Chợ cóc (Socialist Republic of Vietnam)
|Location: Socialist Republic of Vietnam|
|Author: Gertrud Hüwelmeier|
|Affiliation: Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin|
Original text by Gertrud Hüwelmeier
In the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, chợ cóc (lit. toad markets) are informal trading places that emerged starting in the late 1980s, after the political and economic reforms known as đôỉ mơí. The term chợ cóc refers to small amphibians, toads, which are considered unobtrusive with regard to their colour and can quickly disappear in the case of danger, just like the many small traders selling their wares in the informal marketplaces. Often located at backstreet crossings, these small street-corner markets are considered illegal by the communist government, and as a result are prone to unannounced inspection by the local authorities. Petty traders, most of whom are women from lower-class backgrounds or urban-rural migrants, are targets of government control, and they risk having their goods confiscated in the case of a sudden arrival of the authorities. Nonetheless, these small-scale traders, most of whose clients have been regular customers for years, will continue trading the next day, delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to people living in the neighbourhood.
Since the introduction of economic reforms, known as đổi mới, in 1986, a ‘socialist market economy’ has developed through shifting processes of mobility within cities and between cities and the countryside, resulting in new places for trading. The emergence of chợ cóc is linked to new economic activities taking place on a private basis, after the collapse of the planned economy in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the early 1980s. Even shortly before the collapse, poor peasants from the surrounding countryside would travel to the city to sell fresh produce, which was not allowed by the government. As predominantly women participate in trading in general (Leshkowich 2014), vending in informal markets is a highly gendered activity as well (Agergaard and Vu 2010). Small traders sell their goods in mountain regions (Bonnin and Turner 2014) and in cities (Turner and Schoenberger 2012) to earn the livelihood for their families. The increasing emergence of chợ cóc in urban Hanoi points to the difficult living conditions of poor families and a growing rural-urban migration in contemporary Vietnam (Endres and Leshkowich, forthcoming).
Informal markets in North Vietnam must be placed within the context of war damage and the shortage economy that started in the 1960s. During the Second Indochina War (1955-1975), known as the American War in Vietnam, the black market (chợ đen) flourished, in particular in Hanoi, the capital of communist North Vietnam. The black market existed parallel to the establishment of two kinds of government shops, one for political elites and cadre families, and the other one for ordinary people. Female shop assistants (mậu dịch viên) in the government-controlled shops were considered very powerful by many people as they reserved the better quality pieces of meat for special clients according to the strength of the beneficial relations (quan hệ) or connections they shared with them. The black market was ‘regulated’ via food ration cards, many of which were illegally exchanged for money in front of the government stores.
All female shop assistants lost their jobs when the government shops were closed as a result of the introduction of economic reforms in 1986. Based on their specialist knowledge of buying and selling, many former shop assistants became small traders (tiểu thương), with a number of the women running small stalls in covered marketplaces that had been built in French colonial times. Others opened privately owned retail shops in Hanoi, a type of business that had not existed during the war. Farmers from the surrounding countryside came to the city on a daily basis to sell vegetables, eggs and chickens in informal urban trading places, the chợ cóc. Whenever the police approached, the petty traders would quickly drop their goods into boxes and carry them to small backstreets (nhỏ), to hide and wait for the police to disappear.
Over the past 25 years, buying and selling in the chợ cóc has become increasingly popular in the neighbourhoods and backstreets of Hanoi. Thousands of trading families are involved in this economic activity, as they are unable to pay huge sums of money (the informal transfer fee to the previous ‘owner’ of the place), to receive the state-registered ‘right to use’ a trading place in one of the covered government-controlled markets. Apart from the small traders in the chợ cóc, an increasing number of female mobile traders (người bán rong) are selling products in the streets of Hanoi. Due to growing rural-urban migration, many women from the countryside sell their goods, which they buy in the central wholesale fruit market in the early morning, by roaming the city streets with the traditional pole on their shoulder and two baskets on each side (gánh rong). A number of mobile street vendors also walk around with bicycles, offering flowers, fruit and vegetables for sale from baskets on their bikes.
Distinct from mobile street vendors, petty traders in the informal marketplaces sit at backstreet crossings on small stools made of plastic. They either settle in the neighbourhood and sell wares in front of their houses or live elsewhere in the city and offer fruit and vegetables on the stairs of a house owner they know personally. These retailers start work around two o’ clock in the morning, transporting goods from the central fruit market in Hanoi, a wholesale market, to the chợ cóc to meet the needs of local people. From 5am until about 11am, the hustle and bustle of the chợ cóc, where employees from nearby offices and middle-class women have breakfast by consuming the traditional noodle soup (phở) or rice rolls, is characteristic for city life and part of the daily experience of urban residents. Many Hanoians do not like to buy fruit, vegetables and meat in the supermarkets (siêu thị), as they consider the supermarket goods to be expensive and not fresh. Moreover, customers cannot drive through supermarkets by motorbike, as they used to when shopping at the many traditional open-air markets in the past. In addition to housewives who visit the small markets every morning, shoppers on motorbikes pass through the informal markets and are therefore as much a part of urban mobility as the many traders (Truitt 2008).
The recent demolition of traditional marketplaces by the government in order to create a ‘beautiful, green and clean’ city resulted in the reconstruction of these localities (Endres 2014). However, the related relocation of market stalls contributed to an economic decline for a number of female traders, as they lost their regular customers. Simultaneously, the numbers of street vendors increased near the former traditional marketplaces and new chợ cóc emerged throughout the city. Due to processes of neoliberalization, including accelerating real estate development, investors constructed high-rise buildings on the grounds of former marketplaces, while the traditional markets were transposed to other localities while construction work was carried out. After the new buildings were completed, the vendors returned to the previous location, but now found themselves in air-conditioned basements, venues with no windows and no market atmosphere. Having lost most of their former customers as a result of moving and the new venue, many of the female traders gave up their ‘right to use’ the small market stalls in the new building, which both traders and clients consider ghost markets (Hüwelmeier 2017, forthcoming ), empty places in formerly bustling localities.
In recent times, tensions have emerged among various groups, in particular between small traders (tiểu thương) doing business in the new high-rise buildings, and the mobile and sitting traders in the surrounding chợ cóc. Even as tiểu thương wait for customers in the basement and hope for business, they simultaneously claim that the goods of the mobile and sitting street vendors are not controlled by the government, and complain that these vendors do not pay taxes and that they just disappear in the case of police raids. In contrast to the ‘safer’ trading conditions in the government-controlled markets, selling in the chợ cóc may become uncomfortable at certain times. In order to be protected, women selling in the chợ cóc (người bán lẻ) make arrangements with the owners of houses in backstreets to sell goods on their stairs. For the opportunity to sit and sell from the stairs, the women pay a small amount of money to the owner, and in return, the traders can feel safe in the case of police raids, as they can quickly carry the wares into the owner’s house. Newly arrived female street vendors selling goods on the pavement (người buôn bán vỉa hè), do not have any support from relatives or neighbours and are therefore targets of xã hôị đen (the black society; mafia), known to be threatening and violent and to put pressure on small traders, either by requesting money on a regular basis or fresh products daily. However, by expanding trading geographies and appropriating urban space, women are not simply victims of state policies, but simultaneously agents of change in an increasingly globalising Vietnam.
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- Truitt, A. 2008. ‘On the back of Motorbike: Middle-class mobility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’, American Ethnologist, 35(1): 3–19
- Endres, K. W. 2014. ‘Downgraded by Upgrading. Small-scale Traders, Urban Transformation and Spatial Reconfiguration in Post-reform Vietnam’, Cambridge Anthropology 32 (2), Autumn: 97–111
- Hüwelmeier, G. 2017. ‘Ghost markets and moving bazaars in Hanoi’s urban space’, in Kirsten Endres and Ann Marie Leshkowich (eds), Traders in Motion (forthcoming)