A city (country?) of shopkeepers

This is a post I drafted while in Hanoi. Posting just as I leave Vietnam now.

There is a saying about England, attributed commonly to Napoleon (who used it as an insult about our lack of preparedness for war), that we are “a nation of shopkeepers”. In 1776, the Scottish economist Adam Smith apparently also said, “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” (Wealth of Nations.) Napoleon was familiar with Smith’s work, apparently.

The Dean of Gloucester, Josiah Tucker, in 1766 reportedly said, “…and what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shopkeeping nation” (and what is that? More googling required for the context). So who knows where it comes from, but it is supposed to refer to our having very little ambition, I think.

The reason I’m going into all of this is because Hanoi is a city (and Vietnam is a country) literally wall to wall with shopkeepers. There is not a person who is not selling stuff directly here. And (given the climate and cost of air conditioning) it’s pretty much all done outside. Even the shops mostly have their doors permanently open. It’s like walking through a constant marketplace.

Here, I’m not convinced that this implies a lack of ambition, exactly. It looks to me more like a response to grinding poverty, like determination to survive, like entrepreneurial adaptability, using whatever is to hand. If it isn’t nailed down, sell it! And there is a lot more handicraft here, too. I imagine people are more likely to do well in a touristy city if they have some skill in that department, alongside the ability to persuade people to part with money.

If these people had been born in the right place in a rich western country, they’d be celebrated as great businesspeople, and would probably amass a small fortune pretty quickly. (Though they’d have to really understand western standards re cleanliness and health and safety.) This is the same reflection I often have about people born in poorer areas of the UK. Some manage to figure out how to navigate their way out and make it big. Many continue their entrepreneurial ways where they are in a bit of a “Del Boy” (Only Fools and Horses) type way. As with my conversation with Thanh in Ninh Binh, I realise that if people’s frame of reference is about survival, their whole narrative (political, economic) is different.

All this is to say that you’ve got to admire the sheer bloody determination to survive and stand on their own two feet of these people. And their resilience in the face of multiple challenges.

Every time I spoke to Dzung, she waited patiently for me to find the right kind of technology to get myself translated. She preferred to listen to the translation rather than read it. She has a mobile phone herself and when in doubt about anything, she would use it to ring her relatives to check with them what to do or find out from them what she needed to know. They were like a human Google for her! I paid her in US dollars, as it is difficult to get out enough cash over here for bigger sums (actually not very big by UK standards of course). I showed her the amount on my app which gives up to date exchange rates, but she wisely rang her relatives to check.

Dzung has a business in Sai Gon as well as this quite a few roomed homestay. I guess she must be about in her mid 60s? I find it amazing how she’s worked out enough about how to use the technology for it to work for her. I think her family might be quite annoyed how she constantly rings them up, but I bet they benefit from it too. And I wonder what hurdles she has had to negotiate to be such a businesswoman in Vietnam? It’s a traditional culture but I get the impression there is more freedom for younger women to make their own choices now than perhaps there was in the past.

The young women I met on my travels in Vietnam were fabulous. Their voices were quiet, positive, passionate and strong. And they tended to crack a lot of jokes too (impressive especially in a foreign language). The world needs more women like this, and I wish them well.

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