Asia,  TDM,  Travel Journal,  Vietnam

Gánh Hàng Rong – The mobile boui boui in Vietnam

Sitting on a 10cm high plastic chair in the street, I am eating one of my favorite desserts in Hoi An when a group of French tourists pass by. They are both intrigued by my dessert, which looks like an uncooked tofu, and by the size of the chairs, which is as small as a brick.
If these chairs are so small, it is because they allow the saleswoman to store everything in her two baskets, each hanging on a long bamboo stem, and “walk” her boui boui from one street to another. The Vietnamese call this kind of walking boui boui, and ephemeral, “Gánh Hàng Rong”.

Gánh Hàng Rong, the name evokes so many memories in all Vietnamese people, whether they are the age of my grandparents, or the age of my little sister. With only two baskets and a bamboo stem, the vendors carry with them the best flavors of Vietnamese gastronomy, and our childhood as well.
When I was a child, there were many more walking boo-boo’s than that. And they moved around a lot more. There was one in particular, which I watched out for. His voice was recognizable among all of them, and his “uncooked tofu” (Tào phớ) was the best. When I was alone in the house, I wasn’t allowed to open the door, and I had to reach out through the window and call him as loud as I could, lest he wouldn’t hear me.

I would hand him two bowls and some money and he would return two bowls filled with my favorite dessert, sometimes with one or two jasmine flowers floating in the sauce. Yes, in those days we still flavoured our sauces with real flowers.
And then, one day, he never came back.
Just like those walking boui boui, which have become increasingly rare, driven out by the government and the police because of the illegal place they occupy on the sidewalk.
As the country has become richer, more and more street vendors are swapping their baskets for bicycles to relieve their backs. This is the case for vendors selling flowers, fruit, corn, or desserts. However, complicated dishes requiring a real “kitchen corner” are still carried in bamboo baskets. In order to build up a clientele and earn a little more money, some vendors always put themselves in the same place every day. This practice is tolerated by the owners of the houses in front of which they land. Against service (cleaning the sidewalk), or just out of kindness.

However, as the sidewalk is still illegally occupied, the police can pass by at any time and panic sets in. The vendors put everything away and carry their leftover baby on their shoulders, walking around the neighborhood until the police leave. They leave behind customers sitting on brick-sized chairs with a bowl in their hand. The show is comical. Sometimes the police even confiscate the chairs the customers are sitting on, so they find themselves standing on the sidewalk finishing their soup 😀 It is rare but not impossible, especially if the customer finishes his soup soon, that he also runs with the salesman, taking his chair ahahahahaha
Until 2016, Hoi An was like Ha Noi in the 2000s, full of street vendors. Now, in order to clear the sidewalk and return Hoi An to its cleanliness, all street vendors have been chased away from the old city. There are only a few vendors left outside the old town, often around 4-5 pm, to satisfy the need for a good cheap snack after school.
So next time you see Vietnamese people sitting on tiny chairs, stop right away!
If you can’t sit down, order a dish anyway and eat standing up! If you have never tasted the walking boui boui, it is as if you have never been to Vietnam.

Photo credits:, Dan Tri, Google Images

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