Chinese produce are loaded onto trucks heading for the Long Bien wholesale market in Hanoi. Photo by Nguyen Tuan
Cho Lon in Ho Chi Minh City, famous as Vietnam's Chinatown, a repository of Chinese culture, has a rival.
The Hoa Dinh Market, around 30 kilometers from Hanoi, could well be hailed as another Chinatown.
The market in Bac Ninh Province is one of the biggest agricultural produce suppliers in the country, and most of its products come from across the border.
It used to trade in local products which were famous nationwide, but many farmers since the late 1990s have left their fields and switched to trading Chinese produce which are several times cheaper than local ones and thus earns them bigger profits.
A major problem with this is the lack of official supervision of the whole process. The imports are not taxed or checked for safety.
The market trades between 200 and 400 tons of all kinds of vegetables every day, providing stock for distributors and vendors to sell to consumers in smaller markets in Hanoi and other provinces, as also down south in Ho Chi Minh City.
"A hundred percent Chinese. You won't find a Vietnamese thing," said a trader named The.
The owns a warehouse of around 300 square meters that stores 60-70 tons of garlic and onions in packages labeled with no other language but Chinese, and it is among many such warehouses in the bustling market.
He told undercover Thanh Nien reporter to feel safe taking stock from his store, as "the Chinese have special preservation methods and their produce can be stored for a long time without getting rotten."
The produce is transported from Tan Thanh border gate in Lang Son Province, around 100 kilometers away, after it is imported from Hunan, Sidong, Jiangxi and Jiangsu provinces in China.
An area more than 60,000 square meters (around 15 acres) near the border, three times larger than Hanoi's major wholesale market Long Bien, is used to gather the imported produce before they are picked up by trucks.
Customs figures compiled over the first five months this year show that Chinese carrots and potatoes are priced between VND3,500-3,700 (around US16 cents), between two to three times cheaper than prices in Hanoi markets.
Chinese raw produce imports to Vietnam are exempt from tariffs and trade in fresh vegetables is free of value-added tax.
Nam, a dealer at the border who owns trucks that deliver the Chinese produce to Bac Ninh, said suppliers like The would resell them at prices many times higher.
"They can pocket VND140-150 million ($6,640-7,110) a trip (of around 30 tons).
"That is not to mention times when prices of Chinese produce drop even lower, and traders with large pockets would store a lot of these, waiting for prices to go up and make even bigger profits."
Vendors buying from The would accept the prices as they can mix the products with local ones and tell buyers that they are Vietnamese produce so that they can charge higher prices. Some vendors do not even bother to mix them, and just sell Chinese imports as locally produced fruits and vegetables.
They said the Chinese imports are not only cheaper, but also look better because they are big, plump and smooth, though they do not smell as good as locally grown produce.
Nam said dealers like him also have their own way to increase profit by overloading their trucks, usually up to three times its designed capacity.
A 10-ton truck would carry 30-35 tons. "The more we can carry, the more money we make."
The trucks usually leave the border at night and arrive early in the morning, and traders in Bac Ninh are charged VND220,000 ($10) a ton for the delivery.
Trucks coming from around the country to buy the stock also arrive at night.
Nguyen Van Cuong, head of Vo Cuong ward in the province's capital town, also named Bac Ninh, said many local farmers have become rich pretty fast with trade in Chinese produce. Some families have been able to buy their own trucks for transporting the goods, he said.
Cuong said there are around 20 major household businesses that have become prominent in the region.
They earn between VND2-3 billion ($95,000-142,300) a year, locals said. Vietnam's per capita GDP in 2012 was $1,596.
Numerous uncounted small traders also make more than $5,000 a year, they said.
Cuong said that when local crops are out of season, between 80 to 90 percent of the supply at the market is brought from China through Tan Thanh border gate.
Bac Ninh market managers said the traders almost always managed to produce legal import documents and quality certificates for their stock. So far this year, they have imposed fines of VND8 million for the import of eight tons of garlic of unclear origin which they seized.
But Nam said the inspections do not prove a thing as customs officials are already bribed to let the cargo pass without close inspection, and the traders can "buy necessary papers later."
Authorities in the Central Highlands town of Da Lat in June dumped 26 tons of potatoes from China after samples tested positive for excessive levels of a toxic insecticide called chlorpyrifos, although the owner had produced adequate safety certificates during earlier inspections.
Surveillance over two years showed the trader had been importing potatoes from China and local vendors were mixing these with local produce to cheat consumers.
In May this year, a wholesale market on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City banned traders from selling Chinese ginger after tests found high levels of adicarb, a highly poisonous carbamate pesticide, in a sample.
Official figures say that Vietnam imported around 150,000 tons of Chinese produce in the first four months this year, mostly garlic, onions and apples.
A report on the website of the Ministry of Industry and Trade earlier this month cited experts as saying Vietnam has a much smaller cultivation area than China and cannot engage in the same large-scale intensive farming.
Hence local prices cannot compete with Chinese imports, they said.
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