US research says street vendors vital to Vietnamese urban life

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US professor Annette M. Kim talks with visitors to a photo exhibition of her spatial research about street life in Ho Chi Minh City on January 4. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

The beauty and humanity of sidewalk life in Ho Chi Minh City was on display Saturday at a photo exhibition prompted by an American researcher who says street vending is a vital component of city life that should be embraced and nurtured, not shut down.

Annette M. Kim told Tuoi Tre that the most interesting finding of her three years of research in the city -- which included the study of some 250 street vendors -- was the high level of mutual trust and cooperation between people involved in street businesses.

Kim is Associate Professor and Director of street projects at SLAB, the spatial analysis lab of the Price School of Public Policy at University of Southern California.

She has been roaming the streets of District 1 in downtown Ho Chi Minh City with her Vietnamese co-workers, including local architect and project co-chairwoman Le Nguyen Huong Giang, and her students, chronicling the activities of people who make their livings vending on the sidewalk.

Human and humane

Kim said most of the vendors told stories of being helped by shops they operate in front of. They were often given free water and electricity, or were allowed to store their shoulder poles or carts in the shops overnight.

The support comes from either the sympathy between people struggling to make ends meet, or it comes from the desire to facilitate a symbiotic relationship as some restaurants serve food and the street vendors in front of them serve coffee and juice, Kim said.

Her research included the story of three street vendors -- selling noodles, drinks, and sweet snacks -- who pooled their money to buy plastic tools for their customers to sit on.

One piece of sidewalk chronicled, like many others, hosted different activities during the day: morning exercises at 5 a.m., followed by breakfast and coffee vending carts, then lunch tables, and snack shoulder poles in the evening.

Kim called it "magic" for a such a humble space to be able to nurture so many parts of life.

Familiar facets

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The exhibition at the Ho Chi Minh City Photographers' Association showed a small part of the more than 3,000 photos taken for the project. 

Many visitors were happy to see their favorite familiar sidewalk spots as part of the show.

"I usually have a haircut here, on Hai Ba Trung Street," one visitor said as they pointed to a photo of a sidewalk barber.

One student who was taking her own pictures of the photos at the exhibit said: "I come across those sights every day but never thought they could be that beautiful."

The research was presented with a map of connected light dots showing street vending spots. Bigger dots meant the spaces were shared by many vendors.

Save the streets!

Kim said the urban environment of Ho Chi Minh City contains many elements the international community could learn from. She said sidewalks were the most important as most of the city's dynamics take place on the street. More people meet and interact on the sidewalks than anywhere else, according to the researchers.

Kim said her study also surveyed foreign visitors to the city and found that sidewalks were the most impressive part of the city to travelers from abroad.

They were asked to share stories about the city and 40 percent mentioned vending on the sidewalks, where they enjoyed foods, coffee on plastic tools, interactions with locals and a view of city life from the street perspective, a unique feature that Singapore and Hong Kong don't have.

HCMC sidewalks are also a place for nostalgia as many tourists said such facets of life have disappeared in their home countries.

Kim said she knew many street foods that were better than the same dishes in restaurants. Thus, grilled rice papers and coconut juice, popular street foods in the city, were served at the exhibition.

Economically, Kim said, the sidewalks were an important part of social welfare, as several studies have estimated that they contribute 30 percent of the jobs and food in a city.

She said that from the point of view of an urban planner, she does not think sidewalks should be saved exclusively to pedestrians, but that they should be multi-functional by allowing vendors a chance to make a living, which in turn will benefit the whole society.

Her research found that street vending only took up 10-40 percent of sidewalk space while it was parked motorbikes that occupied most of it.

She said she hoped the city government would think of some ways to manage the sidewalks better instead of trying to wipe-out the street vendors like they are doing now. Each slab of sidewalk stalls provides for many lives, she said.

Kim received her Ph.D. at MIT in City and Regional Planning in 2002 with a thesis called "Making a market: the institutions supporting Ho Chi Minh City's Urban Land Development Market" and has researched the city and other locations in Asia extensively.

She said her SLAB project uses visual approaches to help people see the life around them more clearly.

A lot of amazing things happen on the sidewalks, but the question is if one is sensitive enough to see them, she said.

Architect Giang, a Saigonese, said she was surprised by how much she learned about the city from the research.

"After this, we're going to love Saigon much more."

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