Straight & Narrow

Sometimes the heavy hand of the law turns out to be a helping hand.

By DON WILLS on October 07,2016 11:00 AM

Straight & Narrow

Photos: Viet Tuan

Vung Tau’s reputation as the seafood ‘Mecca’ of Vietnam is well deserved. When its fleet of colourfully-painted fishing boats arrives back in port each evening scores of agents eagerly line up at the jetty waiting to snap up the day’s catch, for sale to market traders, vendors, restaurant owners, or wholesalers. In every case trade is brisk and the catch changes hands fast; the seafood you eat at night could well have been alive just a few hours earlier. And this is especially true if you choose to fill up on seafood at a streetside stall. These stalls have a vast range of fresh fish and seafood, their prices are low, and demand is high; the everlasting popularity of seafood is evident to all and sundry.

Five years ago the best place to go for fresh seafood in Vung Tau was Thuy Van Street on Back Beach, where on the footpath along the beachfront women grilled octopus, squid, prawns, fish and scallops from early evening to late at night. The vendor I regularly patronised was named Nguyet. This quiet, smiley woman of about 30 was, in my opinion, the best cook on the street. At least five nights a week I could be found sitting at her stall, drinking cold beer and tucking into her exquisite food. Nguyet had a cute pair of giggly twins around six years old who were continually goading each other to say a few words to the foreigner.

Eating there was not without its moments of drama though.

The beachfront was a prime location: lots of passing pedestrians and motorcyclists, lots of hungry swimmers returning from the beach, a wide footpath, a light sea breeze, a balmy atmosphere. Yes, ideal. Unfortunately, the authorities thought otherwise. Every now and then a patrol would cruise along Thuy Van Street in search of illegal vendors (all of the vendors were, of course, operating illegally) and close them down. Their tables and chairs would be loaded on to the back of trucks, their braziers upended, and their seafood tossed carelessly onto the street and trampled underfoot.

But there was always half a minute’s warning ahead of the patrols. As soon as the shouts of warning went up, the vendors would snatch up their braziers, tables and chairs, and manhandle their stalls into the bushes. Customers had to fend for themselves. They would pick up their half-eaten meals and follow the vendors to the safety of the bushes. Then, once the patrol had passed, everyone would re-emerge and business would resume as normal.

Straight & Narrow

But things couldn’t go on like this indefinitely. The local administrators decided to adopt a new tactic. They issued a blanket ban on vending along Thuy Van Street. The ban would be strictly enforced, and the fines for violators were quadrupled. But rather than leaving the vendors high and dry without any means of support, the city planners offered an alternative. A street behind the upscale Imperial Hotel would be reserved for seafood vendors. That was the good news. The bad news was that the vendors would have to pay 2 million dong a month to make use of the new area. The fee was a huge sum for the vendors and as a result many of them either ceased operations altogether or moved to another, less conspicuous part of town. But Nguyet, after lengthy consultations with her husband, decided to give it a try for a month.

The new venue was a decided improvement on the beachfront. For one thing, there was a metal awning along the length of the street allowing operations to continue whatever the weather. For another thing, each vendor had running water and a supply of electricity. Lighting no longer had to rely on temperamental motorbike batteries. Rather than fanning their charcoal by hand, vendors could rig up small electric fans to do the job. Each stall had an area where customers could park their motorbikes under cover. Yes, things were vastly improved, but was it worth the whopping fee?

Not many days after the street opened, the general public began to wake up to the fact that here was a pleasant, atmospheric place to spend an evening wining and dining. The news spread rapidly by word of mouth and more and more people decided to come and see for themselves. Vietnamese families, couples, work groups and tourists began flocking to the street. The Russian population especially took to the street as their regular haunt (prompting the vendors to up their supplies of vodka). Chants of ‘mot-hai-ba-yo!’ regularly rent the air. In short, the street was a roaring success.

Nguyet trebled the range of her seafood, bought new tables and chairs, installed a drinks fridge and a cooler and large fans to keep the customers cool. Running a seafood stall involves a lot of work. Passers-by have to be cajoled into stopping. The display of food has to be regularly replenished and sprinkled with ice. Tables wiped and ready for the next customers. Food scraps and containers whisked away and bagged. Beer mugs washed. The brazier’s charcoal supplies kept glowing satisfactorily. And when there’s an order on the go, the grill has to be constantly fanned, the food rotated every half-minute, the dipping sauces readied.

The business also requires a lot of supplies to keep it running smoothly. Octopus, fish, dried squid, fresh squid, shrimps, prawns, crabs, oysters, scallops, mussels, clams, and cockles. Chilli, garlic, limes, bay leaves, soy sauce, fish sauce, chilli sauce. Salt and pepper. Takeaway food containers, disposable chopsticks. Kitchen foil, plastic bags, rubbish bags, charcoal. Beer. Soft drinks.

Nguyet enlisted the aid of her mother, sisters, and cousins to help out on busy nights. Business was booming. I would sometimes sit and try to calculate how much money she was raking in over an hour. On a busy night it had to be at least 3 million dong.

Nguyet has now shed a couple of kilos with all the hard work she has to put in seven nights a week, but her smile is wider than ever.

Hers is the success story of the decade, and I feel immensely pleased for her. Go girl, go. And I’ll have the usual please, plus a couple of crabs tonight.

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