Business on a bicycle

Small-business niches are quickly filled in Hanoi. Anywhere that potential customers gather you will find a stall selling drinks or food, a roadside cobbler, a roaming shoeshine operator.

While waiting for a bus recently I watched a woman set up her business selling drinks next to the bus stop. She turned up on a bicycle which had a small, low plastic table strapped cross-ways and upended on the back behind the seat. The rest of her business inventory was packed on top of it; the ubiquitous kindergarten-size plastic stools for customers to sit on, cans and bottles of drinks, glasses and a small brush broom with a bamboo handle. This last item she used to sweep clear dust and debris from the two or three square metres of pavement her business would occupy for a few hours.

Such scenes would be repeated hundreds of times across Hanoi each day, f not thousands.

A cobbler near my office works on about two square metres of pavement under a tarpaulin while breathing in the traffic fumes from a busy road. . He has no workbench, sitting on the ground as he skilfully mends shoes with a handful of simple tools. He could easily pack his business on to the back of the bicycle at the end of each day.

Another familiar scene is the business conducted from a bike, a cart or even from a couple of cane baskets. Women wheel bicycles fitted with frames from which hangs household products, such as mops, baskets and buckets. Other women push carts about the size of a wheel barrow, also fitted with frames that are crowded with clothes or shoes. Men sell hardware displayed on bicycles.

I suspect that all these micro-business people work not only for little money but also for long hours. The street I live on is unusually quiet for Hanoi with no through traffic, and I have seen street vendors having a nap on the footpath there, next to their goods.

Some businesses take up even less room. Women sell fruit, vegetables or flowers from large shallow cane baskets attached to the rear of their bicycles, or from two of the baskets suspended from bamboo poles balanced on their shoulders, fore to aft.

Youths go from cafe to cafe carrying rags, a spray bottle of water and polish as they look for shoes to shine for about 5000 dong (30 cents) a pair. I recently met a youth who is now being assisted with a proper education by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. He used to be one of the shoe shiners, and made around one US dollar a day.

Then there are the street restaurants, all surrounded by those tiny plastic stools.

Some sell only drinks, such as the one that set up near my bus stop, or the ones that offer sugar-cane juice, freshly squeezed on the spot.

Others sell food, and generally only the one dish, such as banh mi, a bread roll with egg or meat, pho bo, a beef noodle soup, or bun cha, a soup with barbecued pork and pork meatballs. The dishes are cooked on small coal-fired braziers. The coal comes pressed into squat cylinder shapes about 25 centimetres long, which fit neatly inside each brazier – and, of course are also sold from bicycles.

See more photos on Flickr of street businesses.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Business on a bicycle

  1. Margaret SImons

    Great insight, Jeannie. How’s things? We are in the process of booking our travel later this year. We plan to be your way in second half of November. Any chance of sussing out some cheap family accommodation for us? We would probably stay 2-3 days. Cheers Meg

  2. Marian

    Nice work Jeannie. Really captures the flavour of the place.

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