Food so popular, Asian cities want it off the streets

Major cities in three Southeast Asian countries are strengthening campaigns to clear the sidewalks, driving thousands of food vendors into the shadows and threatening a culinary tradition.

HANOI, Vietnam — As strips of tofu sizzle beside her in a vat of oil, Nguyen Thu Hong listens for police sirens.

Police raids on sidewalk vendors have escalated quickly in downtown Hanoi since March, she said, and officers fine her about $9, or two days’ earnings, for the crime of selling bun dau mam tom — vermicelli rice noodles with tofu and fermented shrimp paste — from a plastic table beside an empty storefront.

“Most Vietnamese live by what they do on the sidewalk, so you can’t just take that away,” she said. “More regulations would be fine, but what the cops are doing now feels too extreme.”

Southeast Asia is famous for its street food, delighting tourists and locals alike with tasty, inexpensive dishes such as spicy som tam (green papaya salad) in Bangkok or sizzling banh xeo crepes in Ho Chi Minh City. But major cities in three countries are strengthening campaigns to clear the sidewalks, driving thousands of food vendors into the shadows and threatening a culinary tradition.

Officials say the campaigns in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are largely aimed at promoting public order and food safety.

In Bangkok, the military junta has been clearing vendors from spots where pedestrians have complained about littering, sidewalk congestion and vermin, officials said, and plans to move some into designated areas that would be more hygienic.

“Bangkok wasn’t so crowded and congested” when the 1992 law regulating street vendors came into effect, said Vallop Suwandee, chairman of advisers to Bangkok’s governor. “But now it is, so we have to reorganize and reorder public spaces.”

According to government data, Bangkok now has fewer than 11,000 licensed vendors, about half the number it had two years ago.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, officials have led “sidewalk reclamation” campaigns in recent months that have received breathless coverage in the state-controlled news media and fueled a nationwide debate about how to regulate street vending.

In Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, authorities frequently evict hawkers or keep them in limbo by forcing them to pay thousands of dollars in annual “security” and “cleaning” fees that still do not guarantee a right to work. Since 2015, 17,000 sidewalk vendors have been moved into designated lots, city officials say, while an additional 60,000 or so still ply their trade wherever they can.

But in trying to modernize, these cities risk diluting their local flavor.

Eating street food was a way of life in Southeast Asia long before the region became popular with globe-trotting foodies like Anthony…

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