It all started as an act of kindness.
A few businesses on Giai Phong Street in Hanoi put some money together to offer free iced tea to poor people who happened to travel past their street during hot summer days.
It was a small insulated container of around 20 liters, filled with iced tea and placed “neatly” next to a tree between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day, a local said.
But some police officers from Thinh Liet Ward in Hoang Mai District came to seize it on July 27 for “blocking the traffic.”
Nguyen Huu Tuong, the ward police chief, told Tuoi Tre newspaper that putting the box on the sidewalk was a violation.
“We have asked people there many times to take the box off the sidewalk and put it elsewhere. They did not listen, so we had to seize it.”
When questioned about many vendors still occupying nearby sidewalks, Tuong said his officers “do not condone any violations and will deal with all of them strictly.”
Critics have taken to Facebook to dismiss the authorities’ decision as “childish” and “shameful."
Many of them, including lawyers, said the iced tea box does not hurt anyone and police should not have been so rigid.
Journalist Ami Nguyen said that after the first container was seized, locals on Giai Phong Street brought out another one.
Poor people are thirsty and the free water means a lot to them, she said.
She cited examples in Ho Chi Minh City, which was first to introduce the culture of free street water several years ago. The city authorities have allowed water bottles and containers standing on its sidewalks so far.
“Everyone knows that the best place to put a free box of water for poor people is the sidewalk. Why can't Tuong see that?” she said.
But Tuong has at least one supporter.
Journalist Chung Nguyen said that people who criticize the police's decision are protecting the poor "in the wrong way."
He said that laws are for civilization and there should not be any exception even for the poor.
He said people are trying to prove that they are civilized by showing their love for the poor.
“But when you’re using poverty as an excuse to destroy social disciplines, you’re not civilized,” he said, noting that charity policies in many countries including the US and Norway are strict and people have to ask for permission when they want to help others on the street.
His argument has been criticized by many Facebookers, who say that Vietnam is a different country and people should not wait for permission to be kind to strangers.