It is a trading principle particularly used by food vendors and it refers to a group of traders, each specialising in a limited number of dishes - sometimes just one dish - who pool their resources to offer their potential customers a wider variety of choice. The practice is also known simply as an ‘association’ (of street vendors) since these vendors associate with one another in a cooperative-like fashion.
Vietnam is a society driven by entrepreneurs and small entrepreneurs make up a good part of it. Since the reforms of 1986 known as Đổi Mới (renovation) private initiative has been encouraged in a number of sectors, allowing private individuals to rent land and entrepreneurship has flourished.
Women play an important role in the development of business in Vietnam (Leshkowich 2011, 2015) and, in particular, in small and micro business. This refers to a very small activity, often limited to one person, with a low turnover. From moto-taxi ownership to the provision of street food, a large portion of the Vietnamese society specialises in micro business that tends to be labour intensive, but requiring little initial capital investment. It is common, therefore, that a single person - usually a woman - cooks a single dish and tries to sell it on the corner of a street, or wherever she is able to find some available space.
The practice of an ‘association’ of vendors can be regarded as solving at least two issues. The first is division of territory: when a large space is available and many vendors want to use it, they can share the territory and work together, rather than fighting to prevail to win space over others. The second issue is the diversification of supply. If a single customer needs to buy something (rice, noodles, drinks) they can simply go to the person selling what they are looking for. However, if two or more persons go out to eat together, the likelihood that they want to eat the same thing decreases and the group might chose to go to a larger restaurant offering them more choice. However, an association of vendors allows each one to offer their customers a full menu of diverse food and drink, which increases the chance of attracting customers both individually and collectively.
Once a space is made available for trading, it is occupied by a number of micro entrepreneurs, each specialising in a single product. One will sell spring rolls, one will prepare fried rice, another noodles, another drinks (ice tea, juices). The greater the number of sellers within an association, the wider the availability of different items. Each entrepreneur occupies a small part of the available space and, sometimes will place plastic chairs and tables in their area for customers to use.
Once a customer arrives, each of the vendors tries to attract them and invites them sit in their designated area. However, once they are seated, customers will be given a menu containing all the dishes that are available to order from each of the competing vendors. (In more advanced unions the venders prepare a common menu listing all the items available from which customers can choose. In less advanced unions the menu will be offered orally).
The customers place their order and the vendor brings all the dishes that have been ordered. Some will be prepared by the ‘owner’ of the sitting area, others, the ones the seller does not specialise in, will be ‘bought’ from another stand. Accounts will be kept so that each seller will accumulate debts and credits with the other sellers. At the end of the day a balance will be calculated and all credits and debts paid.
People participating in this mechanism are not always linked by family ties, nor are they necessarily long time acquaintances. They might simply find it convenient to join forces with other people to increase sales. Although they profit only when they sell their own dishes, an alliance is convenient for two reasons. Firstly it allows street vendors to increase the number of customers, and thus the potential number of items sold. Secondly, it allows them to sell their own dishes through other vendors. In theory, it is possible for a customer to sit at one vendor’s table but not order anything that that particular vendor produces, in which case only the other vendors benefit from that particular customer. In a more complex scenario, the vendor might get a discount when buying from their colleagues, so in effect he makes a small profit even if he is not selling his own products. In other cases simple reciprocity applies: I sell your dishes to my customers at no extra cost and you will sell mine later on, when they come to you and order things that I produce.
The scheme is, however, not free of risk and conflict is perhaps the main concern. For instance, if the day accounts are kept orally, vendors might not agree on the amount of credit or debit they have accrued with other vendors. This disagreement might escalate into a fight between tired vendors at the end of the day, or in a conflict bearing more long-term consequences such as stigmatisation and progressive marginalisation from the community, pushing them to look for another alliance elsewhere. When the practice is successful, however, it helps to bond the sellers and gives them a definite competitive advantage since it exploits the mechanism of a cooperative, where everyone contributes capital and labour, and profit is shared more or less evenly among the participants.