Pham Thi Hau and the street vendors of Hanoi

For Pham Thi Hau, a street vendor in Hanoi, work goes well beyond selling brooms. She helps migrant workers learn about their rights, social and health benefits that are their due, gender equity, and how to raise their voices to help others.

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It's 8 p.m., and 18 women have gathered outside of their boarding house under a bright street lamp. All are street vendors in the hectic, commerce-filled streets of Hanoi, and they have spent a grueling day in constant motion peddling an array of goods—potatoes, brooms, cakes, and flowers.

The women are vulnerable on almost every front—poor, socially isolated, and too often subjected to harassment and violence. Though exhausted after their long day, the women are on time, ready for the self-help meeting they have been anticipating for weeks. It has been more than a month since they last convened. Their excitement is palpable.

An improbable leader calls out to assemble the group. Phạm Thị Hậu has endured long years of poverty, domestic violence, widowhood, and a constant struggle to earn enough to support her school-age daughter. Hậu’s near-constant smile and cherubic face belie her age and hard life. Just two years ago, she was shy, ashamed of her appearance, and too embarrassed to speak in public. Tonight, Hậu steps easily into her role as facilitator, thanks in part to her experience in the STONES project—an Oxfam project funded by the Belgian government. She leads one of 17 self-help groups launched through the project, which works with street vendors and scrap collectors to give them the knowledge and skills to enjoy a healthy, secure life. Managed locally by the non-profit Institute for Development & Community Health—LIGHT, the project has reached about 4,000 people—with the women in particular now safer, more independent, and closer to being a legitimized asset of the economy.

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Hậu has no need for notes or assistance and is unfazed by the occasional motor bike that roars through the meeting.

“We’ve all had a long day of walking,” she says in her easy manner, evoking appreciative laughter. “Let’s start our meeting with a game!” Her spunk is contagious. The “sisters,” as they call each other, are full of pep, their mutual affection unmistakable.

She asks the women to form a circle. “Let’s walk in a circle and rub the shoulders and back of the woman in front of us.” Women aged 30 to 70 bound up and eagerly join in. They switch directions, and their laughter fills the air.

By 2019, about 5 percent of Vietnam’s population will be migrants who have moved from rural to urban life, as these women did. They have left their families behind to earn extra money to send back. They know little about their rights as workers, city ways, and that violence against them is unacceptable. They are unaware of how to use social services or banks, how to manage pressure from the police, or how to take care of their health.

The self-help discussion moves seamlessly from shared stories about interactions with the police, spousal relationships, health insurance, road safety, and singing.

This is one of the only opportunities they have to socialize and share information about improving their lives. “We are as familiar as family,” said one vendor.

 “When these women can escape from poverty, it will bring a brighter future for the whole country,” says Nguyễn Thu Giang, Deputy Director of LIGHT.

Hậu’s story

Hậu, 37, walks at least a dozen miles every day, deftly weaving her cart through streams of motor bikes and cars, amid a cacophony of beeps and horns. 

Ambling through central Hanoi in her canvas loafers, her blue floppy hat protects from a sun that fights through the cloudy, 25°C, 70 percent humidity day. Other merchants are on the move too, selling fresh cut pineapple, dried fish, mushrooms, fried cakes.

Much of her warmth exudes from the bond between her and the companion at her side, her uncle, Phùng Bá Nghĩa. Blinded by a war injury, he has walked with her every day for 12 years. Long a broom-maker himself at the Blind Association in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District, it was his idea that Hậu sell brooms and share the profit with the association. He moves confidently with a cane in one hand and the other tethered to her cart. His clouded eyes are usually covered with sunglasses, and a grizzled chin sprinkled with grey hairs is the only sign of his age. He loves the walk. It’s so much easier on his body than sitting in the factory making the brooms.

He is her front man, periodically calling out in his loud deep voice, “Buy some brooms? Please buy a broom!”

Hậu’s four-wheel stand-up cart holds about 20-30 brooms, most of which she will sell that day. She offers a half-dozen kinds: short-handled bamboo scrubbers for pots and cookers, long-handled street sweepers, small dusters for knick-knacks and altars, softer brooms for ceilings. Few can afford pricy vacuum cleaners in this neighborhood, and brooms are in constant use against the urban grit and litter. One of the larger ones lasts just a matter of weeks with heavy use.

Today, sales are brisk; Hậu sells about four brooms an hour. Midway through her morning she receives a special order from the Hanoi Printing Company, which produces the Hanoi Moi (New Hanoi), the daily city newspaper. They only order brooms from her. She changes course and heads over. With their purchase of a dozen brooms, Hậu’s smile broadens. It makes up the lion’s share of her €5 revenue that day, which she and her uncle will split.

Hậu, who left school after the ninth grade, is raising her 13-year-old daughter Phạm Thảo Linh in a cement boarding house deep within a maze of alleys and walkways along the Red River. Hậu’s husband died in a motorbike accident shortly after they were married in 2004, when their daughter was just 8 months old. Shunned by her late husband’s family in this male-oriented culture, she and her daughter moved to Hanoi.

Sitting today with guests on a large mattress that almost consumes the 3.5 by 3 meter room; she sadly nods at the recollection of her early married life when her husband beat her, especially when he was drunk. Until STONES, she didn’t know that she is entitled to better treatment. Other boarders pass through her room to go upstairs to a shared, rudimentary kitchen and bathroom.

A journey of discovery

Hậu learned about STONES from the communist party’s Women’s Union, which works to elevate women as equal players in society and the economy. At first, she was intimidated at the prospect, but decided to try the training.

“When she first started with STONES, she was shy, even embarrassed. She sat apart from the others,” recalls Giang of LIGHT. Hậu would wait until everyone had sat down, then she’d settle in at the back of the room, she adds.

After a few meetings, something clicked during an impromptu group activity. Because so many of the women were self-conscious about their appearance, STONES posed a challenge: Can you help your ‘sisters’ make their hair look its best? Hậu took to it immediately, Giang recalls. “Hậu told the others: ‘your hair is no different than the bristles of a broom! You can tie it up just like I do with my brooms!”

Her inner leader had begun to emerge.

She started volunteering as a peer educator and assumed leadership of the self-help and other group meetings.

I educate my community on vendors’ legislation, workers’ rights, reproductive rights, and traffic safety. This way we avoid harassment from the police, like unnecessary attacks or the repercussions of [unknowingly] breaking the law.

Pham Thi Hau
Street vendor in Hanoi

She is one of 17 leaders who are responsible for disseminating information to their groups. All 200 women participants are expected to reach out to at least three others to share the information, enabling engagement with about 600 women. This not only helps LIGHT reach its goals, but allows the women to continually build their skills and self-confidence.

Almost embarrassed, Hậu confides: “At the beginning of a meeting, everyone says to me, ‘Oh, here comes the teacher.’

She is especially proud of her role in mediating with the police, which has produced immediate results. Officers no longer confiscate the merchandise of a vendor who has not followed the rules: instead they simply impose a fine. Vendors now have a better understanding of the rules, and overall relations with the police have improved, says Hậu. She also advocates for migrants’ rights with government representatives at all levels.

“I feel confident and stronger. I have much more information.”

One piece of information had momentous impact on the women: they were entitled to health insurance. With STONES’ help more than 130 women were able to enroll, persevering through cumbersome paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles.

For LIGHT’s Giang, witnessing the enthusiasm of women who obtained health insurance: “That’s the big prize for us.”

Shoring up these efforts, Oxfam is working with local groups like LIGHT to continue to strengthen advocacy networks on workers’ rights and help improve the legal framework for social protection for migrant workers.

Self-improvement spawns community improvement

About 40 to 50 percent of migrants in Hanoi are women. Fifty eight percent of them work in the formal sector, in such places as garment and textile factories, and 42 percent of them are informal workers like Hậu who earn their living as domestic workers and street vendors. A slow day on the street means dinner is meager or a school fee isn’t paid. She and her migrant peers are socially and economically marginalized and nearly unacknowledged by society. That was the primary concern of the STONES project, which just completed its third and final year.

“To change that reality,” says Giang, “we first have to build migrant workers’ capacity. When they have the knowledge and skills, they can use their voice to talk with authorities.”

The STONES name challenges the often-negative image of street workers in Vietnamese society.

“These women are like the quiet paving stones in the city that we often don’t notice or even look at,” says Trân Lê Linh, Program officer at LIGHT. “But they make huge contributions—especially when brought together—to the urban economy and also to their hometowns.”

“It’s not just about individuals. It’s also about setting up a system where women have a role in advocacy, working with policy makers,” adds Giang.

These women are like the quiet paving stones in the city that we often don’t notice or even look at. But they make huge contributions—especially when brought together—to the urban economy and also to their hometowns.

Trân Lê Linh
Program officer at LIGHT

A long road

When Hậu was born, Vietnam was in a state of crisis. The year was 1980, with the country struggling to unify after the war with the United States. People were hungry and devastated by the war. More than a million fled by boat to uncertain futures. As Prime Minister Pham Van Dong said at the time, "Yes, we defeated the United States, but now we are a poor undeveloped nation and barely have enough to eat.”

By the mid-eighties, the government had begun to welcome a market economy with a private sector and encouraged foreign investment. The country who’s per capita GDP was €92 in the 1980s today has one of the strongest economies in Asia with the GDP reaching €1,900 per capita. The informal economy makes up for about 20 percent of Vietnam’s GDP, according the government. Aid has helped catalyze this economic transformation, and is now far outweighed by the economic returns brought by the strong trade relationship between Vietnam and the European Union, the US, Canada, Australia, and other Asian countries.

Hậu and her sister vendors’ journey mirrors the country’s trajectory. Before the STONES project, Hậu recalls pensively, “I was alone, only me and my daughter against the world. I only knew about myself.” Today, Hậu and her peers share a dream for their futures: to become legitimized players in the economy—even to own their own shops.

As tonight’s meeting ends, the women linger, chatting and joking. Only the darkness confirms that night has fallen. Motor bikes continue to whiz along narrow paths between high cement walls, toddlers squirm in parents’ arms, and boys on bicycles careen down alleys lined with open air barber shops, cafes, and groceries.

The night is breezy, warm, and humid. Lights from skyscrapers across the Red River glimmer in the distance.

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Additional credits: Written and reported by Daphne Northrop. Lead image shot by Coco McCabe/Oxfam America. Phạm Thị Hậu and her uncle, Phùng Bá Nghĩa, selling brooms on their daily route in Hanoi.

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