Street life is ubiquitous in Hanoi. In the heart of the city, the old quarter is made up of 36 streets, each specialising in a particular craft. When it came to buying buttons and zips – there was only one place to go – button street on Hang Bo. It was here that I met Nga, who owns a small button stall on the pavement outside 15 Hang Bo with her older sister Hoi. In Nga and Hoi’s small stall, I found the oyster shell buttons used on the Snow-White chemise, the gold exposed zips for the Paintbrush pencil skirt and the concealed zips for the Paintbrush dress.
Nga’s family comes from the village of Lang Co Dien around 10km outside of Hanoi, where for decades all the men in the village have traditionally sold glasses and the women have sold buttons. Her parents left their village in the 1950’s for the capital of Hanoi where economic conditions were better. In Hanoi, they continued their traditional crafts of selling glasses and buttons. Growing up, Nga and her sisters would help their mother to sell buttons, continuing even after Nga got a job in a state owned factory in her early twenties. After she got married and had children she left her job in the factory and started selling buttons full time, because she found that it gave her more flexibility to look after her young family. She started her own stall on Hang Bo at the age of 27 years old. Back then she was one of only a handful of other women selling buttons on the street – these women would help to transform Hang Bo, which was traditionally the place to sell bamboo baskets, into button street.
Today Hang Bo is jammed full for two or three blocks with button shops or people like Nga who set up temporary stalls along the pavement. Unlike the past, where Nga would sell small handfuls of buttons to individuals and tailors to make one or two pieces of clothing, many of Nga’s sales are now made to wholesale factories and tailors who buy buttons in bulk. After her husband was injured in the war, Nga’s button stall has helped her to become the breadwinner in her family.
However, for Nga the police have become a daily part of life. Despite the city’s bustling street life, a 2008 ban on street vendors has rendered the pavement side sellers, which so many people immediately associate with Hanoi, as illegal. When the police turn up she stashes her boxes of buttons and runs away, but from time to time when there is major crackdown on street vendors her goods will be confiscated by the police and she will need to pay a fine upwards of one million dong (AUD 50) for their return. When I ask why she doesn’t set up a formal shop to sell her goods, Nga responds that it is not financially practical to rent such a shop. Her button stall remains a largely family affair and Nga and her sister are regularly joined by Nga’s son and niece who help to sell buttons.