convenient way for market-goers to have a light meal after shopping and also for workers to have a quick breakfast or lunch.
Others believe it’s only down to the street vendors. Their ‘mobile eateries’ included a cooker on one end of the pole and a set of bowls and chopsticks on the other. Whenever they had a customer they would stop and prepare the food right there and then. Phở used to be served this way in Hanoi in the early 20th century and was known as phở gánh (phở carried on the shoulders), which became an image of the city in the minds of many.
With time, eating on the street gradually became a habit among Vietnamese and a cultural feature of the country. In the modern world, though more and more restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs have opened and serve food, few become a regular place for people to go and eat. Even many of the shoulder poles have disappeared, with vendors located at a fixed place on a street, sometimes for decades, like those in HCMC who sell bún riêu (crab soup with noodles) at Ben Thanh Market, tầu hũ (tofu dessert) in front of 128 Dinh Tien Hoang in District 1, and cháo lòng bà Út (Mrs Ut’s rice soup with tripe) on Co Giang in District 1, or those in Hanoi selling phở gánh at the intersection of Hang Duong and Hang Chieu (from 3am to 7am for night food), bún ốc cô Thêm (Ms Them’s snail soup with noodles) on Hang Chai, and cháo sườn cô La (Ms La’s rice soup with ribs) on Quan Su (which was originally in Ngo Huyen). They offer just a bowl of food and a small plastic or wooden stool but no table, yet people still enjoy it.
Hundreds of small, modest street stalls are regular places for many local people to eat, because of the delicious taste and the pleasure of eating or drinking on the street. ‘While eating or drinking, you can also enjoy the fresh air and watch the street and people around you,’ said Phuong Thao, who was sitting at a table. ‘It’s relaxing and interesting, and my friends and I usually choose busy places to enjoy the boisterous atmosphere.’
Also joining in, John said it was a new experience for him and something he enjoys. It’s just not seen back home in the US or in the European countries he has visited. ‘There are outdoor seats on the footpath, of course, but not with tiny tables and stools arranged haphazardly like here,’ he said. ‘People can sit very close to each other to talk and laugh. The streets here are also different and usually busy all the time. Everything creates a lively and fun scene.’
Street food and drinks are also convenient given most people get around on a motorbike, as it’s easy to just pull over and order.
Many restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs also try to find locations that have a footpath for outdoor seating. This make rentals on locations with footpaths higher than elsewhere, especially on busy streets. Many people start a food and drink business from their own home, using the footpath out front and turning a profit for little capital and no rent. On Pho Tay (Western Street), as local people call the streets around Ta Hien, Luong Ngoc Quyen, Hang Buom and Ma May in Hanoi and Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao in HCMC, which are full of tourists and expats, all members of the family, including grandparents, parents, and children, take on different roles in the business: boss, receptionist, wait staff, accountant, and cleaner.
No matter how full, it always seems there is room to put down a few more stools. One metre of footpath is almost more valuable than gold. In fact, it can bring gold. ‘We serve dozens of customers every day, both local and foreign,’ said Thu Thuy, the owner of a small café on Hang Buom. ‘It’s more crowded in the evenings and on weekends. A lot of time it’s packed here, even though I also rent the footpath at the front of the school next door.’ Her café has space for only three or four tables indoors but as many as eight or ten right outside.
Therefore, each owner protects their ‘patch’ with invisible lines and different coloured stools. If someone moves in their territory, they will be told to move. Everyone must respect each other’s territory, as these often provide a livelihood for a great many people.
Not everyone’s happy
While eating and drinking on the footpath is a pleasure for diners and those who serve them, pedestrians are unhappy. The footpath is no longer for feet, some say, and has been seized for the financial benefit of a few. It makes walking become quite dangerous, as they have no choice but to walk out on to the street and mix it with the traffic.
But relief has come for pedestrians, with authorities in major cities intensifying a campaign to reclaim footpaths for feet. Police have told businesses to not encroach upon the footpath and back up the requests with regular patrols.
But habits are hard to break, and most people want to eat street food on the street. ‘When I told my regular customers to sit indoors because the police won’t allow us to use the footpath anymore, some just walked away,’ Ms Thuy said. ‘They said it’s boring not to sit on the street. Our earnings have taken a hit.’
To satisfy customers and also protect revenue, some try to sneakily offer outdoor seating. When the police come around on their patrol, the footpath is totally clear, but as soon as they go down the street and turn the corner the tables and stools reappear. Someone is assigned to watch out for the police and alert the entire street to clear up the footpath when they approach.
Most foreigners are surprised when customers suddenly stand up and take their dish and drinks inside while the wait staff collect all the tables and stools. ‘I didn’t know about the campaign so I had no idea what was happening at first,’ John said. ‘Friends from US were visiting and we thought there was a robbery or something. It’s sort of fun to watch, but it’s a bit inconvenient when you have move while enjoying some food and drinks.’
After the campaign, authorities aim to develop cities into a small Singapore. As the first to carry out the campaign, authorities in HCMC’s District 1 said that a street specifically for vendors was expected to be created in June.
In other Asian countries that are also famous for street food, the footpath is indeed for feet. In Bangkok, street food is offered from mobile kiosks during a fixed time, while Singapore, the Philippines, and South Korea have created special areas for street food that are vehicle-free. It seems Vietnam may join them shortly.