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Globalization and Development Essays (FDP Report from Vietnam)

FDP Reflection #2

Beˆn Tha`nh Market, Vietnam



From the outside, the scope and bustle of the Beˆn Tha`nh Market in Vietnam isn't readily apparent.  From far away, it simply looks like a building much like any other building lining the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.  Moving closer, one can discern that it is some kind of store as is evident by the "iPho" and "I Love Vietnam" t-shirts showing through the large open doors.  Stepping into the market on the other hand is like stepping into another world.  What appeared to be perhaps one t-shirt shop from outside is actually just the start of a huge warehouse containing rows and rows of booths selling anything from fresh squid to bootleg DVD sets.  The commotion is at first deafening as the vendors shout their advertisements over the din of excited tourists' chatter.  Women intent on their task rush through the narrow walkways, weaving in and out of groups of the slower moving shoppers.  One almost would need to grow extra eyes to fully take in their surrounding.  Even in the thick of this cacophony, there are still aspects of this market that would elude most visitors.  Perhaps it is because these threads of complexity are not visible.  They weave in and out of time, speaking of the history and complex social relations that are as much a part of the market experience as finding a good deal or making a good sale.  In Ann Marie Leshkowich's article "Making Class and Gender: Market Socialist Enframing of Traders in Ho Chi Minh City," she explores some of these ideas as they relate to class and gender relations. 

"So pretty!  So pretty!  Here, I have pretty shirt for pretty girl," a young women calls to me as I walk by her booth.  I internally roll my eyes, knowing she would say the same thing if I were a super model or completely hideous.  "Pretty shirt from New York City!" she adds.  I smile politely at the lie and continue down the row.  These techniques of flattery and harmless fibs are an inherent part of a market experience.  Historically, especially under strong socialism, merchants were seen as lower forms of human beings for the use of these techniques to acquire money.  For hundreds of years, the average vision of a petty trader was of a self-serving, deceitful, and uneducated worker. 

In many ways, this view is changing.  The origins of this shift can be attributed to another traditionally marginalized group's association with trading.  Women, who have long been considered inferior members of the population, found themselves in a unique position under socialism.  Instead of being doubly oppressed, women traders had a much easier time than their male counterparts.  In that time, male traders were often punished by the government for anti-communist actions and looked down upon as greedy.  Women traders on the other hand were not seen as a threat to the same extent due to their supposed inherent inferiority.  They were also believed to be undertaking economic endeavors to nurture their family as opposed to acquiring wealth.  These two things allowed women to continue to participate in trade with much less regulation.  This also started a shift from thinking of traders as greedy to thinking of them as successful because they were providing for their families.   

This recipe for change had a chance to stew for a few decades before I found myself visiting a very different Beˆn Tha`nh Market than the one in the past.  If I think back to that women who tried to sell me the "pretty shirt from New York City" I can imagine a bubbly young women who had set her text book aside to focus on the customer when I came near her booth.  In striking contrast to past stereotypes, this young woman was educated, at least bi-lingual, and extremely charismatic.  Perhaps that was why I doubled back after I was a few steps past her booth to purchase an "I love Vietnam" t-shirt.  After the sale was complete, I stayed for a few minutes to talk to her about her studies at the university where she would soon graduate with a degree in business.  The petty trader of today is more revered for her entrepreneurship than despised for deceptive techniques. 

These new positive connotations regarding traders, as well as a steady flow of tourists are what has protected the Beˆn Tha`nh Market from the modernization many similar market economies have experienced.  Many of the women at Beˆn Tha`nh Market would almost shudder at the thought of reorganizing the market.  The restructuring would disrupt both their business and the higher esteem they enjoy in the community.  For them, modernizing would mean a shift from market to department store environments, lower wages, and the need for a new skill set.  Other market women take the idea of modernization in stride, confident that the perseverance that created their present will carry them to a successful tomorrow.    


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