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In Remembrance of Saigon Street Calls Past

Drowned out by the noises of modernization, sounds that once served as the background to a simpler time have begun to shrink, and eventually become lost in the wheel of progress. Tiếng rao, or street calls, happen to be one of those dying noises, but they remain a poignant reminder of the past for many.

Years ago, I was born in Saigon. When I began elementary school, my family moved to a city in central Vietnam for my parents' work. I was a first-grader then, and lacked the mental capacity to remember everything about my birthplace. With our departure, Saigon became a distant past, as my then-hometown became the new pillar of my memories.

That was until one day, when I heard a familiar cry: "Bánh chưng, bánh giò, chưng gai bánh giò..." coupled with the sound of a motorbike engine. A sudden wave of nostalgia transported me back to an earlier time, when every day, just like clockwork, a bánh giò seller would move through my neighborhood in Tân Bình, sometimes compelling my mother to buy me a half-filling supper.

That hawker’s call felt like an old friend, the kind that always brings up fond memories from a shared childhood. Other kids and I would flock together like sheep upon hearing the cries of local vendors, turning rolls of bò bía into our daily feast.

One could say that I’ve fallen into a classic case of marketing psychology. Consumer Behavior, a book co-authored by Dr. Nguyễn Xuân Lãn, Dr. Phạm Thị Lan Hương and Dr. Đường Thị Liên Hà, explains how sound might affect the perceptions of buyers: "The [verbal] repetition of a simple message can cause [listeners] to unconsciously internalize core information. Through the behavior known as unconditioned learning, consumers may establish beliefs about a product’s characteristics or attributes without being aware of the origin of the source."

Such an effect is often manifested in the presence of hawkers, who make punctual visits to one’s alleyway in the afternoon or evening, spreading their invitation to purchase like a mesmerizing carol, and announcing that there is something awaiting them behind closed gates.

Perhaps under that definition, you can say that street calls are a type of commercial jingle, because they’re meant to invite people to buy or exchange goods. Yet despite their commercial and repetitive nature, street calls never seem to be an annoyance to their listeners. Because unlike the robotic voiceovers that can be looped over and over whenever an advertisement plays, street calls are naturally produced by working, living and breathing people, whether it's day or night, rain or shine.

Street calls can come from almost anyone, a child or an elderly person, a man or a woman, a southerner or a northerner, but the one thing that unifies all these individuals is that they typically come from the underprivileged working class. Faced with the solemn reality of street dwelling, these hawkers overcome harsh weather conditions and meager incomes to put food on the table for their family, and open doors to education that may lift their children out of poverty. The Vietnamese revolutionary poet Tố Hữu once lamented their lives and fates in a poem titled ‘Một tiếng rao đêm’ (An evening street call).

Ai ăn bánh bột lọc không?
Tiếng rao sao mà ướt lạnh tê lòng!
Không phải giọng của một hầu đứng tuổi
Cao thánh thót hay rồ khan gió bụi
Đây âm thanh của một cổ non tơ
Mà giây ngân còn vương vấn dại khờ
Trên môi mỏng hãy thơm mùi sữa mẹ.

Vietnamese street calls are one of the country’s most enduring sounds, having survived wars, decades of a subsidy economy, and the arrival of the free market. An earlier depiction of this cultural artifact is Les marchands ambulants et les cris de la rue à Hanoi (Street merchants and street calls of Hanoi), written and published by F. Fénis, a teacher in French-occupied Vietnam. Prompted by the plight of street vendors, he observed the types of goods and street calls commonly found in Hanoi at the time and recorded them through illustrations and musical scores.

Fifteen students from the Indochina School of Fine Arts participated in creating the illustrations, one of which was Tô Ngọc Vân, among the most prominent painters of Vietnam’s contemporary art scene. In 2019, the book was showcased at an exhibition at the French Institute in Hue, and the century-old scores were recreated by Đàm Quang Minh and other traditional music artists from Đông Kinh Cổ Nhạc.

Author Nguyễn Ngọc Tiến talked about some poignant memories he had about street calls during the subsidy era with Hà Nội Mới: “There was no more phở, stringy meat porridge or trolley coffee. It’s only when the streets were crowded, when grocers swarmed the road, that tobacco sellers could sneak out from dark alleyways. Even when the US Air Force bombed the North and Hanoi, and people had to evacuate to the countryside, the tram stations in Dinh Tien Hoang, Cau Giay, Vong, the Mo market, and the bus stations in Kim Ma, Kim Lien, Ben Nua... were still rowdy with street calls. Hawkers would hop onto trams and storm the streets, where people refused to evacuate to sell goods, all in the hope of making something to feed their children.”

Flash-forward half a decade later, and almost everything about Vietnam’s state of commerce has changed, yet street calls still retain some relevance despite their increasingly limited reach. In Hoi An, many still consider street vending a good way to make a living, seeing that it helps boost the local economy and preserve whatever is left of the town’s street culture.

Street vending isn’t an uncommon sight in the western world, but in most instances, people need special permits to set up or sell anything, which can be limiting. Vietnam, on the other hand, has street vending ingrained deeply into its cultural heart, so the offers are almost endless, trucked into whichever hẻm or ngõ we might reside in, and hand-delivered to us by hawkers roaming on their vehicles of choice — a bike, a motorbike, a power walk — their arrival announced by the familiar sound of street calls.

Still, many things have gotten lost through the decades. With increased wages and living standards, people may now be able to buy ice cream at the fanciest gelaterias in town, but for those who grew up collecting plastics and scraps in exchange for ice cream from collectors on Thống Nhất bikes, the lack of old men yodeling “Here comes ice cream! Come swap your plastic and aluminum for icecreaaaaamm” is certainly a flavor that is missed.

A street-culture-inspired game called Hàng Rong was released by VNG in 2011. Photo via Hunter forum.

Unfortunately, after decades of socio-economic development, the era of street calls is coming to a close, as Vietnam’s urban spaces become filled with modern noises. Surrounded by tall, soundproof concrete castles, few can still hear the sound of ve chai collectors swinging by, yearningly calling for “Đồng nát sắt vụn” (scrap and metal) and “TV, tủ lạnh, bàn ủi, máy vi tính” (TVs, fridges, irons, computers) to pick up. Hungry diners also no longer have to wait for a bánh giò cart to pass by, as they now have countless food delivery applications at hand.

Then came the pandemic, when Saigon's remaining street calls temporarily died out due to the lockdown. The only sound from the streets that I could hear then was my ward’s top official ushering us to get COVID-19 tests. The wave of silence grimly reminded me of all the things that we’ve lost along the way, and most importantly, of the people whose source of livelihood lies on the streets. These resilient souls have persisted through all kinds of storms, but are they resilient enough to weather this sea of calm? I cannot bear to know.

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