Cultivating Quan He: Social Relations, Support Networks and Sentiments in the Vietnamese Marketplace

As Vietnam shifted from central planning to a decentralized market-economy "with socialist orientation", local markets gradually transformed into thriving hubs of privatized commercial activity. The reopening of cross-border trade with China in the early 1990s facilitated an ever-increasing (legal and illegal) flow of goods and people across the border. In major cities as well as in small towns, trade became ubiquitous, with curb sides and sidewalks taken over by street vendors peddling everything from fresh produce to household supplies. Market buildings were renovated (or rebuilt) and soon overflowed with goods that reflected new consumer desires and trends in consumption. On the other hand, the vicissitudes of the market have left many small-scale traders and stallholders vulnerable to its sudden downturns and slumps. Moreover, the state’s current programme of economic development and modernisation increasingly marginalises 'traditional' forms of commercial activity and gradually replaces 'old-style' markets with modern trade centres.

Current perspectives in economic anthropology emphasise that markets and trading practices are deeply embedded in social relations and cultural meanings. The Vietnamese marketplace is thus to be seen not only as a place of economic exchange but also as a thriving microcosm of social relations that require an artful balancing of instrumental, moral, and emotional orientations. Moreover, it is assumed that the risky nature of the market has given new importance to social support provided by kinship ties and other forms of social relatedness. The aim of this project is therefore to 'disentangle' the complex webs of social relations and support networks (as well as the sentiments intrinsic to them) of market vendors in order to contribute to new insights concerning the role of social relations and support mechanisms in dealing with insecurity. With a particular focus on cross-border trade dynamics, research will be carried out in the city of Lao Cai on the border of Vietnam and China.

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