Toxic rumors push Hanoi corn vendors out of business

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Nguyen Van Diep wears a sad face next to his bag of boiled corn ears. Diep and many colleagues in Hanoi have been unable to sell their corn after rumors spread that corn ears on the street were boiled with chemicals to save energy. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Rumors about batteries and toxic powders being used to boil corn to save time and energy have virtually pushed many vendors in Hanoi out of business though they say they have no idea or knowledge of such tricks.

A Tuoi Tre report on Wednesday described vendors from Dong Bat in Mai Dich District, known as the corn and potato street, carefully cleaning and boiling corn ears for sale. But the vendors said their products are no longer appreciated as people assume all corn ears sold on the street are toxic.

"Corn has never been so boycotted. I'm only managing to sell ten to 20 ears a day now," said Nguyen Thi Chuc, one of more than 300 corn vendors from the street. "Before the rumors began, I could sell more than a hundred a day."

Chuc said vendors in the community have no clue about all the chemicals people are talking about, let alone using them.

They usually spend all morning cleaning and boiling corn ears, sometimes adding extra sugarcane pieces to increase the fragrance and sweetness, then they go out from 3 p.m. onwards selling the corn as an end-of-day snack until early the next morning.

Chuc used to finish at 1 a.m. the next day but not anymore.

The corn community has been around since 1994, with some families passing down the job through three generations.

It gathers people from across the northern provinces unable to make a living at home. They migrate to the capital city and live in rented rooms of around eight square meters each which are made of thin wood panels, or palm leaves and used sacks.

Each room costs between VND500,000 and 800,000 (US$24-38) a month but many renters are having problems covering it due to poor sales, so more than 30 vendors have switched to selling sausages as a fastfood, candy floss and banh mi.

Chuc and her husband Nguyen Van Toan are still selling boiled corn but she's worried about the future of her family of six who depend on her business.

"Having been with the job for too long, I don't feel right leaving it. I don't know what else to do anyway. I do not have any cultivation land back home."

Chuc's husband used to join her but recently he has started selling candy floss.

The couple could sell between 100 and 200 corn ears once, earning profits of up to VND300,000 a day; and they managed to save more than VND3 million a month to send home to their parents for taking care of their two children who are going to school.

They have not been able to send any money home for several months now, Chuc said.

Nguyen Van Diep, another vendor in the group, also said he might not be able to survive on the job for too long. His wife has lung cancer and does not work.

Diep recalled a recent night when he pushed the cart through the capital streets for 12 hours and only sold around 20 ears.

He showed a VND20,000 note saying it's all the profit he has earned in the past two days. "I can pass the day without eating, but there're still my wife and child."

Pham Thi Van, who has been selling boiled corn for more than 20 years, has left her vending cart idle for several days as the meager income is not worth the hard work.

She was angry and bitter about the rumors, which started first in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Corn and sweet potato are among the safest foods in the world, and they have been favorite snacks to Vietnamese people for a long time.

"We vendors are all very honest, as many of us are the very farmers who used to plant the corn. We had to leave our fields to find a better way of living and these rumors have just destroyed our livelihood," she said.

Van said vendors in the neighborhood were already living a hard life to save money from the business. They only eat one meal a day. They would have a full meal at lunch, and then walk the streets from the afternoon until early morning, when they would eat any corn ears they have left.

"We ourselves eat the unsold corn, so there's no reason we would add those poisons."

Pham Thi Lan is among the vendors who have decided to persist with the trade and win people's trust back.

She has been in the business for more than ten years, but she has not been able to make any profit for several months. However, "I will continue selling for as long as I can.

"I don't want boiled corn to keep carrying a bad name."

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