HO CHI MINH CITY - Street food, for which Vietnam is rightly famous, can be a financial boon to local communities, helping many people, especially the poor, increase their income.
However, hygiene at stalls has been a problem for years.
Seeking a solution that would benefit both sides, the city about two years ago launched a pilot programme in Binh Tan District and District 3 that provides food safety training and equipment to vendors in two wards.
The results have generally been positive, and the city has strengthened measures in recent months.
Vu, a resident of Binh Thanh District, stops at a street stall every morning to buy bread filled with chicken meat, pate and crunchy pickled vegetables for a quick and cheap breakfast.
“I never tire of the food,” Vu said, adding that he had once frequented a few favourite stalls until he suffered a few bouts of diarrhoea. After that, he began to be more selective, and since then, has had no problems.
Nearly everyone in the city has sampled street food at one time or another.
More than 95 per cent of the city’s residents have eaten street food, according the Nutrition Centre.
Foreigners are interested in street eats as well. The American magazine Food & Wine has listed HCM City one of the world’s best cities for street food.
Cary Vanderventer, a Canadian tourist, who visited Vietnam recently, said her favourite food on the street was com tam (broken rice), bun bo Hue (Hue-style spicy beef noodle soup), and banh xeo (Vietnamese crepes with shrimp, bean sprouts and crunchy garnishes).
“They’re wonderful,” she said, adding that she liked to eat at street stalls instead of restaurants.
Ngo Thi My Anh, a specialist in charge of hospitality and restaurants at the city’s Department of Tourism, said that international press often wants to report about street food in the country.
Independent livelihoodFor the poor, HCM City is a magnet. It offers an opportunity to make a living, and one way is by setting up a stand on the street.
With just a small investment, food vendors can choose their location and work independently.
Du Phuoc Tan, a researcher at the HCM City Institute for Development Studies, told Cong An Nhan Dan (People Police) newspaper that women aged 36-55 accounted for more than 63 per cent of food vendors.
Half of the women are migrants with a low academic level.
Pham Thi Hue, 51, of the south-central province of Binh Dinh, moved to the city to sell food as a vendor more than 20 years ago.
“At that time, I was teaching at my hometown and could not raise my two children on my income. My husband’s income from farming was very low. So we left my hometown for the city,” she said.
In the past, she and her husband sold glutinous rice balls on their bicycles in the neighbouring areas of District 6. Now, they sell fruit.
The money they make is enough to support their family and their children’s education.
Today, younger people, including students, are looking to the street as a way of earning money.
Le Anh Duc, a student at the city’s University of Economics, has opened a pavement stall to sell milk tea in front of his house.
“I want to try to use what I learn at the university to do business. I also want to earn some income,” he said.
According to the Health Department’s Food Safety and Hygiene Division, more than 20,000 people have registered to sell street food.
Of these, 1,400 have failed to meet food safety and hygiene regulations.
Nguyen Thi Huynh Mai, deputy head of the food safety division, said that many vendors had not been trained in food hygiene and were not aware of food safety regulations.
Strict managementThe deputy head of the city’s Health Department, Nguyen Huu Hung, told local agencies in January to strengthen management and strictly impose fines on vendors and small street stalls that continue to violate regulations.When someone sets up a street stall, they must ensure food safety and hygiene.
They have to follow 10 criteria. This includes having a hygienic selling place, covering and storing food hygienically, and wearing gloves. They should also have tools to pick up food.
Local agencies offer guidance and inspect stalls frequently, Hung said.
Fines are seldom imposed, but violators are given warnings.
“Selling food on the street is a long-standing feature of our culture. It is difficult to get rid of it. It’s important that we manage it and ensure hygienic food for customers. This is the responsibility of city agencies, including the health sector,” Hung said.
Each city district has been encouraged to select one or two wards to set up a standard management model of selling food on the street.
This has occurred in Ward 2 in District 3 and An Lac A Ward in Binh Tan District. Hung said the programme should be expanded throughout the district.
Pilot programmeIn November 2014, the people’s committees at the ward level in Binh Tan District and District 3 began working with the city’s Food Safety and Hygiene Division to pilot the programme on forcing street food sellers to obey 10 criteria to ensure safety.
Mai said the street food sellers were given standard dustbins, face masks, gloves and other items.
They also attended training courses on maintaining food safety and hygiene during processing and selling, and were required to have health examinations.
The city gave the two wards several measuring tools that can rapidly test the safety of food.
By the end of 2015, an increased rate of sellers among the total of 203 street food vendors and shops in the two wards were obeying the 10 criteria, Mai said.
Total funding for the plot programme is 30 million dong (US$1,300) per year for each ward.
With a total of 322 wards, it is difficult to expand the model because of a lack of funds. The districts, Hung said, would have to try to manage without the city’s assistance.
In March, Tran The Thuan, the chairman of the People’s Committee in District 1, said that a pilot plan for street food vendors was being carried out to ensure urban beauty and traffic safety and order in HCM City.
Under the plan, vendors gather on Nguyen Van Chiem and Ton Duc Thang streets near Bach Dang Wharf and sell food from 6am to 8am, and 11am to 1pm.
Le Thi Tu Uyen, founder of the project 5000 Portable Bread Booths for Women to Earn a Sustainable Living on the Pavement, said that the city’s plan was improper for vendors.
Phung Thi Hoi, a beverage vendor in District 1, said that selling at the designated time could not ensure an income for her family.
Le Dieu Anh of the Cities Alliance, a global partnership for poverty reduction and promotion of sustainable growth of cities, said the local government should develop solutions not only to promote urban civility but also to help food vendors earn a living.
“Non-government organisations and non-profit enterprises will try to present some solutions to help the local government solve this problem effectively,” Anh said.
US$1 = 22,000 Vietnamese dong as of 5/18/2016 via oanda.com