Wondering if we would find suitable subjects in the Backpacker Area for this month’s cover story, translator and photographer Vy and I meet at Chi’s Café — a long time District 1 haunt for Word staffers. Finishing our second ‘strategy’ beer and contemplating hitting nearby Bui Vien in search of material, at that moment, bookseller Van finds us instead. Wandering in from the alley, carrying her usual load of heavy travel favourites, we realise our luck, and immediately invite her to sit down, drink a smoothie and talk.
Change in Fortunes
Fifty-six-year-old Van has been selling books like this for the last two-and-a-half years. “Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham,” she lists as her regular route. Van also lives in the area with her husband, who doesn’t work, and two remaining stay-at-home boys. One is 28 and a security guard, the other is 29 and an actor for the water puppet show on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Another daughter is already married with four children of her own, and has left the family home.
Before she started selling books on the street to tourists, Van had her own shop, and life was completely different. It was at 179 Pham Ngu Lao, and was called Tu Van. In it she sold books of course, and her neighbours made coffee and sold tours. For 10 years they had a nice little empire going, and though the hours were long and sales went up and down, she was happy. She could support her family and still have a little left over.
Then things changed, rents went up in the area, and people stopped reading books. “Before, good,” she summarizes, “now, not so good.” The problems for Van started when technology really started to take hold. This was in about 2012 for her. At this time, objects like the Kindle gained mainstream popularity and the internet generally started to eat into her business. “People don’t buy books like before,” she says. “Everywhere has WiFi and people don’t want books.”
Now, with a job as a maid in the morning, Van sells books for extra money between 3pm and 11pm daily — “only half day,” she says. Initially it was to get rid of the stock from her shop, but she’s had to keep on selling. Picking up the stock from a central location, if she sells three or four books in a day, she’s happy, and can take home up to VND400,000. On other days, the tourist crowd is unfriendly, and Van won’t sell a thing. That’s when life on the street can be tough.
People still recognise her from when she owned the shop on Pham Ngu Lao, and while the job is hard and she’s not sure how long she’ll keep doing it — “until I get tired,” she says — she’s soon off before our conversation can get too much older. Her customers are waiting, after all, and she’s not the only bookseller on the street.
To see the other stories in this series, please click on the links below:
The Banh Mi Seller
The Shoe Repairer
The Banh Canh Cua Seller
The Street Barber
The Flower Seller
The Salad Professor
The Tuk Tuk Driver