Saigon sidewalks both gritty and humanizing: professor

Foreign tourists are seen at a sidewalk coffee in downtown Ho Chi Minh City in this file photo. - Tuoi Tre
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Annette M. Kim, associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, has shared her thoughts about sidewalks in Ho Chi Minh City.

Kim, who published a book titled Sidewalk City: Re-mapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City in 2015, dicussed via email with Tuoi Tre News amid the ongoing ‘sidewalk clearing campaign’ in the southern metropolis.

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* Have you ever walked around the city’s pavements, or eaten or hung out with friends at a sidewalk food store in Ho Chi Minh City?

Yes, of course. I wrote a whole book about it! Here’s an excerpt: “When I walked out of my house, in order to get to the rest of the city I had to go down a narrow alley of houses, turn right at the corner and walk down a wider, slightly crooked alley that led to Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street.

“Ho Chi Minh City’s sidewalks communicated a tale of human condition, unlike what most other cities told me, something both gritty and humanizing.”

* Have you met any trouble while walking on the sidewalks here?

No, not really.  One time during the week before Tet, two guys on a motorcycle rode up onto the sidewalk and tried to grab my purse.

However, I held on tight and they couldn’t get it, although I fell on the ground and got a concussion.

But a kindly restaurant manager took me to his back kitchen to help wash the dirt off my face and applied tiger balm [smile].

* As an expert who has researched about Ho Chi Minh City sidewalks for a long time, how do you feel about the strong will of Ho Chi Minh City administration on ‘reclaiming’ the sidewalks?

I think it’s pretty amazing and great that the clearance has included the removal of cars and government offices that have taken sidewalk space.

These actions, which show that nobody is above the law, is a very positive thing and I would imagine is the reason for the popular support of this current campaign.

* Would the ‘sidewalk clearing’ campaign influence livelihoods of sidewalks as many people sell things on sidewalks, or use sidewalks as their storefronts to earn living?

Yes, it will impact livelihoods, especially if it spreads to the other city districts.

In the reports I last read, the informal economy employs roughly a third of the population and also the food supply.

In cities around the world, migrants to the city eke out a living in public space, such as sidewalks, because they can’t afford rent.

Given such large numbers of people who need to make a living, the city will need to grapple with where these people will go and how will they make a living.

Authorities in District 3 request local vendors to keep their business operations from occupying sidewalks. Photo: Tuoi Tre

* You said livelihoods of sidewalks is what make Ho Chi Minh City ‘alive’ and attractive, but occupying and selling on sidewalk just conflicts with the city’s sidewalk clearing plan?

Finding ways to allow and regulate street vending is important.

I shared that not only is it an important means of livelihood as I mentioned above, but I’ve also presented research to government offices that Ho Chi Minh City’s sidewalk life culture is one of the most notable assets that foreign tourists mention and like about Vietnam.

Vietnam is wonderfully different from places like Singapore. So, preserving the city’s sidewalk life culture would be smart from a purely GDP point of view.

And I also find wide popular support for allowing lower-income fellow citizens to make a living through vending.

Here in Vietnam, sidewalk vending is a normal and convenient part of life. I convened an international global street vending conference and found that Vietnam is exceptionally democratic in that regard.

The question then becomes how to share this precious sidewalk space.

It should vary from place to place as some sidewalks are wide enough to support sharing while others not.

Also, the needs are different at different times of the day. Many people still grab breakfast on the sidewalk before going to work.

* Planning sidewalk has long been discussed, with many experts also giving their suggestions, but sidewalks have remained messy as they are still illegally occupied, so what do you think is/are the reason(s)?

Sidewalk vending largely remains because it is an economic necessity for livelihood – until people can find alternative forms of employment, they will try to survive with things like vending. And the activity remains informal because there is no way to become formal.

For a while in 2010, districts were told to make a list of particular sections of sidewalks on which one could hypothetically apply for a one month license to vend.

We mapped all the selected sidewalks and they did not make sense in terms of they were not places where one could make a profitable business and they did not connect to anything.

And a one month license is too burdensome – other cities usually have longer periods such as one year. I think these emanate from an urban planning vision in Vietnam that still sees Singapore as the model of what it wants to become.

Messiness is an enforcement issue. Enforcement for something like vending really comes down to a very local negotiation between the ward, the neighbors, and the vendors.

And actually, I’d like to say that I’ve also seen very conscientious vendors who carefully stay out of the way and sweep everything up and leave just before the store opens.
They do this to help legitimize their being there, to keep the building residents and local police tolerating them.

And I’ve also seen immense empathy where residents try to help vendors, giving them free water, electricity, and storing their goods overnight for a small fee. Here people know that vendors are fellow human beings.

Another reason is that the ward is understaffed. I read an editorial blaming the inaction of the ward but that seemed unfair.

I heard at a conference that the southern part of the city [Phu My Hung] has more enforcement police than the entire city.

Given the 11 million+ people in the city and the large number of vendors, it is an almost impossible task to eradicate it entirely.

-Tuoi Tre News

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