Out on the street

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Police and militiamen have been stepping up crackdowns on sidewalk vendors as the Lunar New Year approaches

Calligraphy works hung on the fence of a high school in District 3. The calligraphers said they had to do so to keep the authorities from seizing their work during periodic crackdowns.

Tran Thi Phuong, 60, leapt up off the sidewalk at the honk of an oncoming truck.

Leaving her plastic mat like a bullet from a gun, Phuong and her husband scrambled to toss their sidewalk newspaper stand into a waiting pushcart.

The "evacuation" was aborted when the aging couple realized that the truck didn't contain a paramilitary or police officer.

"I thought they were coming, again," Phuong said. Every day, she and her husband face two choices: run from the authorities or stand and watch as they take whatever they want.

Phuong has eked out a living selling newspapers and magazines on the corner of Ba Huyen Thanh Quan Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 3 since 1991.

To her right, a middle-aged woman sells coffee from a small stool, just as she has for the past thirty years. To her left, a tailor sits behind a portable sewing machine.

"We alert each other whenever a police truck arrives," Phuong said pointing to her sidewalk neighbors. "We're all in the same boat we but don't want to sink at the same time."

Phuong said she and her neighbors all understand that they have to keep the sidewalks clear for pedestrian traffic.

"But we also have to keep our stomachs from being empty," she said. Phuong has done her best to

shrink the size of the newsstand and minimize her place on the sidewalk, which rarely sees a pedestrian.

"The bottom line is everyone is banned from selling goods on the sidewalks, whether there are pedestrian there or not," said Vu Van Hien, deputy chief of the District 3 "˜s Ward 6 police.

"Those are the rules formulated by the central government," Hien added.

Bad policy

Last May, the government passed a decree establishing fines of between VND20 million to VND30 million for those who occupy the sidewalks for business purposes.

But the law has done little more than to squeeze police and vendors alike.

"If we seriously enforce the decree, those people would be swept away in just one day," said Hien. "All we have done is just to slap them on the wrist. We go on patrols, every day, just to show the sidewalk vendors that we are on duty."

"Sometimes we have to confiscate some of their stuff as part of our job," he added.

Recently, experts have argued that the increased harassment of sidewalk vendors by local authorities is the result of bad policy decisions.

On Monday (January 24), Nguyen Minh Hoa, a professor at the HCMC's University of Social Sciences and Humanities published an article in Saigon Tiep Thi arguing that a campaign to restrict sidewalk vendors has appeared to be delivering little results.

"Vendors will eventually end up returning the very sidewalks they were chased away," Hoa wrote, citing his own research on this issue. "That's their sole livelihood and meal ticket."

Michael Digregorio, a former program officer for the Ford Foundation argued that the decision was based on false premises.

"There are some misunderstandings about the role of vendors in restricting movement of pedestrians on sidewalks, some competitive market issues, and a wrong-headed sense that street vendors are symbolic of poverty and backwardness," he said.

Losing sleep

Dao Phuong said he's had no choice, as Tet approaches, but to hang his calligraphy works behind an iron fence on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai High School on Truong Dinh Strict in District 3.

He's not afraid of thieves. He fears the police.

"[My work] should be displayed on the sidewalk, not on the fence like that," Phuong said. "I had to do so to keep the authorities from seizing them while they are on patrol."

Phuong and other Lunar New Year calligraphers are selling painted characters to passing homeowners who believe the uplifting words will help bring them good luck in the Year of the Cat, which falls on February 3.

"Four of my pieces have just been seized. I don't know how many more they'll take in the coming days," said Phuong.

Last week, he says, a young couple selling ceramic work on the opposite sidewalk fled the area, after their inventory was destroyed during a crackdown.

Nguyen Van Hau, a lawyer from the HCMC Bar Association, said that the law requires the authorities to ask the sidewalk vendors to sign an acknowledgement in the event of a property seizure.

However, none of the vendors that Thanh Nien Weekly spoke with reported ever having signed or received such a notice.

Hien, the police officer, acknowledged that some of his people, including the local paramilitary forces, have sometimes failed to behave well on duty.

"We cannot monitor their performance 24/7. The only thing we can do is try to train them to behave," he said.

Hien added that in the lead up to Tet, they would crank up their patrols on the sidewalks.

Phuong, the newspaper vendor, said she was all prepared to stay until the last day of the Lunar New Year eve to sell off all the papers.

But such patrols have not ceased to worry her.

"That will be something that keeps me up at night."

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