In a London branch of British supermarket chain Asda, a livestreamer has just cleared the shelves of baby formula. She zooms in on her shopping cart, featuring a dozen formula boxes. “There’s no more milk to pick, everyone,” she says in Vietnamese. “I’ve only managed to get this much.” 

A stranger approaches her to ask why she’s buying so much. “We just make a gift for some baby,” the woman replies in English.

It’s a lie. The woman, whose name and face are never shown on camera, streams her shopping trips regularly. Her videos sometimes amass thousands of views, mostly from mothers and fathers thousands of kilometers away in Vietnam looking to buy baby formula hand-picked and delivered in just over a week to their doorstep from a British supermarket, via Vietnamese intermediaries selling on Facebook.

Ly Le was one of them. The 30-year-old banker from Quang Binh province in central Vietnam wanted to try out a baby formula brand for her newborn, but didn’t want to buy a huge volume in case it didn’t suit the baby. After asking around, she learned that small-sized packages weren’t available domestically – but she could buy one from the so-called “hàng xách tay” shops that operate mostly on Facebook. 

“Hàng xách tay” means “hand-delivered” or “carry-on,” depending on the context. The latter alludes to the way black-market foreign products used to arrive in Vietnam — in the carry-on luggage of shop-owners’ relatives or via a network of flight attendants. This method has fallen out of favor, however, because it’s limited by the size of cabin baggage and costly to move in small quantities. Most suppliers selling through Facebook now get their goods delivered via air cargo companies.

Facebook makes up around 10% of the total e-commerce market in Vietnam, according to Decision Lab, a market research company based in Ho Chi Minh City. Facebook shops selling “carry-on” goods first sprung up in Vietnam around 2014 and 2015, according to Giang Nguyen-Thu, a post-doctoral fellow in cultural studies at the University of Queensland in Australia. They are run mostly by young mothers in Vietnam as a way to earn extra cash while on maternity leave. Often, the flexibility of the work, its decent revenues, and the appearance of baby number two turn this side job into a full-blown business, creating an informal economy run by mothers selling imported baby products, cosmetics, supplements, and clothes to other mothers.

While most baby formula is still bought through conventional retail channels in Vietnam, wealthier parents often don’t trust the safety standards or the authenticity of products sold locally, and therefore seek out carry-on shops online. Hand-picked baby formula sells for nearly double the retail price in the U.K. — around 800,000 Vietnamese dong ($34.40) for an 800 gram packet. The same packet would cost around 700,000 dong ($30) if imported via formal channels, while a cheaper brand, like Nestlé, costs around 435,000 dong (around $19).

“You use the money to buy an exclusive treatment that will ease your insecurity, at least psychologically,” Nguyen-Thu said. 

10% Facebook’s share of the Vietnamese e-commerce marketplace.

Source: Decision Lab

Customers like Le are incredibly discerning. She told Rest of World that formula milk sold on Shopee, the biggest e-commerce platform in Vietnam, has a short use-by date. She spent hours researching Facebook shops before she settled on one to deal with, looking forensically at their products and the evidence they provide. 

Some stores post photos of formula milk alongside receipts to show where and when the packets were purchased, but Le said these could be doctored. She’s also suspicious when several shops simultaneously announce new, large deliveries of the same brand of milk from the same country, containing the same expiration date. That means, she said, the milk could not have been hand-picked, but was likely mass imported via an intermediary. That’s not good enough, she said, because she doesn’t want to buy milk that’s been shipped in hot, cramped marine containers that take months to arrive, because that will affect the milk’s quality. A common belief among mothers buying from Facebook shops that Rest of World spoke to is that milk powder transported by sea gets more damp than the milk flown in an air-conditioned plane. “I heard from somewhere that milk shipped in containers will lose 60% of its nutritional value,” she said. There is no evidence that this is true.

What Le looks for in a shop is its reputation, follower count, and reviews on Facebook. Most importantly, she wants the ability to buy the product in real time via a livestream, and for the owner to have a friend or relative overseas who will personally pick up the product.. The shop she chose meets all these criteria. Its owner, a mother residing in north-central Nghe An province, has been in the business for four years. She spoke on condition of anonymity because her business essentially amounts to smuggling. She refused to share the location of the supermarkets shown in her shop’s livestreams. But by cross-referencing video and photo content from the account, Rest of World was able to pin down the location to London.

Since making her purchase at the shop, Le hasn’t gone back, however. Not because there was anything wrong with the milk, but because she’s managed to shortcut the supply chain even further. Through acquaintances and chance meetups, she found students studying in Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Australia willing to personally pick up and ship baby products to her. It requires a lot of time to manage the network, but it means she’s sure she’s getting what she paid for. “Buying goods for my child, it’s exhausting,” she said.