Editor’s note: Nguyen Phu, a former director of development with travel agency Peak Viet, explains why street food drives tourists away from Vietnam.
The opinions expressed below are the author’s own.
When the way to a man's goodbye is through his stomach
Street food is always appealing to tourists. Visitors from developed countries are captivated by food for sale on the street, as it looks unfamiliar and delicious.
I can say that every single foreign tourist to Vietnam has tried eating on the street once, even though they stay in five-star hotels.
Vietnamese street food is a tourism product, but is also the reason why many visitors never return.
Based on the more than ten years during which I have worked in the international tourism sector, most foreign tourists are eager to experience street food. However, there would always be at least one visitor suffering from stomach problems after the experience.
This has eventually forced us to skip street food tours from our packages. Companies have even insisted that tour guides not allow their guests to eat on the street.
How are we losing foreign tourists just because of street food? The reasons are simple.
The other day one female European tourist had really enjoyed eating at a street stall until she paid the vendor. The vendor was wearing a glove on only one hand, and the tourist deliberately tried to put the cash into the other hand.
However, the seller would simply take the money with the gloved hand, with which she continued to touch the food. The tourist was in shock, believing that street vendors didn’t understand why they were wearing gloves.
There were also tourists who were left speechless at seeing street vendors ‘wash’ their dishes by dousing them in a bucket of blackened water. Thousands of similar stories can be found around street food stalls in Vietnam.
People buy noodles from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City.
Street vendors need recognition
However we shouldn’t always blame these vendors. They are occupying the streets and sidewalks, and have to run away when regulatory officers come by.
Street vendors are not officially recognized by the tourism sector, even though they are a tourism product.
I think the government should properly acknowledge the role of street food vendors. All they need to do is help them sell their food in a more orderly, cleaner and friendlier way.
Once recognized, street food vendors would pay more attention to food safety and hygiene as they would no longer have to worry about hiding from the authorities.
Once recognized, street food vendors may pay taxes, which could be used to keep their stalls clean.
In South Korea or Thailand, there are zones for street vendors just like Vietnam; those are areas where tourists can enjoy their food at ease as everything is clean. Street vendors there dare not violate food safety regulations as they know they will be fined and lose their license to operate.
For Vietnam, I believe street food is a tourism feature that should be recognized and placed under proper management.