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Businesses on wheels in Vietnam

Sunday, November 24, 2019, 10:07 GMT+7
Businesses on wheels in Vietnam
Knife-sharpener and his pal

A while back I wrote about all the activities routinely taking place on sidewalks, preparing travellers to cope with the endless commotion that turns a relaxing stroll into a game of hopscotch and a mad dash down the gauntlet: https://bit.ly/2qF87td

One example of the clutter is a cafe that uses the sidewalk to wash and dry dishes, prepare vegetables, store mops, garbage, brooms, and write letters to faraway relatives. I reported they have everything but the kitchen sink out on the sidewalk (an expression meaning a lot of items), then later realized the kitchen sink is right there too, in the midst of the hubbub!

An alert (yet obviously skeptical) reader challenged me on the kitchen sink, so I submit proof positive for your enlightenment herewith. There’s that damn sink, sitting right on the sidewalk:

Kitchen sink

Kitchen sink

I checked it out, and the staff dismantles the sink, water connection, and drainage each evening, stows the entire apparatus inside the cafe only to haul it all out and set it up again the next morning. The staff, clearly flattered by all the attention, even did a demo on how the whole system works.

The obvious follow-on question from that epistle was: If all that is only what’s on the sidewalk, what’s happening on the streets of a typical Vietnamese city? 

Fasten your seat belts because the streets are a hive of activity, but first some perspective before delving into it all:

The streets in developed countries are in near pristine condition, level and flat for the most part, easy to navigate, and void of clutter. Vendors typically don’t ply neighbourhoods to sell their wares, nor are there construction projects underway on the sidewalks, and business activities actually take place inside buildings.

All we see on the streets in that part of the world are cars and the odd pedestrian or cyclist, which sounds like Utopia, but honestly it’s boring as hell.

It’s invigorating to see all the commercial action on the streets here, and a reminder for us to be constantly on the lookout because the vendor selling exactly what we need could whizz by at any moment.

Here’s the neighbourhood steamed pork bun (“bánh bao”) man, who starts his route at 5:45 am each day right on the nose, featuring a cute little advertising jingle which repeats itself every 10 seconds. That’s 5:45 right on the nose and, regrettably, right under mine, which is why I know what time he starts working.

Bánh bao man tuning up his rig

Bánh bao man tuning up his rig

One of my favorites is the portable supermarket, or “motomarket” as I call it, operated by the hilarious Motomarket Lady who grins from ear to ear most of the time. I sense she adores the independence of her line of work, and she’s flattered when I rustle around in the bags hanging off her bike, making notes and inspecting the goods.

Any way you slice it, she’s got a great gig because people who are tied to their business or home can just holler out as she zooms by, pick up a fresh fish or meat, and vegetables, then whip up a nice meal in no time without moving a step from their base.

Motomarket Lady hacking up a fish

Motomarket Lady hacking up a fish

Lots of other vendors are also mobile, either constantly on the move until hailed by a customer, or popping up as nomads in random locations and setting up shop temporarily. The knife-sharpening man sets up his equipment on the sidewalk, hones a few blades, shares the family news with his buddy, then disappears to other neighbourhoods for weeks on end. 

Knife-sharpener and his pal

Knife-sharpener and his pal

Other vendors make semi-permanent arrangements, such as the Shoe Repair Twins, who occupy some prime real estate in the center of the city. I think they can repair nearly anything because in addition to shoes, I see them with hand and shoulder bags, umbrellas, and random household and personal gadgets.

The stand is run by twin brothers whom I always mix up. The result is I inadvertently extend a warm greeting to the one I don’t know, who no doubt says to himself, “Who the heck is that weird white guy?” Then I offer a tepid greeting to the brother that I do know, who I hope realizes that I can’t tell them apart and let it all slide. He is very consistent, always charging me the same price no matter which service is rendered.

I’ve had shoes repaired once, bought new laces on another occasion (which are stashed in that decrepit mobile stand on the left of the picture below), and got my small fold-up umbrella reinforced, and each time the price was VND10,000 although the materials and labor varied greatly with each transaction.

The Twins have electrical power that flows from the shoe shop beside which they’re camped, so either the electricity is discreetly hijacked (unlikely), they rent the space (doubtful since the sidewalk is community property), they’re employees of the shoe store (possible), or they just squat there (I’d bet on this last one).

The employee angle could be a discreet marketing trick although somehow I doubt it. Let’s say your shoes break, so you head to The Twins, but they inform you they can’t be repaired, which you couldn’t know beforehand. There is a distinct possibility that you would duck inside the shop and buy a new pair. The only other options are bringing an extra pair of shoes (who would think of that?), hopping barefoot down the street to the next shoe shop, or driving shoe-less somewhere else.

Shoe repair stand

Shoe repair stand

The Mắm-Mobile Lady didn’t pique my curiosity for a while because the sign on the back of her rig says “bánh bột lọc”, those transparent tapioca shrimp dumplings that go for VND2,000 (US$0.09) each. 

Bánh bột lọc can be found nearly anywhere, but what’s displayed on the side of her motorbike merits full investigation: “Đặc Sản Mắm Huế” (Special Fish Sauces from Huế - mắm tôm, mắm ruốc, mắm nêm, and others).

Mắm-mobile

Mắm-Mobile

Arguably, there is no greater stench on this earth than the various fermented shrimp and anchovy-based pastes and sauces, so when you see the word “mắm”, plug your nose and run for cover.  

The Mắm-Mobile Lady actually provides a valuable service: She stinks up her house preparing the various concoctions so her customers don’t have to stink up theirs, which is an excellent justification for her business as well as a compelling marketing strategy. “We stink up the neighbourhood so you don’t have to!” would be a great buzz line.

She’s easy to spot as she zips around town because she has recorded an alluring jingle that plays non-stop, going something like this (I may have screwed up the lyrics, but you get the picture):

“Hai-dee-hai-dee hey, Hai-dee-hai-dee ho,

My fish sauce will curl your big toe!

Hai-dee-hai-dee ho!”

Stinky Sauces

Stinky sauces

All those portable businesses are useful and pragmatic, but first prize goes to the Lamination Motorbike, an engineering feat the likes of which I’ve never seen:

Lamination Motorbike!

Lamination Motorbike!

There is a generator installed where the passenger seat is usually positioned, then a device reminiscent of a photocopier on top of that is used for laminating, and a mysterious wooden box with a lid on the back.

The contraption is kept in place by a network of sturdy synthetic bands wrapped around strategic areas of the equipment and motorbike. It’s not cutting-edge technology, but this design gets the nod for ingenuity. Whoever invented this marvel should be heading up the next space exploration initiative.

Although I’m impressed by the creativity needed to design and conceive the bike, I’m skeptical about its practical business value.  I mean, do people walk around with their university diplomas, birth and wedding certificates, and other documentation expecting to bump into Lamination Man?

Or maybe it suddenly pops into their minds as they’re heading out to the market: “Let’s see - chicken, bunch of carrots, dozen eggs, and one laminated document. Where is that damn Lamination Man? I can never find him when I need him!”

A Marvel of Modern Engineering

A marvel of modern engineering

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the available mobile and nomadic offerings - indeed, I’ve just scratched the surface. There are dozens of businesses, so keep your eyes peeled when you’re out and about - a product or service you need could be right under your nose. 

Don’t forget to carry around those documents, we want that Lamination Man to stay in business forever!

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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