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Fragrant business

Incense dries on a village road

Doc La is one of the many craft villages in Vietnam where the entire village specialises in a particular product. There are, for example, silk villages, bronze villages, ceramic villages, woodworking villages, conical hat villages, rice-noodle villages and lacquer villages. Doc La’s craft is incense.
 
I went to Doc La on an excursion with Friends of Vietnam Heritage, a not-for-profit educational group of foreign and Vietnamese volunteers n Hanoi who aim to preserve and advance Vietnamese heritage and culture. 
 
I urge anyone visiting or living in Hanoi to get on their mailing list, as their walks, lectures, excusions and film screenings give a wealth of insights into Vietnamese life and culture. Their website is http://fvheritage.org/
 
In Doc La there are signs – and smells – of its main industry everywhere. Racks of incense sticks fill yards and line roads, as do long rows of bunches of incense sticks, fanned out like flowers in a vase. We mostly saw the long sticks of incense seen everywhere in pagodas and temples in Vietnam.

We also saw incense coils drying on racks in one front yard. These are another common sight in pagodas, suspended from the ceiling above worshippers’ heads.

The busiest time of year in in Doc La is the weeks before, during and after the Tet lunar new year celebrations, according to the VnnNews.net website (www.vnnnews.net), which carries an article about the village. At that time many people in this country of almost 90 million make an extra effort to pray to ancestors and other spirits – and that’s a lot of incense.

Incense powder in a bucket and sticks ready for coating

We visited three family businesses. At the first business the incense is applied to the sticks by hand. A woman, squatting on the floor, as do many workers in Vietnam, dipped a handful of sticks in a pot of glue and then in a pile incense powder, then shook off the powder before epeating the process two more times, as a fine mist of incense filled the air. Her only protection from this was a cotton scarf.

At the second workshop the procedure was mechanised but still labour-intensive. A worker fed the wooden sticks one by one into a machine that forced them through a cylinder filled with incense that had the consistency of dough. The sticks shot out the other side, coated and ready for drying.

Coating sticks by machine

In the front room of a third house we visited, the owner carefully printed yellow and red cellophane covers for packs of incense, one colour at a time, on a simple silk-screen printing press.

On the way back to the bus some of us bought packs of incense from one local producer for 8000 dong a pack. I discovered during the journey back to Hanoi that we had paid a heftier “foreigner’s tax” than usual: a Vietnamese friend on the same excursion told me he had helped some of our fellow day-trippers to buy incense for just 2000 dong a pack. Still, even 8000 dong is only 45 cents.

 

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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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