Our second research question regards the historical analysis of how these contemporary vegetable shopping practices emerged and developed over time. Over the past 40 years, Vietnam has transformed from a highly centralized, predominantly agricultural planned economy into a socialist-oriented industry and services-driven market economy. Initially, since the reunification of the country in 1975, Vietnam struggled with food shortages as a result of drastic agricultural collectivization policies. With the introduction of the Doi Moi, the reconstruction of the agriculturally based economy in 1986, the country cautiously opened up to the global market. However, the major economic impact of the reforms only became apparent in the early 1990s, particularly in 1992 when Vietnam became a world leader in rice exports. The following period of progressive international economic integration culminated in Vietnam’s entry into the WTO and its consecutive opening up to fully foreign-owned retail chains in 2009. This transformation is laid out in Table 2 along three major periods based on historical data relating to macro-economic developments with a focus on food provision and consumption.
Tracing contemporary practices back along these three main periods, it became clear that several practices, albeit with shifting relative importance, were sustained over time, whereas other practices appear to be more recent phenomena (Fig. 1). The years are the transitional years of the periods mentioned in Table 2 and indicate some major turning points in Vietnam’s development from a food provision and consumption perspective.
These trends in the overall set of practices include the following shifts: social relationships moved from face to face contacts to online communities, from purchasing fresh vegetables daily to weekly in stock, and the re-valuation of food shopping from being a looked down upon household chore to an aspiring lifestyle practice to be enjoyed. Over the past 40 years, several key factors have demonstrably influenced the change within and between vegetable shopping practices. We uncovered these factors on the basis of recollection interviews combined with archival data and secondary sources. In urban Hanoi, access to production space has drastically diminished, and the distanciation between production and consumption has increased (Akram-Lodhi 2001). Whereas “urbanites” traditionally produced their own vegetables, this development necessitated new ways of food appropriation. Urbanization and socio-economic development resulted in dispersed family ties and a decrease in kinship interdependence (Bich 1999; Hirschman and Vu 1996; Knodel et al. 1998; Schwenkel and Leshkowich 2012). This development opened up the way for more individualistic household decision-making. The introduction of motorized transportation, equipment such as refrigerators and freezers, information technology, and banking systems enabled the development of new shopping practices. Below, we provide detailed temporal and spatial descriptions of the development of each practice. These descriptions portray how modernization and globalization developments allow both “traditional” practices to be reinvented and new practices to take shape.
Over the past 40 years, the practice of self provisioning underwent a profound change in meaning and configuration from a dominant subsistence practice as a main occupation to an alternative niche practice performed in leisure time. In particular, since the turn of the century with an upswing in approximately 2005 (when the 2001 scrapping of fertilizer import quotas resulted in multiple food safety scandals (Hoi et al. 2009), the motive changed from escaping hunger to protection against food safety threats.
An important element in self-provisioning is access to production space. Until the late 1990s, Vietnam was predominantly an agricultural subsistence economy (Fforde and De Vylder 1996; Akram-Lodhi 2001): We had to grow everything ourselves, we had no money and could only sell the bit we didn’t eat, but often we even didn’t have rice to eat. [Interview with a woman in her late 30s, 2013] Farming drastically decreased with industrial development and the accompanying urbanization process of consecutive expansion and infill processes (Hai and Yamaguchi 2007; Labbé 2014), currently resulting in the exponential development of high-rise buildings (both business and condominiums). Where modernization developments are driving the population out of farming and into other occupations (industry and services), urban “farming” has been re-invented as a leisure activity. Two distinct sub-practices were identified, characterized as public and private space gardening.
Public space gardening
Public space gardening appears to have evolved from the period of food scarcity in which self-provisioning was the norm. Most practitioners are elderly people who were once farmers. Concern for food safety related to their grandchildren and needing “something to do” motivates their return to farming activities. Increasing affluence allows them to enjoy their retirement. Deprived from farmland due to urbanization while still having sufficient time for vegetable cultivation, they accommodate themselves in parks, empty plots or on the side of the road. Cultivation remains simple and without advanced technology or inputs. “Under own control” is considered a food safety guarantee rather than caring for the proper agricultural conditions of professional farming.
The seeds we get from neighbors and friends and some we grow ourselves and sometimes we buy them. We don’t care much about the yield. We just plant and see what works. (Interview with an elderly couple, 2013)
The practice of public space gardening is rooted in past occupations and strong social cohesion based on interdependence at a local level. Within the local community, people depend on each other for vegetable versatility in their diet, the exchange of inputs (seeds and soil) and the sharing of practical knowledge.
This used to be a village. We were not farmers, but most neighbors were. Now we are retired and although we never worried about food safety we started to do so since we have grandchildren and we heard more and more about it on the news. Now we grow most of the vegetables ourselves. We enjoy it. It gives us something to do, which is good for the kids. We can sit and relax here and watch the plants [see Fig. 2a]. Look we even made a tap to easily water the plants… Almost all people here grow their own vegetables, we exchange seeds and some people used to be farmers so they provide some advice when you need it. … Of course we can’t eat everyday the same, so we exchange our vegetables here. Only when we can’t grow ourselves or can’t exchange with others we buy at the market here down this street. (Interview with an elderly couple, 2013)
Public policy does not allow for these practices and is actively suppressing public space appropriation for vegetable cultivation. Despite regular police raids that demolish and confiscate private fittings within public space, these practices appear resistant to formal policy.
The only problem we have is the policy, sometimes they become suddenly stricter and destroy our gardens, but now it has been quiet for a while. I know it is officially not allowed, but if we have no garden we have little choice. (Interview with an elderly couple, 2013)
The police do not allow public space gardening, but I have no space at home and with the food safety issues today we have to do something. I have small children [pointing to a toddler on a tricycle]. … We bring the boxes in now, as we have to leave, I don’t want the police to come and destroy our plants [see Fig. 2b]. Last month they destroyed the whole garden of our neighbor [pointing towards a small area (public space) a few houses down the road]. Sometimes, I take care of the plants as I have my shop here, but when I’m busy, my father takes care of them. However, he is old and I don’t want him to carry the boxes, so I do that together with my mum when I go away for longer periods of time.” (Interview with two women; one early 30s and one mid-50s, 2013)
The practice shows similarities with other forms of public space appropriation, such as growing ornamentals to beautify the neighborhood and accommodating public space for mobile street side terraces. This type of “civil disobedience” is particularly prevalent among a group of older practitioners. For this group, the use of public space was a means for survival during periods of famine and food shortages and the more articulated boundaries between public and private space resulting from recent urbanization do not yet constitute a practical limitation. The group of main practitioners, mostly aged 50 years or more, is aging and their practices are expected to erode over time.
Private space gardening
Farming is also being reinvented by younger urbanites in communal gardens and gardens on rooftops and balconies. Personal food safety urgency is the main motivator of this increasingly performed and more recent practice—most of the information acquired during this research on rooftop and balcony gardening dates no later than 2005. Online home-growing forum research revealed that people are worried for their families, especially for young children; the most commonly mentioned concern is agro-chemical abuse. They do not fully trust the government food safety control system. Most practitioners have no background in farming and actively seek to improve their knowledge of vegetable production. Critically reflecting on their cultivation practices and striving for precise understanding, they are preoccupied with the influence of inputs on yields and nutrition and show interest in more advanced technologies. Besides growing vegetables for reasons of food safety, practitioners of rooftop and balcony gardening appear to enjoy gardening. They explicitly prioritize time, spend money, and apply more advanced cultivation techniques. The practice is enabled through knowledge exchange on social media platforms and the availability of input and cultivation materials required by professional companies that advertise within the social media platforms delivering both hardware and information on cultivation.
I am very interested in growing my own vegetables. I spend a lot of time online. [Referring to an online platform:] I love this group. We exchange information as friends. Through this group I learned about hydroponic cultivation. (Interview with male rooftop gardener, late 20s)
The urban re-invention of farming is developing at the grassroots and not supported by the authorities, which in contrast, seek to halt the illegal appropriation of public space. Within the practice of self-provisioning, there is a visible shift from place bound time-passing gardening based on historically obtained skills and competences, to more technologically advanced private space gardening facilitated by online community exchanges for which people prioritize scarce leisure time. Self-provisioning is expected to remain a niche practice for the foreseeable future, although it shows no signs of disappearing. Supermarkets sell ingredients for home growing (coco peat, potting soil, and seeds) as of 2014, which suggests a commercial acknowledgment of this trend.
Vietnam is by tradition a familial society in which kinship relationships are favored for social and economic action. Over the past 40 years, the practice of kinship shopping has made a 180 degree turn in meaning and configuration: from a dominant everyday necessity of children supporting parents in times of poverty and hunger (Knodel et al. 1998) to a niche phenomenon of parents in rural areas providing for children in the city, motivated by concerns about food safety.
An important element in kinship shopping is the proximity of kin. In the past, most children lived with or in close proximity to their parents (Hirschman and Vu 1996). Poverty and food shortages necessitated extended practical kinship relations at the village level. This changed in the 1990s, especially around the turn of the century, when industrialization and economic prosperity started to result in rapid rural to urban migration, causing geographic familial dispersion (Jayakody and Vu 2009). Today, the practice mainly involves families that have moved beyond the subsistence level. Children living in Hanoi with the means to travel to their hometown regularly in combination with access to storage facilities (for students, this is often a shared refrigerator) are receiving vegetables from parents in the countryside who have a profound distrust of vegetables offered in an urban context:
I told my mum that the vegetables I buy come from our hometown, but she is still concerned and told me you can never know, so I should rather take them from my hometown every weekend. (Interview with woman, mid-20s, 2011)
Meantime, children are all too happy to receive vegetables from their parents; they are not that worried about food safety and are less prepared to spend money on food than on lifestyle articles. While playing with a new model smart-phone in her hands, one woman stated:
My mom always gives me plenty of fruits and vegetables. She is so scared about food safety and tells me I should be careful with what I buy. My mum says that you can never know, and that it is best to take it directly from my hometown. Who am I to object? I don’t have to worry and I don’t have to spend that often. (Interview with woman, early 20s, 2012)
In addition to students, a small part of the Hanoi urban population that increasingly migrated from the rural provinces to the city beginning in the second half of the 1990s regularly acquires foods from relatives or acquaintances in their hometowns. Some go as far as ordering vegetables and other foods by telephone or email to have them delivered once every two to three weeks. Larger volumes are ordered at once and in some cases, additional orders are placed for family and friends in Hanoi to reduce transportation fees. This practice is motivated by safety concerns about vegetables offered in the city:
I know it is safe because my family grows the vegetables. (Interview with a woman, mid-30s, 2013)
In this practice, the element of daily fresh vegetables, which is deeply rooted in consumption culture in Vietnam, is less important than food safety. With progressing distanciation between family members geographically, economically, and mentally, however, kinship shopping is expected to disappear in its more traditional configuration, being replaced by other alternative vegetable shopping practices such as the below-described online farmer shopping.
Farmer shopping has long been the norm in Hanoi. Since roughly the turn of the century, however, farmers have been pushed out of the city by land appropriation for urban development (Suu 2009). In the context of food safety scares and the anonymization of urban vegetable provisioning, shopping directly from farmers has shifted from being a standard to an alternative niche practice. Recently, a trend of buying online from farmers without direct personal contact has been observed. Here, the practice of farmer shopping is conflated with the practice of “safe vegetable outlet” shopping, described below.
Where agriculture is looked down upon compared to occupations outside of agriculture—“My parents don’t want me to work on agriculture, but would rather see me take on a job in telecommunications” [Young graduate, 23 years.]—local farmers are becoming increasingly cherished in the light of agro-chemical food safety scares. In reconnecting with farmers as an alternative source to anonymous food shopping, different sub-practices are observed with a division between suburban and inner city farmer shopping.
In 2008, Hanoi expanded its administrative boundaries. In the rural–urban transition zones, the dispossession of land for urban construction deprived large groups in the suburban area from growing vegetables, driving them to buy from “neighboring” peri-urban farmers.
In the past we didn’t have to worry as I could grow myself or buy directly from the farmers in my village. Now I don’t know where the produce is coming from. If I can, I buy from local farmer vendors who grew the produce themselves. They know what they did and when they tell me it is safe I do believe them. Their fields are close to my hometown. I know how they grow. Referring to the peri-urban area within Hanoi’s administrative boundaries. (Interview with a woman, mid-40s, 2013)
This practice is a remnant of past socio-cultural structures and appears to be a temporary by-product of urbanization that is unlikely to be sustained in the long term given the on-going urbanization and agricultural industrialization process.
Inner city shopping
The infill of land within the urban boundaries of Hanoi in particular increased after the turn of the century (Hai and Yamaguchi 2007; Fanchette 2014), making urbanites dependent on third party supply systems of questionable food safety: “I don’t know where the produce at the market comes from. I hear so many scary stories about produce from China.” Especially since 2007, there has been an observed increase in a return to buying from farmers. Farmers’ markets are organized with the purpose of reducing food safety risks, although they are not an every-day-for-everyone solution. The increasing distanciation between urban Hanoi and the surrounding production area physically impedes farmers who wish to sell their produce in the city. In seeking protection from food safety risks, however, a trend is observed in which consumers order fresh foods from the countryside online. Less frequent shopping (often ordering for at least a week ahead) requires proper storage in fridges and freezers.
I order my vegetables from organic farmers. Although I can’t always choose what I like and the assortment is quite limited, I am happy that I don’t have to worry about whether it is safe or not. (Interview with a woman, early 30s, 2012)
I have to order larger quantities at once. I can’t eat fresh every day. I store vegetables in the fridge and eat the most perishable items first. I am ok with this as at least I know it is safe. (Interview with a woman, mid-30s, 2013)
Buying from farmers has spurred new developments in which people who initially started buying produce from farmers online for their private use have become produce “re-sellers,” offering the produce as “safe, green, and clean from the local countryside.” This practice is conflated with the below-described practice of “safe vegetable outlet purchasing.” Internet access, the ability to store vegetables, and increasing affluence are the drivers of the reinvention of buying from farmers, closing the rural–urban distanciation gap online.
Market shopping is estimated to account for more than 90 % of total vegetable sales (Wertheim-Heck et al. 2014b). Over the past 40 years, market shopping has evolved from a luxury—“I don’t have money, thus I can’t buy”—to shopping as necessity—“I don’t produce, so I have to buy.” Although this practice only started to dominate vegetable provisioning in the last decade of the 20th century, with poverty and food shortages hampering monetary transactions in the previous decade, this practice is considered a typical traditional practice.
Small markets born “illegally” during the collectivization period gained legality in the 1980s when they were officially put under local management at the so-called ward level (Koh 2006). It was not until the period of de-collectivization in the 1990s, however, when farmers were officially stimulated to expand production through marketable surplus (Kirk and Tuan 2009), that markets became the dominant commercial centers. In escaping from hunger, the markets in a sense “saved” the country from starvation. More recently, however, food safety scandals and the ambition to transform Hanoi in a more civilized metropolis have brought about policies that aim to reduce market retailing (MoIT 2009). Reverting to past self-organization, both vendors and consumers are re-accommodating themselves in informal street markets (Wertheim-Heck et al. 2014b). Local residents who rely on these markets in their daily food provisioning accommodate street market vending by assisting vendors in hiding their products during unexpected police raids. Similar to public space gardening, these acts of “civil disobedience” seem rooted in historical structures of social cohesion and mutual interdependence at the local community level, especially because formal safety nets in caring for children and the elderly are still largely insufficient (Masina 2010).
Markets face challenges in meeting the safety and hygiene requirements of modern times, but markets are dynamic and robust in self-accommodation at the grass-roots level. It is at markets that daily foods are purchased and people meet and greet and engage with each other in daily life. In this way, beyond the economic transactions of goods and money, markets are a unique retailing concept that cannot easily be replaced by other formats.
Safe vegetable outlet shopping
The fairly new practice of safe vegetable outlet shopping remains a niche practice of growing importance in which access to fresh daily vegetables has become subordinate to food safety. The first dedicated safe vegetable outlets in Hanoi emerged in the beginning of the 21st century as designated stalls selling safe vegetables within formal markets. Over the past 5 years, however, their presence has declined. Consumers shopping at markets mostly establish trust at the vendor level and less so at shop or stall level:
I just stick to the normal vendors. At that stall [pointing to a dedicated safe vegetable stall at the market] they sell quite a lot of different products. Maybe they complement with vegetables from the wholesale market? You never know. At least my vendor tells me her produce is safe as well. (Intercept interview with a woman at market, mid-40s, 2009)
Further, cross channel price data collection revealed that safe vegetables are on average between 10 and 30 % more expensive than the conventional offer, and selling within wet markets allows for direct price comparisons. This is important for over 40 % of Hanoi consumers living on income levels that constrain them to daily food budgeting (Wertheim-Heck et al. 2015).
A more recent development is that of designated safe vegetable greengrocers outside the market premises, a phenomenon rapidly increasing across all urban districts of the city. These are small sized shops with clear external billboards signaling the offer of certified safe (rau an toàn), clean (rau sạch) or organic (rau hữu cơ) vegetables.Footnote 4 Most shoppers at these outlets live in the surrounding area. The practice of shopping at these outlets is driven by a younger generation:
My daughter told me to buy the tomatoes here as she believes it is more safe. I don’t know, I used to buy from my market, but it is her house and her money now so I do as she asks me to. (Intercept interview with a woman in a safe vegetable shop, early 50s, 2012)
Most recent is the development of privately branded greengrocers combining “bricks-and-mortar” stores with online sales. Pre-packed and privately branded products are offered across channels, not only in the own branded stores, but also in generic convenience stores and supermarkets. In particular, the advance in online ordering indicates a remarkable shift from tangible food quality checks to trusting abstract quality guarantees without having the actual produce in sight.
Despite the shift from personal vendor relationships to more abstract “branding, labeling, and certifying” guidance systems, we observed that safe vegetable shops appeal to similar trust mechanisms as observed at markets: “People I know are honest with me.” A good example is the greengrocer “Uncle Tom” (Bac Tom), which in an abstract way makes a more personalized appeal:
Whoever has read the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin will know the character Uncle Tom, the most loyal and honest butler of the landlord. The name of our store originates from this character. People working with Uncle Tom, from production to sales staff, are always honest in telling the real origin of products, wherever they come from. (Quoted from www.bactom.com)
The prerequisite for the development of this practice is understanding food safety certifications and knowing where to purchases safe vegetables. This information is increasingly obtained online. On social media forums, people advise each other on where to buy safe vegetables. Furthermore, it requires a high and stable income to buy vegetables that are significantly more expensive in advance. With increasing affluence among young dual income nuclear family households that are concerned about food safety and in need of timesaving convenience, the prevalence of ordering safe vegetables online is expected to grow. Trust in food safety is based on food safety “claims,” some of which (rau an toàn) are authorized by official government authorities, while others are built on more informal food safety guarantee systems (rau sạch, rau hữu cơ). The recent proliferation of acclaimed “safe” vegetable outlets is hampering effective inspection control, especially when businesses are expanding online and getting mixed in with private individuals who offer vegetables online from their hometown, claiming that the vegetables they offer are safe for consumption. This jeopardizes the reliability of more formal food safety claims put forward by institutionalized outlets.
The advance of mass media, particularly since the turn of the century, has freed up access to more diversified information sources and enabled a more democratic use of information platforms that empower consumers to actively search for and share information beyond their time-spatially constrained borders. On popular social media forums, participants discuss where to purchase safe vegetables and offer assistance in ordering from their hometowns. Online, they establish a type of virtual kinship relationship. Even in this more distant production-consumption practice, word of mouth, albeit increasingly online, remains dominant and food safety claims appeal to personalized trust and honesty rather than objectified checks and balances.
Supermarket development started in Hanoi in the late 1990s, at first dominated by domestic state-owned enterprises and then opening up to foreign ownership, especially since 2009 (Nguyen et al. 2013). Supermarket shopping is a developing practice that in 2012 accounted for approximately 2 % of total vegetable sales in Hanoi (Wertheim-Heck et al. 2014b). It is slowly becoming a routine practice for a limited higher income group within the upcoming generation, who can afford larger volume shopping due to a high, stable income, adequate storage facilities (stable electricity and fridge/freezer combination) and the means of transportation from shop to home. In the last decade of the 20th century, economic prosperity led to the penetration of fridges that were initially mainly used for cooling drinks a couple of hours a day. Only over the past decade has the provision of electricity in the city improved sufficiently in capacity and stability for the refrigerator to become a trusted household cool storage facility.
We are so lucky to have bankcards now. When I go to the supermarket I do not have to worry whether I have enough money with me … When I was young, my family got a fridge quite late. Most of my friends’ families had already fridges. Electricity was only available a couple of hours a day and we used the fridge and freezer to cool water and make ice-cubes during these hours. Now I use the fridge to store vegetables. I have small kids and have to combine shopping with working. I go to the supermarket once or twice a week only. (Interview with a woman, mid-30s, 2013)
Among younger generations, a gradual shift in household management is observed. The increasing out-of-home labor emancipation of women and the aspiration of modern shopping outlets with regard to urban lifestyles have resulted in the increased participation of men in household chores. Where traditionally, women were the informal managers of households in which household tasks, including daily food shopping, were looked down upon (Hirschman and Vu 1996), the increasing involvement of men in food shopping is observed. Only around 5 % of practitioners in the practice of daily food shopping at markets are male, while the share of male practitioners in supermarket shopping amounts to nearly 30 % (Wertheim-Heck et al. 2012). This hints at a shift from shopping for daily foods as a low-status domestic chore for women, to shopping as a more aspirational activity that engages men. The latter could be explained by the higher amounts of money and larger economic transactions involved when shopping in supermarkets. The place of supermarket shopping in aspirational urban lifestyles is clearly observed in the manner of dress during shopping. For daily chores such as housekeeping and food shopping, most people wear pajama-like outfits and go out into the street with rollers still in their hair. When visiting supermarkets, however, most shoppers are neatly dressed with carefully styled hair. Enjoyment is an important factor in the practice of supermarket shopping. To date, modern retail development is largely a leisure outing during which visitors are spectators rather than daily shopping practitioners.
Last weekend I visited the supermarket for the first time. It was so beautiful and so large, I loved it. But no, I wouldn’t go shopping there regularly, I would go there for some special items maybe or to enjoy during the weekend. (Interview with a woman, mid-30s, 2014)
I like shopping here. I am curious to see what is on offer. There are always new products. (Intercept interview with a woman at the supermarket, mid-30s, 2013)
Supermarket shopping is increasing, but the trend is importantly driven by “new” product categories that are traditionally not offered at markets. To date, fresh produce sales remain behind other product categories. Retail formats attempt to attract fresh produce shoppers with food safety propositions that fit within their quality-oriented general positioning. They offer similar products and brands to those offered in more dedicated safe vegetable outlets, whether bricks-and-mortar or online, although without the personalized touch.