In frame is the teenage pushcart vendor selling corn.
From a western perspective, the scene is rather quaint, the food something that we'd brand as streetfood and think twice about before consuming. Looking at the photo with friends upon our return home we might refer to the girl vendor as sweet.
But let's ponder her life for a moment. She is not the self-starter entrepreneur rising up from poverty that we might like to imagine or admire. Though she may not admit it, her life is in fact pretty miserable. Her existence is hand-to-mouth. The cart does not belong to her. She pushes it for another and receives a small percentage of the meagre turnover. She competes with other 'franchisees' selling the same corn up and down the same stretch of street.
She should be in school. But she's been sent by her family from the provinces to seek work, whatever work, to supplement their below-the-poverty-line household income. If she's lucky, she might reside with relatives in a house. If not, the likelihood is that she's sharing one in a long line of concrete shells with a tin or thatched roof, with six or eight kids in similar circumstances. It would not be the ritzy end of town.There'd be no heating or air-conditioning and she'd probably have to leave the room for running water or to use the toilet. She'd be holding onto her pathetic stash of money with more concentration than an armoured vehicle driver, each 1000VND note (5c) like a $100 bill.
And she's getting home late. And there's a rat scurrying about her room. And her feet are cold because she doesn't own a pair of socks.
But when I order my ngô xào (fried corn) from her rickety cart, she can still smile broadly despite it all. And while she doesn't display any natural flair or explicit pride in the production of her fare (who can blame her?), there is a methodical portioning of the ingredients that one would expect in a 'franchise'. The corn here is a starchier white corn grown in Vietnam and less sweet then the yellow variety known in Hanoi as ngô Thái Lan (from Thailand).
Two scoops of kernels from the glass cabinet are scattered into the oil in the frypan. From the cart's 'mise en place', a spoonful of white sugar and a generous squirt of fish sauce make up the sweet and sour part of the flavour profile. More fishy is added in the form of tép (tiny prawns or krill) which gives crunch to the corn's chew. At the end, when the corn has taken on a translucent quality, the finishing touches are dropped into the pan: cheap margarine, green spring onion tips and some hot red sauce.
It's a good snack, worth trying to cook up at home and worth exchanging a little smile and leaving the change with the pushcart vendor.
She needs it.
One serve ngô xào - 12,000VND (USD 57c, AUD 55c)
Hanoi Night Market
(Fri, Sat & Sun nights)