The young woman selling roasted meat and noodles uses a thin wisp of smoke from the grill tied to the hack of her bicycle to attract customers while the merchant offering sweet sesame delights and dried heef snacks clink scissors together to make their presence known. The little hoy who trawls the streets on damp winter nights promising warm wonton soup beats a pair of bamboo clappers against each other but in the summer, when selling ice cream, he sounds a bicycle horn. And then there are the human cries that fill each city street with the promise of ever-present food.
In the cold of midwinter, as Hanoians snuggle deep under their blankets, a cry will occasionally pierce the protective shells of their homes: “Popcorn! Chestnuts! Who will buy them now?” It comes from a barefooted woman who carries on her head a basket filled with warm and tasty delights. She has covered it with sacking to keep her produce fresh. When will she empty her basket, filling instead her money pouch? And where will she go once she has ? Her life beyond that simple cry, “Popcorn! Chestnuts!” is a mystery.
In the summer, different snacks are on offer. Each stifling afternoon a woman will travel her daily route
carrying over her shoulder a pole from which two baskets hang. Her wares are homely, straight from a countryside kitchen: rice porridge with green beans perhaps, or black bean compote. The porridge is thick and yellow, the colour of lemons and a wild fruit known as cardania grandiflora which grows near ponds and is added to certain dishes to enhance their appeal. It is served with cane sugar for customers with a particularly sweet tooth. For others, crispy, snow-white salted eggs complement the porridge. As her customers settle down to eat, the vendor moves on in search of new sales and her voice fades into the distance. She will return later to collect payment and the bowl in which she has served her home-made delight.
Each morning, whether summer or winter, breakfast can be enjoyed on the hoof. Rice cakes, square or round, are offered with slices of sausage, known here as pate after the French chacuterie that was introduced to Vietnam during its colonial era. But ‘p’ is an alien sound for most Vietnamese and the French word pate has morphed over time: hawkers now shout out “ba te” to draw in clients. Noodle soup, or pho, is another breakfast favourite. Rice noodles are cooked in a broth and served with beef, buffalo or chicken meat. Lemon juice and chilli sauce give pho its zing. “Pho..o..o” shouts a vendor, his voice rising at the end of each cry as he wanders the streets and alleyways inviting clients to eat.
Another melodious cail comes from the sea worm vendor, who has learned her trade from her mother and her grandmother before that. To draw customers she cries: “Ai mua ruoi ra mua,” meaning “Who will buy my sea worms? Buy them now!” Often, she will sit on a street corner or near a busy market, hoping to cash in on passing trade rather than bear her crushing load on her shoulders.
Some hawkers need never raise their voice in song. The shape of their basket or a clear view of the goods they sell is enough to advertise their wares. In silence they walk. The woman selling new green rice never cries out: just one look at the pale she carries over her shoulder, with its distinctive curved end carved to imitate a sparrow-tailed boat of the Da River delta, will alert buyers to the fragrant shimmering grains she carries. Flower sellers have no need to shout either, their bright and cheerful produce is easy to spot. And the young girl who serves balls of sticky rice wrapped in paper walks as if strolling in a daydream, yet her load lightens rapidly as hungry people approach her.
Some ancient hawkers’ cries are dying out as society and its needs change. Where are the rice cake and dumpling hawkers who used to shout “Gio..o..o”?. And where are the itinerant chiropractors and masseurs who used to ply their trade with the cry: “Quat…at”.
Have their cries become muffled under the layers of moss arid history that now covet our roofs? Where is the old man whose powerful bari-tone used to cry out: “Blood pudding to relieve the body’s heat sold here,” or the man who raised his voice in song to advertise: “Iced lotus seed compote for sale”? And then there’s
the man who used to sell homemade ice cream that crunched between your teeth as you broke into uncut ice crystals. His long finger nails no longer level the top of the glass in which he served his creamy treat.
Do these people’s cries still linger somewhere?
If not, at least there is consolation in the fact that other sounds are tak-ing their place. The new peddlers are young men who ride rickety bicycles with neither bells nor brakes, searching the streets for sctap iron and broken electrical appliances. Their unceasing cry can be heard in every corner of the country: “Who will sell scrap iron?”
Other new cries are coming too, each one vital to the life of Vietnam’s streets. Where would we be without them? Life devoid of hawkers’ cries would be so desolate, so sad. They are a part of our history and a part of our lives.