Vendors shocked as Saigon's first underground market on verge of shutdown

The market is located underneath 23/9 Park in the central business district of the southern metropolis

The food court at Sense Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Sellers at Sense Market, the first-ever subterranean venue that combines a shopping center and a food court in Ho Chi Minh City, have been fretting about an announcement that the facility will be closed for good just next year.

The vendors have been told to relocate by April 30, 2019, as the lease contract of the premises will not be extended, pursuant to an order by the municipal chairman Nguyen Thanh Phong.

The announcement that came out of the blue last month has shocked vendors, as they only started selling at the underground market, located beneath 23/9 Park in District 1, less than two years ago.

Sense Market is developed by Cuu Long Company, which invested nearly VND200 billion (US$8.6 million) in building the underground market for lease, under a two-year contract ending April 30, 2019 with the city’s land management center.

As 500 sellers at Sense Market also signed booth-leasing contracts with the developer with the same termination date, all the underground stalls will have to shut down if Cuu Long and the land management center agree not to renew their lease.

This is the worst nightmare for Sense Market vendors, particularly the food sellers, who have just started to enjoy healthy sales after spending the first year familiarizing themselves with customers.

Many others are all on the verge of losing the hefty investment they have put into the subterranean stores.

The entrance to Sense Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The entrance to Sense Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre

‘We want to stay’

Located underneath 23/9 Park, Sense Market covers an area of over 5,000 square meters and opens daily from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, featuring a variety of shopping activities and food services.

Thanks to its prime location, only a walk from such popular tourist destinations as Ben Thanh Market and the Bui Vien Street ‘backpacker area’ in the city’s central business district, Sense Market has quickly emerged as a new destination for tourists.

Since its inauguration in March 2017, the venue has attracted hundreds of small traders.  

The underground space houses a shopping center, named Taka Plaza, and a food court serving both Vietnamese and foreign dishes.

The majority of sellers here were previously street vendors, who win their bread by selling things on the sidewalk, and they were thus often chased away by police.

Now that they are earning their livelihood in a ‘static’ location, it is obvious that they do not want to leave the underground market. Some consider the order for them to leave, when they have yet to recoup the huge amount of money poured into the business here, is like something ‘stealing away their daily bread.’

“The decision came just too sudden, leaving small businesses with no time to prepare, especially how to handle the unsold inventory or get back the investment,” Dong Anh Tuan, a small merchant at Taka Plaza, told online news site Zing.vn.

Tuan said he has put a huge amount of investment, partially borrowed from banks, in his clothing stall. “For long-term business, the past year is the time to get acquainted with customers, but as soon as we have reached a stable stage, we are asked to stop things altogether,” he added.

A food seller is seen at Sense Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre
A food seller is seen at Sense Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The concern is shared by many other Sense Market traders.

“What worries me the most is that this sudden announcement only gives me just over half a year to relocate,” said Bui Thi Thu Loan, who sells clothes and footwear at the underground market.

With the Lunar New Year, or Tet, which the biggest shopping season for the Vietnamese, only four months away, traders are also left confused over whether to source more goods when they will have to close soon after this occasion.

According to Zing.vn, the atmosphere at Sense Market, especially at Taka Plaza, has been less active for about a month since the news of shutdown was broken.

Call to keep the place

The revocation of the underground premises is meant to restore urban order at 23/9 Park, which is under overlapping management by different agencies, which results in a lack of control over the venue’s construction and exploitation, according to the Ho Chi Minh City administration.

But Sense Market traders believe that they are helping to beautify the landscape of the park with their business activities, adding that the underground market has become an appealing destination for visitors to the city.

The underground base beneath 23/9 Park used to house a parking lot and several coffee shops, which made the park look filthy and unsafe, affecting local people and tourists. These were no longer an issue when the space was turned into Sense Market.

"Previously the basement of the park was full of trash as it was considered a haven for drug addicts and smokers, and only temporarily used as a parking lot when the park hosted the annual flower market every New Year,” Tan Trung, a clothes seller at Sense Market, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

That dirty space is now a modern market where traders treat customers with politeness, never overcharge and only sell clean and hygiene products, Trung said.

“Not only tourists but local people also like to come here,” the seller added.

A corner of the food court of Sense Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre
A corner of the food court at Sense Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre

While traders acknowledge the necessity to prevent 23/9 Park from affecting the city’s urban landscape, they said the root of the problem is the aboveground space of the park, which is currently polluted and space-occupying, not the subterranean market.

“A clean and safe ground level combined with an attractive underground shopping space will truly make 23/9 Park a must-visit destination,” Loan, the Sense Market footwear seller, said.

“This will not only promote tourism but also create more jobs for ‘former street vendors’ like us, as we don’t have to worry about moving from place to place as before.”

Nguyen Binh Phuong, general director of Cuu Long, said that the company will persuade the city administrators to continue leasing the underground space since the firm and small traders have put a large amount of investment in the site.

Phuong added the underground market is a model that has long been developed in many countries around the world, expressing his hope that Cuu Long will be able to continue this business model.

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