Saigon’s Moveable Feast

It’s been raining here the last two mornings. Normally, mornings are clear and the rain comes later. But these two mornings have highlighted a Saigon phenomenon. Rain or shine, morning in Saigon has a unique feature; it’s the breakfast cart brigade. These are the portable aluminum and glass carts on wheels that set up on sidewalks all over town. There must be 10 between my apartment and my office, a mere two and a half blocks.

The parade starts about 3 or 4am when they leave their overnight storage spots. Most of the carts are pushed by the women who operate them. It looks especially dreary in the rain, but they do it wet or dry. Once they get their spot the carts remain stationary for a few hours. Some of them make morning deliveries. Some of the goods are carried on foot (like those carried by this woman), but most of the activity involves rolling stock.
I don’t know where they keep the carts when they’re not in use. It’s got to be somewhere in their very small living spaces, but it’s hard to imagine. Some are very large. Some are small. Some have fire in the hole. You see the pots hanging from a passenger’s shoulder bar on a motorbike spitting flames and sparks. Some are shiny bright, some are dented and creased from long wear. The vendors themselves often sit on the sidewalk beside the cart waiting for customers. Some sell fresh fruit. Some sell banh mi, the Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. Some sell soft drinks. Some sell pho or noodles. Some sell things that can’t be described.

This is free market capitalism at its most basic.

Everyone is in the game. They’re out early, in the dark, rolling their carts down the street. It’s cars, motorbikes, food carts, buses and bicycles. They all share the road. Then they have to set up their space. It’s very territorial. The carts are positioned on the sidewalk. It’s not easy to set up the more complicated carts. There are little plastic stools for the clientele. The cart surface has to be free for work space. There has to be enough sidewalk free of motorbikes for customers to congregate, and they can’t be so close to the street that traffic can’t get by. But, some customers stay on their motorbikes and order take away. Horns are blaring. Orders are shouted. Dishes are washed in plastic buckets and reused, but there is no running water. Vietnamese immune systems are bullet proof, but it’s a big Petri dish for Westerners.

From 6 – 9am the streets are teeming with people picking up take out, sitting down with friends, slurping Pho, sipping tea, drinking Caphe Sua Da the iced coffee drink with condensed milk, eating noodles or some kind of breakfast cracker. And then it’s done – about 9 everyone packs up and rolls away. I’ve never actually seen the dismantling and dispersal. It happens while I’m at work but by the time I leave for lunch all the small vendors are gone – presumably to their day jobs. That part is still a mystery to me.

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