A new day starts at 2:30 a.m. for Hiep and her four housemates who rent a small apartment tucked away down a Saigon alley.
They need to make tofu pudding in time for 6 a.m., when they loads pots full of the hot dessert onto their bicycles and off they go to the inner city to find customers.
At the same time, around 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) north, Quyen loads duck embryos and chicken eggs onto the back of a motorbike and travels from the outskirts of Hanoi to the Old Quarter in the downtown district of Hoan Kiem.
Everyday, tens of thousands of vendors leave their rented apartments in big cities for busy streets to pay off debts and keep their families in the countryside afloat.
They are the faces behind telling statistics that have been troubling policymakers for years: migrants and unofficial workers.
Official government data from 2015 showed that migrants aged between 15 and 59 made up 17.3 percent of the country’s population of 90 million. The majority of them work in the unofficial sector, which means they have no contracts or insurance, and pay no taxes. This sector is believed to make up 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Over the past year, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have been taking drastic actions to reclaim the sidewalks for their original purpose by removing shops, vehicles and last but not least, street vendors.
But as long as street vending remains the only viable livelihood for these unofficial migrants, the policy is bound to fail from the start.
Forced out of home
Quyen, the egg vendor, and her husband locked up their house in Hung Yen, a neighboring province of Hanoi, abandoned their field of 2,880 square meters (31,000 square feet), and left their two children with relatives.
Quyen sits by her baskets of duck embryos and chicken eggs in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Cuong Do Manh
Her husband works as a xe om driver in Hanoi, while Quyen sells eggs on every corner she can in the capital city’s Old Quarter.
“Everybody has left their hometowns for a more stable source of income in the city. The small paddy field back home didn’t earn us enough to raise our children. We had no choice but to leave home,” she said.
There are two types of workers in Hung Yen, according to Quyen. Half go to vocational schools to find work in industrial parks and the other half move to Hanoi to become street vendors.
Quyen’s observation may be puzzling at first for a country where agricultural workers made up 40.3 percent of the labor force in 2017, above those working in industrial (24.7 percent) and service (34 percent) sectors.
The things is, while the number of unemployed people in rural areas is only half of that in urban areas, the number of those who “lack jobs” in the countryside, meaning people who have too much free time after working in the fields, is three times higher than in the cities.
A survey conducted by the General Statistics Office revealed that up to 2.12 percent of people of working age in rural areas are “lacking jobs,” compared to the rate of only 0.73 percent in cities.
And that was calculated using Vietnamese criteria.
According to the International Labor Organization, Vietnam has only mentioned the unoccupied time people in rural areas have, and has failed to take into account their low incomes.
There is no official data on the number of people of working age in rural areas who have jobs that don’t pay enough to support their families even though they have the time and will to earn more.
That’s Hiep, the tofu vendor in Saigon, and her husband Duoc’s life in a nutshell.
In the past 20 years, Hiep and Duoc tried to leave the sidewalk four times, only to go back again to the city.
“It’s our home, we have to stay here, where else should we be?” Hiep used to say about their house in central Vietnam, followed by yet another failed attempt to turn life around that would see them back on Saigon’s streets.
They’ve tried “everything,” from farming, raising chickens, buffalo, cows, to opening a grocery store at home, but each venture left them with more debt.
In Saigon, they once opened a printing shop and tried their luck with a restaurant, even menial jobs, but that wasn’t enough.
“If we got stuck with our house, garden and field, we would only have been able to earn enough to feed our five children, but we wouldn’t have been able to send them to school,” she said standing by her mobile tofu stand.
Now Duoc stays at home with their children and does odd jobs, from weeding watermelon and peanut fields, to climbing up areca palms for the nuts, chopping wood, harvesting rice, building houses, slaughtering pigs and helping with funeral and wedding services.
The story of Nhung, another vendor in Saigon, is starkly similar. Asked why she holds on to the city’s streets, Nhung said: “I tried other ways of making a living, but they all failed.”
Now at the age of 51, Nhung’s husband can only stay home to look after their two boys and the paddy field because of his low blood pressure that makes him physically weak.
Alone in the city, Nhung has to send home every spare dong she earns from running her little mobile shop in Saigon.
Sidewalk: the one and only chance
A report on Vietnam’s development by the World Bank in 2016 revealed that the nation was witnessing a strong migration trend from rural to urban areas.
Up to 20 percent of households in rural areas surveyed said at least one member in their family had left home for the city. Among them, 47 percent went to Hanoi and Saigon, the rest went abroad or other cities, with only one purpose: finding a stable source of income.
Given all the ups and downs they had faced after all those years, the sidewalk cleanup campaign is the single most important policy that concerns the likes of Hiep, Quyen and Nhung.
“Aside from our paddy fields, there’s only one option: Saigon,” Nhung said.
“I cannot tell when I will be able to leave the city and get back home. Now I just keep working like this. If the police ask me to leave the sidewalk, then I’ll leave and wait until they are not around to get back,” said Quyen who is battling not just the police but also increased competition and pain in her joints to sell eggs in Hanoi.
With street vendors saying they will stick to the sidewalks no matter what, the top-down decision to deal with the crammed big cities is destroying the migrants’ livelihood without getting to the root of the problem.
The question on how to invest in rural areas has been lingering unanswered for decades. In a report in 2013, Professor Vuong Dinh Hue, the then head of the Central Economic Committee, said the country only met 55-60 percent of the required investment for the countryside.
For now, returning to their hometowns remains just a dream for Quyen, Hiep and Nhung as rural job opportunities continue to slide. Annual labor productivity growth in agriculture dropped from 5.7 percent in 1991-1995 to only 3.51 percent in 2006-2010, government data showed.
Hiep, the tofu vendor in Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
Come night, in the rented place in Saigon, Hiep the tofu vendor often dreams about the big tamarind tree planted by her mother-in-law back home. Its wide canopy covers a tile-roofed house, where her husband and three kids live.
Whenever she calls her children, the first thing she hears from the other side of the line is: “When will you be back?”
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