Imagine you are in a hurry to get back to the office after an afternoon coffee, but the sidewalk is blocked by motorcycles, street vendors, and restaurants.
The only way to get to your office is to walk on the roadway. There are no trees large enough to shade you from the sun, and you have to watch out for vehicles coming from all directions.
If a driver hits you, it will surely be your fault for walking on the roadway instead of the sidewalk. Now you must feel annoyed, but you can't blame anyone for that.
Walking through the streets of Hanoi, while pleasant, used to be a challenge for foreign visitors. There was no place to step on the sidewalk, so they were forced to walk on the roadway and dodge vehicles coming from all directions.
Therefore, removing the obstacles in the way of pedestrians and giving them back the sidewalk is a must not only for Hanoi but also for other major cities in Vietnam.
For years, Hanoi authorities have tried to clear the streets and sidewalks of the encroachment of vendors and commercial households.
But as soon as the police are out of sight, the vendors and households fill the streets and sidewalks again. Then the problem remains unresolved.
Now the authorities come up with the idea of offering pavements and streets for rent. They argue that the policy would balance the interests of pedestrians, drivers and local vendors.
Street vendors and shopkeepers are charged for selling on the sidewalk for a set period of time, rather than all day, at a fixed rate.
Since 2021, Hoan Kiem District has been piloting a program that allows businesses and households to rent the sidewalk for commercial purposes. The rental fee is set at VND45,000 (US$1.91) per square meter per month, while the pavement must be 4-5 meters wide to be shared by vendors, local shops, and pedestrians.
Four shops on the three streets of Ly Thuong Kiet, Le Phung Hieu and Ngo Quyen are part of the program.
"From my point of view, the sidewalk is a part of traffic where people walk and to some extent park their vehicles," 34-year-old Hoang Xuan Quang told The Hanoi Times.
Sipping his coffee at a cafe on Trung Kinh Street in Cau Giay District, Quang said the road and sidewalk should be used properly according to their original designs, as there are many accidents where people are hindered from walking on the sidewalk.
"It is completely inappropriate to allow people to do business on the sidewalk and roadway," Quang said.
However, he said sidewalk rentals could raise the city's revenue to invest in and improve the transportation network and infrastructure.
"If the authorities decide on such a policy, we need to make it transparent in terms of price and management. The policy needs to address who the beneficiaries are and penalties for violations," he said.
The pavement culture
Pavement, or sidewalk, was first built in Hanoi in the late 19th century during the French colonial period in the so-called French Quarter, but later became a standard for urban road construction.
To this day, pavement is considered a source of livelihood for most Hanoi residents, who use it to run their businesses and earn a living.
On Cao Ba Quat, a small street with a narrow sidewalk, 36-year-old Nguyen Duc Nghia rented the ground floor of a house to run his coffee shop.
His cafe opened a month ago, just a few days before local authorities enforced a ban on sidewalk encroachment. Since then, the business has been somewhat disrupted.
Nghia's business operates on the assumption that he can seat customers on the sidewalk in front of the cafeteria, usurping the public space.
"I know it's not right to put stools and tables on the sidewalk," the cafeteria owner admitted. "But that's the way cafeterias are run in Hanoi."
"I think it comes from the culture. The Vietnamese prefer to sit on the sidewalk rather than drink coffee indoors, except in hot weather," he said.
From his point of view, the campaign to clear the sidewalks and the idea of renting them out are not wrong. But there are different categories of streets, and the rules need to fit those categories.
"The pavement is wide on some streets and narrow on others. In this street, if 1.5 meters or more is reserved for pedestrians, where could we park our bikes?" said Nghia.
However, Nghia agreed with the pavement-for-rent plan that the city is developing.
Hoang Duy, the 35-year-old founder of the two soy milk tea shops, shared Nghia's view and said it's a good idea to set aside an area of the sidewalk for rent.
"Instead of renting two locations, I can save by having customers sit on the sidewalk," he said. "Our business revenue has dropped by about 10% since our customers can no longer park their bikes and sit on the sidewalk."
"Vietnamese people, both white-collar and blue-collar, would like to spend some time of the day on the sidewalk for leisure and relaxation after a long day at work."
Some businessmen agree with renting the sidewalk but think the price should be higher.
Dao Diep, who has two garment shops in Dong Da and Hai Ba Trung districts, needs the pavement for his customers' motorbikes. Commenting on the lease price of VND45,000 (US$1.91) per square meter per month, Diep said it was "quite cheap".
"The rate should be VND100,000 (US$4.24) per square meter per month, and even higher in central business districts because the streets are busier and more crowded," Diep said, referring to streets in Hoan Kiem, Dong Da and Hai Ba Trung districts.
If the rate remains at $4.24 per square meter per month, it may encourage individuals to rent all the spaces wholesale and re-rent them at a higher price, he added.
Pavement is the source of life for people in Hanoi, and it also creates inconvenience for pedestrians. Since the idea of leasing sidewalks to business households and vendors, lawmakers have doubted whether the project can solve the unregulated encroachment on sidewalks.
Leasing the sidewalk is not the root solution to our problems, warned 40-year-old designer Minh, who has run a lounge as a supplemental income since the early 2010s. He longs for the sidewalk rental plan to be widely adopted.
"Well, it all comes down to poor urban planning, which leads to high rental fees in Hanoi," Minh said. "Because the rent is expensive, street vendors have no choice but to encroach on the sidewalk. It's all about money and profit," he added.
"If we want our businesses to run safely and smoothly, we have to compromise with the authorities," he said, adding that this is getting harder.
In the pavement-for-rent project, it needs to be clarified which is wide enough for renting and which is too narrow and can't be rented, Quang said.
Pedestrians must come first, then parking, then doing business, he said. "The rental fee should vary depending on whether the street is in the populated area or not."
"The pavement for rent project, if successful, will be a handful source of income for local governments. Legalizing some pavement encroachment will allow government officials to better manage their areas," he said.
"I recommend that commune and district level authorities be empowered to determine the rental fees, depending on their socio-economic conditions."