I could count the number of male street food vendors who have served me in Vietnam on one hand. They are a small club, perhaps in need of a self-help group. Based on my statistic alone, I think it can be clearly stated that this kind of work in Vietnam is women's work, assigned to them from birth. In home kitchens and at street stalls in this country, it is women cooking to feed the masses. However, in professional kitchens in Vietnam - as with other parts of the world - the work is accorded more legitimacy and therefore men are better represented in these environs.
In Hanoi, in my observations, cleaning and childcare is also women's work. The garbage collection is largely done by women. They make up the vast majority of mobile street vendors, be they selling produce or other goods or scraping a meagre living from the scavenging of plastic or cardboard or scrap metal. Women are not averse to work requiring intense physical strength, like carting bricks or shovelling sand or digging ditches. They are very well represented on thousands of construction sites throughout the city. On these construction sites, women will be cooking for the men and washing their clothes.
In the country's National Assembly, women are quite well represented but between 2007 and 2011 Vietnam's position on the gender gap index fell from 42nd to 79th in the world. In other male dominated domains, such as coffee houses, tea stands and bia hoi restaurants in the capital, women will be seen but in much fewer numbers then men. They do not linger at such places, either. For they have work to do fulfilling their traditional roles in the home, on the street...even on the building site.
In Vietnam, it's clearly a man's world. But what of this rare breed of male street food vendor? Was it his idea to throw a pot in a Hội An alleyway and start serving cao lầu? Is it a tradition whereby his father handed the family recipe down to him and he, in future, will pass it on to his son? The answer to both questions undoubtedly is a resounding no.
Much more likely is that his wife is actually reponsible for the whole operation. Even in a town famous for this one noodle dish, she eked out a niche for her version of the dish, just far enough away from her competitors. By day, she is purchasing her ingredients, prepping and portioning them ready for the evening's trade. In the late afternoon, she oversees the haul and set up of the servery, each vessel methodically placed in the right position to expedite rapid assembly of the dish. The patron's tables are laid with sticks, spoons and condiments. The husband may be allowed to assist in these steps but by god he better get it right.
So where is the woman this night? Could she be forsaking her reputation by allowing her husband to run the show? Maybe she is running low on a particular ingredient and has gone rushing madly to replenish it. Perhaps she is visiting her relatives or caring for a sick grandchild. Perhaps she is attending to ceremonial or ancestral matters at the pagoda or the family burial plot. Could it be that she herself is sick, in hospital having a procedure done. Maybe she died.
Any number of scenarios could have led to the man of the house being temporarily or permanently in charge. He has been trained well in the assembly of the dish; blanching of the 'only-in-Hội An' noodles (the defining ingredient with a back story), portioning of thin slices of pork, herbs and sprouts, ladling of five-spice infused broth and the texture masterstroke of flat oily crunchy croutons on top.
It seems that a man - in the odd incidence in Vietnam - can do women's work, too.