Tiny chairs and tiny tables in Vietnam street food
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The Fascinating Story Behind Vietnam’s Tiny Chairs and Tiny Tables

photo credit: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

Why are the tables and chairs so small in Vietnam?

One of the peculiar things about Vietnam is that some of the most delicious food is served on the tiniest chairs and tables.

If you have traveled in Vietnam, you’ve likely had this experience: you are enjoying a delicious Banh Mi while awkwardly trying to fit your knees under a child-like blue plastic table. Why? You ask yourself. Why are the tables and chairs so small in Vietnam?

The explanation behind the tiny-furniture phenomenon is fascinating, and it elucidates the remarkable economic history of Vietnam.

Are Vietnamese Short?

We can immediately do-away with the oft-proposed explanation that the tiny-tables are because Vietnamese are so short. It may have been a contributing factor in the past, but it is simply not the main factor today.

It is true that older generations of Vietnamese suffered high-rates of “stunting” — a reduction in average height due to malnourishment. We discuss this phenomenon in another article about “Why are Vietnamese so short?”

But today, young Vietnamese are taller, thanks to regular access to high-quality protein that, within living memory, were once a luxury and only possible during sacred celebrations. (“My wish for the whole year was to have a full bowl of rice on Tet remarked a sixty-year old woman, thinking of her childhood.)

With stunting no longer a national issue, the tiny tables and tiny chairs still persist, even though Vietnamese themselves are getting taller. So, we must dig deeper for other explanations behind the tiny furniture phenomenon…

Pop-Up Businesses and Side-Hustles

One reason for Vietnam’s fondness for tiny chairs & tables is due to the prevalence of pop-up street restaurants. We absolutely love this about Vietnam: at breakfast and lunch, the sidewalks come alive with semi-professional pop-up street vendors, serving some of the best food in the country.

Even brick-and-mortar shop-owners will get in on the action. For example, it is not uncommon for a piano-repairmen to make some extra cash at breakfast and lunch by serving homemade noodles on tiny plastic chairs and tables, right next to his inventory of instruments.

In this environment, the Vietnamese tiny chairs and tiny tables make sense: they can be quickly deployed, quickly stacked-up, easily moved-around, and easily stored.

Street food temporary restaurant on the streets of Hanoi
Delicious street food in Hanoi

However, the pop-up street-food phenomenon is only part of the story behind the tiny chairs and tiny tables. We know this because even established businesses with brick-and-mortar properties will use them. So, we must dig deeper for other explanations …

Subsidy Era Hang-Overs

After unification of North Vietnam and South Vietnam in 1976, and before the brilliant Doi Moi economic liberalizations of 1986, Vietnam lived through the “Subsidy Era”: a time of centrally-planned economics and collectivization of property.

During that time, there was no private-business nor accumulation of personal capital. For example, the government provided citizens with the fabric with which to make their own clothes. Farms and factories were collectively-owned and nominally government-run.

In that anti-capitalist and anti-entrepreneur atmosphere, people needed to do black-market side-hustles in order to survive, such as pop-up restaurants.

Street food in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, served on tiny plastic tables and chairs
Street food in Ho Chi Minh City

To do so, they needed to be nimble and ephemeral. Because it was illegal to build a business and accumulate wealth, there was no incentive to raise funds and build a capital stock of large furniture. Doing so would be risky: one’s stuff could be seized at any time.

Even after economic liberalization, in which people were once again allowed to own their own property, the previous mindset continued. This may seem strange, but put yourself in the shoes of the people living through the reforms. Having survived so much change, they wondered: Would the reforms last? Would the recently-bestowed freedoms suddenly reverse and return to collectivization?

In hindsight, one forgets that a return to capitalism in Vietnam wasn’t an inevitable outcome. Nor did many people foresee that Vietnam would become an economic power-house and home to global brand’s manufacturing.

The cultural legacy was set: in order to start a business, Vietnamese people learned to be small and nimble, to serve and work-hard, rather than to make risky capital investments — after all, such capital could be taken away (and were taken away) instantly and without notice.

The tiny plastic chairs and tiny blue tables are iconic of a legacy mindset whose origins are rooted in a time without strong property rights.

Credit, or Lack Thereof

Global retail-lending has collapsed since the 2008 Great Financial Crisis –in Vietnam, it was never high to begin with. Historically, there wasn’t widespread availability of cheap credit with which to start businesses. Even today, there isn’t a system of FICO scores for normal people to demonstrate their credit worthiness, and so it is incredibly difficult to get a loan to start a business.

Instead, the Vietnamese have a do-what-I-can attitude to just start a business with whatever they have or whatever they can easily acquire, i.e. tiny plastic furniture, instead of large capital outlays.

In some ways, this is more forgiving and less-risky as compared to the exorbitant capital requirements to start a brick-and-mortar business in the West.

The Love of Tiny Tables in Vietnam

The next time you visit Vietnam and sit in a tiny chair on a bustling street in Hanoi, don’t winch and scoff at the child-like furniture like a spoiled, petulant foreigner! Instead, think of the tiny furniture as an icon of the indelible entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people, and a reminder of the risks one takes to merely serve others and build wealth.

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