Vietnam is changing but the country’s women traders are not seeing any benefit

Long hours are spent working in difficult conditions for small wages

Huong, who  sells up to 60kg of fruit between 2.30am and 4.30pm in Hanoi city centre. She hopes to eventually build her own house. Photograph: Catherine Healy

Huong, who sells up to 60kg of fruit between 2.30am and 4.30pm in Hanoi city centre. She hopes to eventually build her own house. Photograph: Catherine Healy

 

Convoys of cargo trucks crawl along the packed, dimly lit tracks of Hanoi’s Long Bien market as night falls. Porters unload their containers onto pullers at the assembly point and heave them back to the hundreds of wholesalers and traders stationed nearby. Throughout the night, fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are sold here, carefully weighed before sale in the glow of orange light.

“It is a difficult job,” Ms Nguyen, a 48-year-old fruit trader says. “I have to carry my own boxes over here and try to attract customers every night.” She works from 5pm until 7am and, like most other female traders at Long Bien, rarely earns more than 200,000 dong (€7) a shift.

Though wages are low, Ms Binh, a 78-year-old drinks vendor, tells us she supports the Communist Party of Vietnam that has ruled the country’s single-party state since 1976.

“I have lived through French, Japanese and American domination. My daughters were six and eight when they died in the war.”

She lifts up a trouser leg to show her badly scarred shin. The injury is not a war wound. A permit-less Ms Bien fell during a police pursuit last year and the marks remain. When I ask permission to take her picture, she declines, worried that neighbours from home in the nearby province of Bac Ninh will find out she is doing this job.

As morning breaks, the women take out their account books and count their earnings. Some drink tea together on benches, taking shade from the early morning sun. The traders here are better off than most. Those vying for custom on the streets outside often face more challenging conditions. Unlike the women of Long Bien, many of whom are permanent residents of the city, mobile street vendors tend to commute between Hanoi and their rural homes. Ms Lan, a 43-year-old shoulder pole trader, wakes up at 2am to pick produce from her garden in the nearby Hung Yen province before cycling into the city, where she finishes work at about 3pm.

“I have to work long hours here to support my family, but I have no other options,” she tells us. Like the other traders, Ms Lan is vigilant, always keeping an eye on those passing by.

Police harassment is a daily reality. Legislation effectively prohibits traders from many of the main streets and public spaces in Hanoi. It is not an uncommon sight to see those without registration bundle up their possessions and flee from police on foot or motorbike.

Ms Tuoi, a 44-year-old seafood trader, works in a small agricultural market in the city and earns an average of 100,000 dong (€3.50) a night. She lives with her daughter, a student at Hanoi’s National Economics University, in a one-room shack in the Ba Dinh district, where she moved five years ago from Phu Xuyen, about 40km away. It was a difficult but necessary decision, she says.

Education

Trading can be especially difficult for female newcomers, she says. “Male wholesalers used to swear at me and be aggressive when I started buying my supplies from them. I know they would never have dared to treat male traders that way.”

All she wants is for her children to have a better life than she has had; for them to have decent education, healthcare, shelter and food. “I have no dreams for myself,” she says. Her hopes, like many other poorer workers we speak to, lie with the next generation, with her son and daughters.

Though agriculture remains the main economic activity in rural Vietnam, its importance is decreasing as labour demand shifts from traditional to non-farm production, where women can find it difficult to get work.

While moving to urban areas for work is often a more attractive option than uncompensated farm or domestic work, rural women remain among the most vulnerable groups in Vietnamese cities, where they have restricted access to public education, healthcare and many government subsidies, as a result of the country’s so-called ho khau registration system.

Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world where citizens must get government permission to relocate from the area where they are registered. In Hanoi, migrants can only get permanent residence status when they have lived in the city for three years, obtained government jobs, bought property or moved in with relatives who have permanent residence.

The system was introduced in northern Vietnam in the 1950s to restrict internal migration. Expanded after reunification, it has not only failed to restrict migration, but has created, in a supposedly classless nation, a group of second-class citizens.

Less than 4km away from Ms Tuoi’s one-room home, make-up brushes are sold for up to 12 times her average daily wage in a luxury mall in the Hoan Kiem district. In Royal City, half an hour’s drive away, taxis drop teenagers off at the Vincom Mega Mall, said to be Asia’s largest underground shopping centre, where they can watch a film, go ice-skating or take selfies by the huge indoor waterfall.

Starbucks

Hanoi has seen fundamental economic and social changes since the Communist Party’s introduction of a “socialist-oriented market economy” in 1986. Tiny shops, food stalls and street vendors occupy almost every nook and cranny of the city centre. Internet cafes are filled with young people, wifi codes are printed on restaurant menus, and air-conditioned taxis compete with droves of motorcyclists on the streets.

Henry Nguyen, son-in-law of prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, is now the country franchise partner of McDonald’s, which opened its first outlet in Vietnam in February.

While the country’s economic landscape has changed beyond recognition in recent years, it is still challenged by the need to ensure all its people benefit from that growth.

nFirst in a three-part series. Tomorrow: the challenges facing Vietnam’s factory workers This article was supported with a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund Student Scheme

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