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Squeaky clean

15 Sep 2017

Earlier this year, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) authorities undertook a campaign to clean up the city’s image. The campaign, which ran from March 2017 to May 2017, was aimed at ridding the city’s colourful and chaotic pavements of peddlers and vehicles. HCMC Vice Chairman of District 1, Doan Ngoc Hai, led the city’s officials in the effort to discard everything found on the pavements, including those on busy tourist streets such as Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham. It was a non-negotiable proposition, he said.

With more than 300 years of cultural heritage and socio-economic development the campaign has impacted residents and the way they live, including their livelihoods. To make a living, for example, food hawkers will encroach on the city’s pavements, with the vast majority of them earning less than VND 3 million (US $132) per month compared to the national income average of US$ 180. Fluctuations in supply and demand of seasonal goods are a significant challenge for vendors. Yet another is the daily onslaught of the city’s motorcycles, which ride along the pavements, forcing pedestrians on to the busy streets. Cars belonging to government officials and diplomats also park across the pavements, further contributing to traffic congestion.

The campaign saw the removal of government security posts, the office of the State Bank and even the stairs of the 100-year-old Saigon Theatre. The clean-up slowed most business activities along the pavements and the economic or opportunity cost of the campaign is yet to be calculated.

Photo Credit: Infonet.vn



The Saigon campaign was similar to the one carried out in Thailand in October 2016 when it sought to reclaim the pavements near major tourist attractions around the Grand Palace and Huai Kwang Market extending from Pracha Uthit to Pracha Songkhro Roads. City authorities also went on to clear Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road, the so-called ‘golden mile’ of the city’s tourist areas. The street vendors were moved, although this still requires constant monitoring by the city’s municipal police to ensure the streets remain uncongested. Although tourists have complained that the streets had lost their appeal, residents have welcomed the absence of hawkers, peddlers and motorcycle taxis along the pavements. Nevertheless, the government went on to refine the program to allow pavement food stores to operate on the streets or in the alleys provided they do not interfere with pedestrian access.

Photo Credit: news.zing.vn

Sixty years ago, Singapore decided to clean up its pavements and activities that were carried out along the city’s streets. To retain the culture of the local hawker scene and help the affected peddlers, designated ‘food streets’ were created for locals and tourists to enjoy. The streets are closed to traffic at certain times, which enables people to eat in comfort as well as walk around freely. The government also built markets and issued licenses to street vendors, which meant they could now operate legally. Vendors are required to comply with food safety standards and are tasked with maintaining a clean and safe environment. If this approach is studied further and applied in HCMC, the authors believe it would spice up city life as well as bring about positive change in the life of residents.

Singapore also developed an efficient transport system, tightened measures for private vehicle ownership, and made the well-connected public bus and train system a key means of local transportation. Most residents live in apartments and shop in malls, unlike those in HCMC, where residents live in houses and use their properties as offices, restaurants and stores. This sees the vehicles of residents parked along the pavements, contributing to congestion. The city’s weak public transportation system and constant housing construction also means it will take a very long time to clear the pavements.


Singapore and Thailand have developed appropriate policies that have been refined to reflect adjustments needed in their respective communities. Learning from their experiences as well as developing suitable negotiation and management strategies to engage street vendors will boost HCMC’s socio-economic development as well as change the shopping behaviour of its residents. Instead of prohibiting street vendor activities, for example, HCMC authorities should consider creation of designated areas for food stalls to allow them to operate hygienically and safely. This not only helps in urban management and planning of the city landscape, it also allows the mostly immigrant stall owners to make a living.

The campaign did not receive much support from owners of stores and street vendors. Their businesses slowed due to the absence of parking spaces and after the campaign was over, several businesses resumed their activities along the pavements. For its part, the government could have softened the approach it used in the campaign, as well as given affected businesses sufficient prior notification of the clean up in order not to take them by surprise. Further, in order to achieve a better outcome, local authorities should have also considered involving business owners in the process in order to obtain different or innovative approaches. One example might be to allow street vendors to rent a site on the pavement to sell their products during designated hours. This would have seen all parties enjoy the best of both worlds: sustainable commerce and clean streets.


Authors: Phuong V. Nguyen is a lecturer at International University, VNU-HCMC. Tran Thi Ngoc Vo is currently studying for a bachelor of arts at International University, VNU-HCMC.




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