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The Dong Ba Market smile
2/23/2024 8:25:40 AM
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 Mrs. Thanh has always been close to the vendors. Photo: An Nhien
Ms. Hoang Thi Khanh, 81 years old, selling betel nut at Dong Ba market, said that before 1975, small traders all wore ao dai, and Dong Ba was like a miniature Hue, a place preserving the essence of Hue's cultural heritage. Sometimes visitors from far away come to Hue, to Dong Ba market, just to hear the very authentic Hue dialect of the old and young ladies.
Mrs. Thanh has always been close to the vendors. Photo: An Nhien

People like Mrs. Khanh spread word-of-mouth about the new "boss" in the early days when Hoang Thi Nhu Thanh, Chairwoman of the Hue City Federation of Labor, moved in to work . Many expressed "disappointment" when she was born in the 80s generation. However, they soon shifted from surprise to admiration. With over 3,500 vendors, nearly everyone met with Thanh and shared their thoughts, even engaging in conversations that lasted until 2-3 am in the morning.

During the first three months, Thanh's main task was understanding the vendors' sentiments. The initial days were quite stressful. For Thanh, transparency was key. There was no differentiation between rich and poor, familiar or unfamiliar. The main stall holders, as well as street vendors, were equally respected. Thanh realized that for the market to develop, only the vendors, the shop owners were able to make the change. Thanh's fairness and generosity earned her people's admiration. The nickname "Risky Thanh" stemmed from this.

 Hoang Thi Nhu Thanh is a prominent figure praised by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, honored in 2023. Photo: Provided by the writer

In the past, people visited the market not only for trade but also for socializing, exchanging information... But over time, many social vices tarnished Dong Ba Market's reputation.

The idea of Dong Ba Market competing with supermarkets is also a way to preserve Hue's culture. Thanh compared and realized that people preferred supermarkets not only for the air-conditioned environment but also for the clean space, good service, no price manipulation... Why couldn't Dong Ba Market do the same? Taking the plunge, Thanh invited psychological experts to assist vendors in customer care skills.

Vendors were thrilled to learn how to become salespeople, greeting customers with bright smiles for the first time... Thanh aimed to build the image of "Civilized and friendly are Dong Ba people" associated with the movement "3 No’s, 2 Yes‘s" (No Mi xưa, no price gouging, no asking insistently; and, having prestige, having quality). From there, Thanh encouraged vendors to sell at the right price, with the participation of over 400 booths with price listing compliance, reaching 92% of all. Many issues disappeared when over 150 cameras were installed in the market. Dong Ba became the first traditional market in the country to develop its own "Dong Ba Market" app on smart devices, creating an online trading channel.

The landscape and infrastructure of Dong Ba Market were deteriorating, acknowledged by everyone. Small booth areas forced vendors to display goods onto the aisles. Thanh talked intimately to the aunties and sisters, convincing them to contribute fund to reorganizing the market. Everyone cooperated, making the rennovation of the Dong Ba Market easier with over 3 billion VND. Many vendors voluntarily closed their stalls for up to ten days for repairs, thousands of stalls rearranged appropriately and safely. Then, 100% of vendors returned the space they had previously encroached upon in the market, ranging from 0.2 to 1m2.

Since Thanh's moving in to work at Dong Ba Market, Hue city has invested about 10 billion VND to re-plan the entire area, from Truong Tien Bridge to Gia Hoi Bridge and Chuong Duong street. Surprisingly, within just 10 days, the market management collected over 90% of taxes, something rarely achieved before. Then the market installed an additional 100 solar-powered lights and engaged in activities contributing to building a green, clean, beautiful, and safe environment. Alleys, staircases, corridors, or market gates became popular check-in spots.

Serious and decisive, but when interacting with the vendors, Thanh is gentle and kindhearted. Thanh implemented a fair reward and punishment system. The market had clear regulations. The first time someone challenged or manipulated prices, they were warned, but the second time, their stall was suspended for 3 to 5 days. "Thanks to Thanh's ability to use a good heart to persuade while being strict, the vendors understand and follow her advice," said Mrs. Tran Thi Lien, who runs a specialty food business in Hue.

I learned that over 50% of vendors have been closely associated with the market for almost their entire lives. Thanh believes that market culture is to bring people closer together. Thanh began "persuading" for sponsorships for the ladies to go on tours. As if fulfilling their longing, they immediately participated. Perhaps the most impressive for many vendors was their visit to Ho Chi Minh Museum to report their achievement and to hear Uncle Ho's voice. For the first time, Dong Ba Market recruited 4 party members among its vendors.

Another excellent connection is the four trips to Lang Co initiated by Thanh, enthusiastically joined by the vendors. Ms. Nguyen Thi Man, a fruit vendor, honestly said that despite doing business with each other for a long time, they had never really known each other. Through these trips, people bonded and cared for one another. The Dong Ba Night event over a year ago saw hundreds of amateur actress from the market, dressed in ao dai, stepping onto the stage for the first time, performing acts depicting 123 years of market activities, which was very special. Moreover, after nearly 50 years of absence, market vendors have determinedly restored the tradition of wearing ao dai.

I now understand the statistics for 2023 when Dong Ba Market welcomed up to 400,000 visitors, an increase of 51% compared to the same period in 2022. Now, people come to Dong Ba not just to buy goods but sometimes just to "sit down," chat in a spacious and safe environment. The traditional market with the "Dong Ba Smile" is gradually reclaiming its position as a cultural and commercial center imbued with the essence of Hue City. And I also feel that in every change of one of the three most famous markets in the country, there is the image of Hoang Thi Nhu Thanh.