HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sidewalk Capitalism

When I visited home last August several people asked me just how 'communist' Vietnam is. Can you tell in daily life that the country is governed by such a system? In a word, no. Sure, there are hammer and sickle banners and flags hung up on lightposts, Facebook was just once again blocked, and the government makes plenty of noise about communism, but the fact is that the vast majority of people go about their business as it fits them. (Illustrative of this is the fact that there only around 2 million party members out of a population of over 86 million.) While the country's official name of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam conjures up images of communal farms and collective goods, the reality is far different.

Saigon, in particular, is possibly the most capitalist place I've ever been to. If you sit down anywhere for more than a few minutes, someone will approach you and try to sell you something. Stalls and carts selling all kinds of food and goods line every street. The range of what you can buy on the sidewalk here is immense, and it is one of the things I will miss most whenever I leave Vietnam for good. I rarely have to put myself through the psychological (and physical) trauma that accompanies a visit to the grocery store because so much of what I need can simply be bought on the sidewalk.

What is available in terms of food changes as the day progresses. In the morning, carts serve simple soup dishes and banh mi op la, or a fried egg sandwich. Around 11:30 the com carts are serving: these amazing gems serve up rice that is topped with your choice of meat or vegetable product. A couple runs such a stand 40 feet down the alley from my house, and several days a week I get lunch there for less than $1. The fruit and dessert carts are out by early afternoon, and once night sets in you can find pho stands, and the banh mi are then served with meat instead of eggs. Even the weather helps determine what is for sale: as soon as storm clouds begin to threaten, people selling ponchos appear out of nowhere on nearly every corner.

Incredibly fresh fruit. You can get a bag for 50 cents.
It really is amazing how much can be done on the sidewalk. You can get a flat tire repaired, get your house keys copied, get your dress shoes shined, have your flip-flops repaired, get a pair of pants mended, have your hair cut, buy cigarettes, buy credit for your phone, buy a filet of fish, get a massage, enjoy an amazing fresh-fruit smoothie, get drunk, buy roasted nuts, buy a cover for your motorbike, and so on.

You can even buy animals, thanks to the people who strap cages full of critters to their moto and await buyers on a corner. There are the guys who pitch up with a cage of adorable, terrified puppies, who look so sad I am very tempted to buy one every time I drive by. There is the guy near one of my school campuses who sells hamsters, chipmunks, and various other rodents. Out in District 7, where I train for the H2H ride, motorbikes covered in cages offer birds of prey, parrots, ducks, chickens, fighting cocks, and numerous other species of bird.

Sit down at a food or drink stand in almost any neighborhood and you'll soon be offered hard-boiled quail eggs, peanuts, fruit, Malaysian flat bread, Vietnamese DVDs, photocopied books, neck massages, cigarette lighters shaped like pistols, and Trident gum, among other goods. There is even one guy down in Phaum Ngu Lao who simply sells one pair of sunglasses. A couple times I've been eating (at night) down there when he has ambled up and stuck the sunglasses in my face: Why on earth does he have just one pair? The agreed upon theory is that he simply steals them from tourists, and then sells them back to other tourists.

This easy availability of stuff on the sidewalk is one of the things I find most alluring about Vietnam, and Saigon in particular. The constant hustle and bustle of sidewalk capitalism lends vibrancy and energy to the streets, something you simply don't get in the U.S., where overzealous health and safety regulators have forced everything indoors. Any city where you can buy chocolate ice cream, a dog, a slab of beef, and a bottle of vodka within a stretch of a few blocks without stepping foot in an actual store simply has to be an exciting place to live.


  1. I heard the Facebook issue was actually an argument about tax, because Facebook advertise to Vietnamese users but don't pay any tax in Vietnam, because they don't have offices here. So even that's about money.

  2. Interesting...hadn't heard anything about that.

    1. I don't know how true it is, but I read about it here: http://www.saigonnezumi.com/2012/01/09/traffic-policing-in-vietnam/

      Sounds plausible.