I met 70-year-old Luu Van Hao at his small apartment on the second floor of a building situated at the end of Ngo Huyen. He had recently arrived home after a long trip visiting a friend. His wife looked fed up, partly because the business had been closed for few days while he was away, and partly because it had been raining and she didn’t know when they could get back to work.
Hao always looks the same, in his orange shirt and, when it’s cold, puffer jacket. But he’s just got a haircut and has changed his silver-hair-in-a-ponytail image seen on TV and in the newspapers to a short back and sides. He no longer looks like the best-known person in the area.
At the age of 27, Hao left a government job, and has been selling papaya salad with dried beef (nom kho bo) in the Old Quarter for well over 30 years. His daily route starts from Ngo Huyen where he moves onto the Dong Xuan Market area, Hang Dau, and then follows the dyke road to reach the city centre. He starts his rounds at 3pm and continues until everything’s sold out.
The Salad Professor
“Compared with other people who were selling papaya salad at that time, my advantage was that I was well-educated,” says Hao, who was luckier than many other people, and was able to finish university. That helped him understand how to maintain the freshness of the salad, and thanks to the time he worked at a hospital, he understands the importance of food hygiene. “Things we have learnt in our life are never wasted,” he adds.
The salad professor always listens to customers’ ideas and feedback to improve his product. He also prioritises ingredient quality to ensure that customers remain happy. Respecting the traditions of Vietnamese cuisine, his salad still uses the same ingredients as it did when he started, one reason why the price is higher than elsewhere, at VND40,000 for a dish.
Yet it’s the sight and sound of his huge pair of scissors, used to cut the ingredients, that makes him stand out. He’s presently on his third pair and he doesn’t know where he will get the next one made, as his favourite scissor-maker died.
Like so many other people making their living on the streets, Hao hopes his children will one day carry on what he is doing now. — Vu Bao Khanh
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