Market forces clear streets in Vietnam

Supermarkets are replacing Vietnam's traditional markets and hawkers, writes Sarah O'Bryan.

Vietnamese street life and shopping habits are on the verge of change as many traditional markets are closed and street vendors banned.

People have shopped for centuries at local markets in Vietnam and from street vendors, a highly visible part of the streetscape with their conical hats, poles and baskets. For tourists, visiting markets in Vietnam is a popular activity, often included in cooking classes recommended in many travel guides.

With 60 per cent of its population under 30, Vietnam is one of the world's fastest growing economies. For better service, convenience, hygiene and fixed prices, more shoppers are heading to the supermarket.

“I prefer purchasing goods at supermarkets,” a 35-year-old businesswoman, Le Thi Phuong, told Thanh Nien News. “They have a better selection of products than street-side markets and buyers don't have to bargain.”

The government is encouraging this departure from traditional markets with a recent boom in shopping centre development. In March there were 400 supermarkets and 60 shopping centres nationwide, according to reports in Thanh Nien News. This is predicted to increase by two-thirds in 2010.

Traditional markets are being phased out at a rate travel books can't keep pace with – some recent guidebooks are leading tourists to construction sites where markets used to be.

Tracey Lister, who runs the Hanoi Cooking Centre, which runs classes and market tours, believes a market is the heart and soul of community life.

“Information and news is passed on at the early morning market trips," she says. "If an elderly neighbour does not make it to the market in the morning they will receive a visitor that day bearing fruit to make sure they are OK. It is sad to think that this communal way of life will be destroyed.”

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Ho Chi Minh City has plans to modernise its retail market system. According to an article in Vietnam News, at least 48 traditional markets will be abolished by 2015. The plan, approved by the Department of Industry and Trade, also seeks to develop 95 supermarkets and 140 trade centres, which are exchange floors for agricultural products, by 2015.

The district government has also asked the People's Committee, the administrative unit of local government, to clear footpath markets. Last year street vendors were banned from 62 streets in Hanoi, with further bans predicted.

The former vice-chairman of Hanoi's People's Committee, Phi Thai Binh, told Vietnam Nation: "The purpose of this decision is to re-establish urban order in a civilised way, while improving food hygiene and safety."

Recent sales figures for the most famous market in southern Vietnam are an indication of the speed of change. The Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City recorded a 50 to 60 per cent drop in sales for 2009 compared with 2008.

Lister's four-year-old daughter, Franka, recently unlocked the gate and made a lone visit the local market. “The market lady sold her the sticky rice, took the exact money out of the wallet and then brought her home,” Lister says. “I don't think that would happen in a supermarket.”