Capturing the Beauty of Vietnam's Street Vendors from Above

How one photographer reveals the hidden art of Vietnam's vibrant markets
Art of Vietnam Street Vendors
Photos: Loes Heerink

It was the sights and sounds of Hanoi's street vendors that inspired Dutch photographer Loes Heerink to relocate to the Vietnamese capital some years ago. The fascination developed into a little side project that eventually became the makings of Heerink's first photo book, Merchants in Motion: The Art of Vietnam’s Street Vendors.

Released last month, Merchants in Motion casts an expressive aerial eye across Hanoi's street market culture, documenting peddlers as they carry their colorful cargo of fruits, vegetables and flowers fastened to their preferred modes of transportation. The 140-plus collection of photographs—which features everything from longan, durian and rambutan to lychees and flowers—makes everyday market goods appear like ephemeral, edible art installations.

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If you take a moment to consider her perspective, these photographs really are a kind of art. And art, oftentimes, takes patience. Heerink would spend hours on perches across the city, waiting for vendors to pass through underneath. 

"After six months of taking pictures, I still hadn't seen a silk flower vendor pass by any of my spots," Heerink says, describing her search to capture Vietnam's tradition of handmade artificial flowers. With the help of a Vietnamese friend, Heerink eventually connected with a silk flower vendor named Buoi. "At the time I met her, "Heerink recalls, "she was trying to earn enough money to go home for Christmas."

Most vendors in Hanoi are female migrants, heading to the city to earn extra money. Some stay year-round, some only when their crops back home don’t need attention. And though Heerink's project could be taken as exploitative of Hanoi's locals, to think that is to miss her celebration of life in the bustling Southeast Asian city, which calls to mind the same joy of New York's The Street Vendor Project, once championed by the late, great Anthony Bourdain on his Queens episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown.

Street vendors all over the world work long hours, often in harsh conditions to provide quick, affordable service to all classes of people. And as Heerink demonstrates, there may be no better way to get to know a city’s beauty than through the stories of its streets. 

Emma Orlow is a food writer and cultural event producer interested in the ways art can be used for food justice. She was named a 30 Under 30 by Brooklyn Magazine for 2018. Follow her on Instagram at @emorlow.

  • "Most vendors walk kilometers a day. Some even up to 30. Sometimes they stop along the side of the road to wait for buyers. Like this flower vendor."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "A vendor selling silk flower is cycling quite fast. Not all vendors can cycle on their cycle. Some use the seat for storage, and other cycles are too heavy."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "Two vendors who are walking together stop to give each other a hug."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "Perfectly arranged oranges, limes and melons on a rainy morning."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "Lots of green make a pretty nice shot. Sour mangoes and avocados are carried by this vendor walking on a seemingly quiet road."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "A flower vendor's shot on Women’s Day. The little blue seat glimpsing at the side of the bike is for when the vendor takes a break."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "This lady is in her 60s/70s. She can't carry that much food on her bike anymore. So after she visits the night market to get her fruits, she brings most of it at a friend's house. Then she walks around, staying close to the house. So whenever she is out of fruit, she can easily get some more."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "Some vendors also use the side of their bikes to store as much fruit as they possibly can. This woman attached some pineapples to the side."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

  • "On a rainy morning, this vendor walks by with her oranges and clementines. It makes a nice contrast together with her orange shoes."

    Photo: Loes Heerink

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