Merchants in Motion, the start of it.

Merchants in the middle of a busy street
A small impressions of the crowded streets of Hanoi.

When I started the series Merchants in Motion, I didn’t know it was going to turn out this nice (Yes, I am saying it). I wanted to photograph a silk flower vendor without the distractions of Hanoi. For those of you who haven’t been to Hanoi. It is HUGE! Huge as in: there’s a lot of things happening. Also the city is very big. Anyhow, I couldn’t get a clear shot of the flower vendors without all of Hanoi on there too, the trees, the people, the motorcycles, the shops, the trash. There was only one thing I could do to get the shot I wanted: change my vantage point. 

So, I went higher. I went to a couple of different bridges and balconies in Hanoi and waited for a flower vendor. None came. For days. For weeks. Even for months. To pass the time I started taking photos of the other vendors walking underneath the bridges. And the occasional scooter with some funny stuff packed. 

Three months later

After two or three months I still hadn’t photographed any flower vendor. None with real flowers and none with silk flowers. The first flower vendor I eventually shot on International Women’s Day. We got some flowers at work and a colleague casually mentioned that there were so many flower ladies outside. DUDE! For real? I looked at my friend and coworker Louise and told her I’d be out for lunch.

I rushed to my favorite bridge and waited. Ten minutes later a flower vendor approached the bridge. I was dead silent, and a little bit nervous. A lot of vendors would walk into old quarter right before my spot. Would she do too? She didn’t! She walked towards my bridge! I tend to get overly excited and that’s when I start making mistakes. So I told myself to breath, I already prepared the settings so nothing could go wrong. Right?

She came closer and I estimated where she would walk when she passed me. I took the shot. And I knew! I just knew it was a good shot. I did a little dance on the bridge and went back to work. 

Silk flower vendor

Buoi

It took me another two months and some preparing to eventually get the silk flower vendor. I was set to go back to the Netherlands but honestly, I couldn’t leave without having shot a silk flower vendor. So my friend Lien helped me call Buoi. Buoi happily went to the bridge before her round at six in the morning. This was three days before I left Vietnam. We had a little chat and she walked underneath the bridge for me a couple of times. She was so kind. And I really like the shot. 

Funny thing

Now the funny things comes, I went to the bridge the day after again. I woke up early. By that time I went to the bridge a lot of mornings and I really enjoyed doing so. So I told my self, this would be the last time, just get up and go, and I went.

I was standing up on the bridge enjoying myself. I turn around. The next thing I know, I see a silk flower vendor approaching the bridge in rapid tempo. Me, completely stunned, didn’t even take the shot. “Universe, are you kidding me? I waited for six months for this to happen. Then I finally call Buoi and the day after you send me a silk flower vendor!?!” The whole situation made me laugh a little bit. So I texted my friend and when I looked up: ANOTHER SILK FLOWER VENDOR! What are you doing to me! I take a run for it and I took the shot. While reviewing the shots I look up and yet another silk flower vendor! This is all in a time span of ten minutes or so. I managed to take that shot too, but I wasn’t standing in the best angle.

Meaning of Merchants in Motion for me

For me, the series means multiple things. There’s the fact that I think the beauty of Vietnamese merchants is underestimated. It is very easy to take things around you for granted. As a foreigner living in Vietnam it maybe easier to see beauty in everyday things. But besides that, I sometimes feel the vendors are not treated that nice. For the record, I also didn’t do that all the time. Some have the tendency to rip you off. 

The only thing making me realise my own behaviour, is a discussion I overheard one day between two people. They were complaining about vendors because they are rude and rip you off. I agreed. But then I thought: I also approach them with the “knowledge” I am about te be ripped off. In doing so, I approach the women with an attitude “van heb ik jou daar”. Of course their response isn’t: “Oh isn’t she a nice lady I am going to give her a fair price and the best fruits in my basket.”

It’s all in the approach

After this realisation, I started approaching the merchants differently. I approached them with an attitude that said: “Hi, you hard-working lady. I hope you’re having a profitable day. Can I get some mangos. Also I don’t really care if you give me some bad ones, I know you also got them in the morning and have the rid them somehow to earn enough money. I am going to be honest I would like the best ones, but all is fine.” Guess what? I got really nice mangos! Not all the time obviously. But I didn’t care anymore. 

Interviews

During the interviews we asked the women what they thought of their customers and they replied with that some of them can be a though crowd, but most are kind. The women buy their produce in the morning at the market and they don’t get to pick the best fruit. May I add they go to the market at 4 am. Yes, 4 am. Whenever I have to get up at 4 am, I feel bad for myself. These women get up at 4 am every single day. They get home when their baskets are empty. Which is often around ten-ish. 

I admire street vendors. I really do. When I was back in Hanoi after the fifth day of walking to the bridge, around three kilometers every morning, my feet started to hurt. I decided to get a foot massage the next day. When walking towards the masseuse I thought, next time I am here I should bring other shoes. While getting my massage I suddenly felt pretty bad about my white privileged ass. That morning I interview Hoa. Hoa, in her late sixties, walks twenty kilometers every single day. With a basket on her shoulder that weighs forty kilogram in total. I looked back at the photos, curious to see what kind of shoes Hoa was wearing. She was wearing plastic shoes. PLASTIC shoes! With some plastic bags in there as will.

Merchants in Motion - Thi Lam
What kind of vendor would you be?

Last week I got interviewed for Lifestyle Asia and one of the questions was what kind of merchant I would be. I can tell you one thing, I would be a terrible vendor! Terrible! These women are strong, they walk kilometers a day, they work insane hours, are away from their family and when we ask them what they think about their work they say: I really like it because of the freedom.

I wouldn’t be able to be a vendor without feeling bad about myself. Not saying vendors should feel bad about themselves. Only saying we should not take our lives for granted; I should not take my life for granted. Being born in the Netherlands comes with some advantages, I can write, my English is okay, I can travel and I can go to school (any school). I don’t really know how to explain what I mean with this. And I don’t want to offend anybody, so I hope you understand.

Best part

The best part of making this series is the fact that I got a glimpse in the merchants life. They really are kind. And strong. Some of the things I noticed and learned are:

  • Vendors greet each other when passing
  • Vendors and police are not friends
  • Some vendors walk together
  • Vendors try and save money by eating together and sleeping in a house together
  • To save even more money rice is brought from their hometowns
  • Most vendors are female migrants
  • The amount of times vendors go home to see their family depens on the age of their kids
  • Vendors come in all ages
  • Elderly vendors often keep working because they don’t want to burden their children with the care of them
  • Some vendors work only in certain season, for instance when their land doesn’t need any work

So this is my first blog! Let me know if you have any questions.

One more thing: my friends Louise and Lien were the ones that made me realise the potential of this series. I just really liked working on it. Didn’t realise it might be a good idea to use it to draw some attention to the merchants, let alone publish a book.

After I published a post on Bored Panda about this series it got a lot of attention. It was right in the moment when the vendors were getting in some heat because supposedly they would have to leave town. I don’t know if it is true, but I like to think the series helped the vendors a bit in their clock against time. Latest news I heard is that they get to stay and roam the cities. And I am glad for that! They make Hanoi the city that it is.