Weaving through modern streets and heavy traffic, street vendors (or gánh hàng rong) is one of the remaining typical images of ancient Hanoi. They are usually pictured as a woman wearing nón lá (conical shaped hat) and carrying a shoulder pole with bamboo baskets of goods at two ends along the street.
Gánh hàng rong – a Hanoi’s unique speciality
Hanoi with more than one thousand years of history was the cradle of traditional Vietnamese culture, and among its products was gánh hàng rong, which played an integral part of urban life. People did not need to travel to the downtown; instead, they could buy all necessary stuffs from ganh hang rong in the neighbourhood. Most sellers were farmers coming from villages near Hanoi. Since farming alone was not enough to support their families, they had to make extra earnings with bamboo carrying poles on their shoulders.
To reach Hanoi in the morning, they needed to wake up and get prepared very early. When Hanoi was still asleep, the voices of the vendors had already echoed softly in many corners of streets. Some Hanoians even developed a habit to get up and ready for a new day as soon as they heard energetic voices of the vendors. And if the voices were weak, they knew that it was time for bed.
Gánh hàng rong food: the Hanoi’s elegance lies inside streetfoods
Till now, ganh hang rong still appears in most of the streets in Hanoi selling delicious food for all four seasons. In the summer, it is fascinating to try cool and soft tào phớ (silken dessert tofu) that the seller skillfully scoops from a wooden barrel into a small bowl. When the weather is cooler, sitting quietly with a pinch of cốm (young green rice) in a lotus leaf and enjoying its elegant fragrance and a gentle flavour is so great that you just wish time could stop for a while. When winter approaches, people tend to sit closer and eat grilled corns as well as roasted potatoes on sidewalks to ward off the chill.
Also, ganh hang rong paints Hanoi with different colours in every season. The gentle bikes loaded with flowers riding on the streets have been deep into the subconscious mind of Hanoians. The women vendors usually wear traditional costume called áo tứ thân (four-part dress). The Hanoians have been accustomed to buying flowers at the flower bikes instead of at flower shops, just because of their passionate love for flowers rather than giving to other people as a present.
Unlike other street vendors, flower sellers in Hanoi do not have to raise their voice for attention, perhaps because the delicate fragrance and striking colors of flowers themselves are enough to attract people. June is the month of lotus with pinky colors filling in corners of streets. Winter comes with fragrant and colorful chrysanths, mostly in bright yellow and snowy-white. Following the approach of the spring is the reddish and brilliant pink of peach blossoms. It is true to say that the bikes not only carry flowers but also carry the beauty and spirit of each season to the one thousand – year capital of Hanoi.
Another noteworthy feature of street vendors in Hanoi is hàng chè vỉa hè (sidewalk tea stalls). Tea stalls used to appear in almost every corner of streets in Hanoi. With seats and sometimes small tables, tea stalls sell a wide range of beverages from traditional drinks like tea and nước sấu (a drink made of dracontomelon fruit – very common in Hanoi) to more modern ones like soft drinks, coffee and they even serve snacks like potato chips. Sidewalk tea stalls are preferable for someone who wants a tea break or relaxing time with friends, and someone who wants to take a rest after a long travel.
The presence of ganh hang rong has spread nationwide for a long time with subtle differences in each region. In Saigon, carts are preferable and flowers are sold at shops rather on bikes. While drinking tea on the sidewalks is very common in Hanoi, people tend to prefer drinking coffee in Saigon.
Through time, Hanoi has changed its image into a modern capital. The streets are now crowded with cars, high buildings, restaurants, and coffee shops. People now live a more convenient life with a stable income. They find no reason to keep their unstable life by selling goods on the streets. In addition, a recent change in regulations does not allow vendors to sell goods on the streets to reserve sidewalks for pedestrians. Although ganh hang rong is now less seen than before, the image and voice of street vendors have been imprinted on the memories of many Hanoians. For them, the image of an old and hard-working street vendor makes them recall the ancient Hanoi when life was tough but warm in the mutual love and kindness of people.
The following video tells a story about a woman vendor raising her child by selling tao pho on the streets. It is certainly a harsh life, but she is happy to watch her child grow up day by day.
Writer : Son Nguyen