Efforts to Ease Congestion Threaten Street Food Culture in Southeast Asia

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, the 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.


A bowl of banh da cua. As part of a regional trend, officials have led a “sidewalk reclamation” campaign against food vendors in Hanoi.

Amanda Mustard for The New York Times

And in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, the 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 Bourdain and famous chefs started peddling classic street-food dishes in fancy Western restaurants.

Even today, as millions of Southeast Asian consumers develop a taste for pizza, burgers and air-conditioned shopping malls, the region’s humble sidewalk stalls still appeal to eaters of nearly all social classes. It is not uncommon for groups of businesspeople to stop their luxury cars and plop down for a curbside plate of hoi tod, fried mussels, in Thailand or hu tieu, a noodle dish, in Vietnam that costs less than a Whopper would.

“Some vendors have been selling food around here for over 10, 20 years, and I feel as though they have become cooks for my family,” Piya Joemjuttitham, a financial executive, said as he bought a mango smoothie from a sidewalk stand in downtown Bangkok.

Some street chefs have devoted followers who line up early for a dish, and…

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