Street distributors wrestle to earn livelihood as pandemic hits tourism

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Thao, a street seller, shows her fans and bunny headbands to bar goers on Bui Vien Street in Saigon on May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

She is not: the veteran hawker is trying to interest prospective customers on Bui Vien Street in Saigon.

She has a basket filled with lighters, hair ties, fake leather wallets tied to her torso.

But international tourists, her normal customers, are long gone.

Bui Vien is to Saigon what Khao San Road is to Bangkok. The nightlife on this street can usually be heard blocks away and is in the Saigon bucket list on every travel guide.

However, the place is quieter these days and less crowded, leaving workers like Thao with empty pockets.

Party goers on Bui Vien backpacker street in Ho Chi Minh City, May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Bui Vien Street in Ho Chi Minh City, which is gradually getting back to its most raucous, May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Thao says: “I did not work for three months because of the pandemic. I just started working today.” She is from Thanh Hoa Province in the north-central region.

When Vietnam ramped up its Covid-19 containment measures, people like Thao could not work from home. The 49 year-old and her speech-impaired teenage son returned to Thanh Hoa and lived on loans and meager food supplies during the period.

The two had traveled the 1,400 kilometers from her hometown to Saigon many years ago so that she could earn some money and her son could go to a good school.

Vietnam announced a 22-day social distancing campaign from April 1 during which most businesses were ordered shut and congregations were restricted.

Even earlier, on March 28, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had ordered all non-essential businesses like restaurants, beer shops and other places of amusement closed as the country entered a critical stage in its pandemic battle.

When the social distancing campaign ended, Bui Vien Street reopened for business on May 8.

But Thao has not seen much change in her fortunes since the country is yet to allow foreign tourists back in after turning them away on March 18.

Pointing at the bunny ear headbands on her head, she says: “Foreign tourists are my buyers. Vietnamese only buy stuff like this sometimes, like during holiday seasons.”

Thanh, a fruit seller, also misses the tourists.

She says: “Europeans like to eat mango and mangosteen. Malaysians, South Koreans, Vietnamese like durian. Before the epidemic, I could not peel fruits fast enough for customers. I sold dozens of kilograms every day. But now I cannot sell even half of that.”

The 55-year-old knows what she does is not legal, and admits she is constantly chased away by local authorities or has her cart confiscated.

Thanh, a fruit seller, pushes her cart to Bui Vien Street every day to make a sale, May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Thanh, a fruit seller, on Bui Vien Street on May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Like Thao, she too went back to her hometown during the semi lockdown and farmed, the poorly paying job she had quit to flee to Saigon in the first place.

She lives in a rented room with nine other people in District 1 for a million dong ($43) a month.

She does not remember when exactly she came from her hometown in the central province of Quang Ngai to Saigon, but she knows she left when her daughter was young to earn money for her schooling, and the latter is going to graduate from university soon.

From 5 a.m. every day she pushes her cart through Saigon’s labyrinthine streets. Bui Vien, where she used to make a considerable amount of her sales, would be her final destination before she returned to her room at 11 p.m.

About a kilometer from the street near Saigon’s iconic Ben Thanh Market, Duc’s sugarcane and smoothie stand also struggles to sell anything. Duc’s menu is in English, Malaysian and Korean, indicating who her main customers are.

“Hello sir, sugarcane juice?” she asks a European couple passing by, but they are not interested.

Duc depends on the popularity of Ben Thanh night market, a magnet for both international and Vietnamese visitors prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

The 73-year-old, who has been selling here for nine years, said the night market has been allowed to reopen, but stall owners are not keen because there are not many visitors.

Across the street from her stand, a popular cafe chain has already enticed youngsters.

The Hanoi woman says: “I was not working for 2.5 months. I stayed at home. I used to sell 140 kilograms of sugarcane a day before the epidemic.” She also has a long list of fruit smoothies and beer.

Duc, a smoothie and sugar cane juice seller, stands next to her cart with signs showing items and prices in English, Malaysian and Korean, May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Duc, a smoothie and sugarcane juice seller, stands next to her cart with signs listing prices in English, Malaysian and Korean, May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

The 73-year-old has four sons, all of whom are married with children, but all are struggling to make ends meet since the outbreak began.

The Covid-19 pandemic has cost nearly five million Vietnamese workers their jobs as of mid-April, bringing Q1 employment figures to a 10-year low, according to the General Statistics Office.

Informal workers like Duc, Thanh and Thao, who lack social security or an established business, could be among the hardest hit.

If they stop working due to an economic downturn or a pandemic like this, they have no income.

Millions of workers in the informal economy lack financial health protection, according to a report on Vietnam’s labor market published last month by the International Labor Organization.

Their plight is exacerbated by the fact their businesses are reliant on visitors to Vietnam’s biggest city.

HCMC’s foreign visitor numbers plummeted 42 percent year-on-year in the first quarter this year.

The country received nearly 3.7 million visitors, down 18.1 percent, according to the General Statistics Office.

On Saturday PM Phuc said the country’s borders would remain shut to tourists. Only Vietnamese citizens, foreign investors, experts, skilled workers, business managers, and officials are allowed to enter and only after a 14-day quarantine on arrival.

Valentina Barcucci, a labor economist at ILO in Vietnam, said the government was quick to roll out crisis response measures including wage subsidies for formal sector workers and cash transfers for workers who do not have access to social benefits.

However, in countries with a relatively large proportion of informal jobs like Vietnam, the measures tend to address either formal workers and the most vulnerable, leaving out the missing middle – workers in the informal sector – which is also the hardest to reach, she explained.

Informal workers dependent on Vietnam’s once booming tourism continue to wait for the return of international visitors.

Thanh, the fruit seller, said: “Slowly things will get back to normal. I will try but business will be very difficult.”

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