When I was growing up in Canada, we had a large contingent of street vendors — one each for eggs, bread, milk, cheese, household mops and brushes (The Fuller Brush man!), fresh meats and cold cuts, shoe repairs, and even a knife-sharpening man. I can still hear that knife-sharpener announcing his arrival on our block, jingling a bell whilst pulling his cart down the street.

Those vendors knew every household and which items each family preferred, truly great times for a little kid. 

Just about the only commercial activities seen in those neighbourhoods nowadays are the courier services and Post Office that roar around the streets in their delivery vans. Those street merchants were gradually eliminated, replaced by supermarket chains, swallowed up by mega-corporations, or supplanted by an Internet website.

Hardly the hub of human interaction it once was, is it? 

Here in Vietnam, it’s another story, a heavenly blast from the past. Many tasks are still done using traditional methods with independent dealers zipping around town, products in tow, shuffling in and out of businesses all day.

The neighbourhood beer joint has an endless stream of delivery people. Those of us privileged enough to get prime real estate at the ‘Regulars Table’ in the kitchen get a first-hand view of all the goings-on, plus dibs on any interesting grub that’s cooked up. Despite my primitive Vietnamese language skills, I’m valued as the token White Guy, purveyor of entertainment and foreign trivia for the locals. 

One day while knocking back a cold one, it suddenly dawned on me that there is a hell of a lot of traffic in and out the place, so I started to take notes.

The chips sales guy (the crunchy kind known as crisps in the UK and Australia, not the deep fried variety referred to as chips) and others pop in and out delivering eggs, beer, milk, cigarettes, household cleaning supplies, napkins and toilet paper, large, circular rice sheets adorned with sesame seeds ready to be grilled, big bags of ice, then soft and energy drinks, which are handled by different delivery people (no idea why).

We can tally up no less than eleven vendors without even working up a sweat.

Add to that people going to the bathroom, serving and cooking staff, those outside taking a phone call on the quiet (“I’ll be home in 10 minutes, promise!”), and you’ve got the equivalent of Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City on a busy holiday weekend.

Soy milk also has two vendors — one that delivers cartons of the plain version, and another stationed outside with the turbocharged version ‘sua duu nanh,’ made with peanuts and pandan leaves and served warm from a pot. I’m oblivious as to why someone with soy milk is parked outside a beer parlor, since the two seem mutually exclusive. Can you imagine anything more icky than a warm soy milk after a bunch of beers? 

Then comes the thousand-year-old egg vendor. The person sells eggs black all the way through featuring marbled swirls of brown and yellow, coated with crumbs and fermented for a couple of weeks, either outside in the sun or next to the warm air expelled by the beer fridge motor, as if we needed another thing to clutter up the kitchen.

Those eggs — usually the duck variety — are smooth as silk, rich, delicious with teeny-weeny dried shrimp, red chilis, and pickled spring onions on top, all washed down with a cold beer of course.

A couple of stinky items also have dedicated delivery people: the sun-dried squid is so pungent that the aroma fills up the entire bar in seconds when being warmed up in the microwave. 

That makes me wonder what the deliveryman smells like at the end of the day:

“Honey, I’m home!”

“I know, there’s a tail wind so I could smell you coming down the street.”

Then comes the clear local rice wine which is transferred by the deliveryman from a large container into 500-milliliter bottles for drinking on the go. That potion emits a wretched manure-like stench — little wonder everyone who drinks it looks like they’re one step from the next world. 

‘Cha lua’ rolls of pork sausage (eaten with pepper and raw garlic) are always on hand, managed by a lady stationed across the street and her partner in crime — a ‘banh mi’ vendor parked on the sidewalk with a large, brown bamboo basket. ‘Cha lua’ and ‘banh mi’ go together like cookies and milk, so it’s clever marketing to have the duo side by side. 

That’s 18 separate vendors and their wares, and no doubt there are some that I’m not aware of. Goods are schlepped in, shelves stocked, invoices paid, all amid the din of customers hollering out orders and whooping it up.

Customers carry on drinking and eating unfazed — we lean to the side like a bobsled team to let the vendor and goods squeeze past, crouching so another can place his goods high on the shelf. When the beer deliveryman shows up, the entire table has to stand so he can trudge through the clutter with five boxes of beer on his back. 

Or maybe we stand at attention to salute the arrival of the golden nectar? I just follow the crowd, content that he delivers faster than we can drink.

After that enlightening experience, I couldn’t wait to hike over to my favourite coffee shop to see if the same kerfuffle of vendors and products was the flavour of the day. 

I’d never taken particular notice of the hubbub, but there is also an endless flow of delivery people, so due to every square centimeter of the shop being utilized, customers are continuously asked to shift over, lift up benches, move stools, open cupboards, and stand up to let them squeeze by.

I was only able to identify 10 dealers, but that coffee shop is the size of a shoe box, so they can create quite a log jam, especially if several turn up simultaneously. 

First up is the yogurt sold in those cute little jars found in most cafés. You can hear the clinking of the steel spoons inside the glass jars around the café as people try to scrape off the last drop.

Yogurt man and cute little jars

Yogurt man and cute little jars

The milk and energy drink guys are the same ones that service the beer joint, but the coffee guy is obviously different since the bar has only yucky ‘3 in 1’ packets usually purchased by desperate hotel guests. 

The coffee guy in the café delivers interesting unmarked packages of local robusta. Never mind the lack of brand details, sometimes ignorance truly is bliss, and the coffee is tasty.

This one could be a red herring: there is a laundry guy who frequents the café, armed with freshly washed clothes folded and wrapped in cellophane and plastic. Since the café has no linen accessories (nor any paper napkins for that matter, just a few dirty old cloths) he may not be there on official business, just popping in for a quick drink during his rounds.

Then come the food vendors, the ‘banh mi’ lady down the street making several trips with sandwiches and ‘xiu mai’ meatballs bathed in chili sauce with bread on the side. You can hear the hissing sounds people make around the room as they try to tone down the spicy chili sauce that comes with the ‘xiu mai.’ The soup people come from all directions delicately balancing their wares — ‘mi Quang’ from the next block, then ‘bun bo’ and ‘bun rieu cua’ from the stall around the corner.

The brigade of lottery ladies, who usually ignore me when we bump into each other on the street, come in grinning from ear to ear as they move between the tables and stools, eager to flog their tickets.

The coffee shop makes ‘sua dau nanh’ from scratch, so the soy milk, peanuts, and pandan leaves are delivered in one load, carefully packaged separately.

And the last shipment is arguably the most important of all: a delivery guy with a load of clean burning biomass contraptions reminiscent of thick, blackened, charcoal honeycombs the diameter of a dinner plate, which are tossed in a modified old can and used to heat water for drinks.

Old can with biomass heating fuel

Old can with biomass heating fuel

In just two small businesses, we have a whopping twenty-eight delivery people and dealers, not taking into account that multiple soup and lottery people provide similar products. What a joy to behold!

Let’s hope this style of business lasts a very long time in Vietnam. It may be a bit cluttered but it sure is entertaining.