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Out of pocket

Released at: 23:57, 13/02/2018

Out of pocket

Photos: Viet Tuan

Getting home for Tet is no easy task for those who now live away from their homeland.

by Le Diem

The last month of the lunar year is usually the busiest time for Mr. Thanh Tung, a 33-year-old chief technical officer at the MISA JSC. Not because his workload increases but because he has to prepare to return to his homeland in Bac Giang province for Tet, as do many immigrants living in Hanoi. 

Tet is a time for family members to get together and welcome in the new year. It’s even more meaningful these days as more and more people are leaving their hometown to go and work in cities. Not all, sadly, have the chance to return home.

Home sweet home

Vietnam has seen an increasing number of immigrants over recent years. According to a report from the World Institute for Development Economics Research under the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER), domestic migrants totaled 1.3 million in 1989, accounting for 2.5 per cent of the population. The figures stood at 2 million and 2.9 per cent in 1999 and 3.4 million and 4.3 per cent in 2009. UNU-WIDER estimated immigrant numbers at 6 million by 2019, or 6.4 per cent of the population. Another report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2015, meanwhile, stated that 13.6 per cent of Vietnam’s population are immigrants. 

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are the two cities welcoming the most immigrants, at 26.5 and 16.5 per cent of the total, respectively. Immigrants account for about 30 per cent of Hanoi’s population of 7.5 million and Ho Chi Minh City’s 10 million. Cities can resemble “ghost towns” when Tet arrives, given the large numbers of people who return to their homeland. 

When he first moved to Hanoi for university studies, it was fairly straightforward for Mr. Tung to get home for Tet. He just went to the bus station, battled the crowds, bought a ticket, and jumped on board. But he now has a wife and a son, so more planning is needed. 

Adding to the preparations is the fact that his wife’s homeland is 100 km away from his, so more than a return trip from Hanoi is needed. Not only are bus stations packed, tickets are also more expensive. “We have to make arrangements and buy our tickets early,” he said. 

Similarly, Ms. Lan Quynh, a 31-year-old office worker at the Hanoi Department of Natural Recourses and Environment, also has to prepare thoroughly to return home for Tet. Though born and raised in Hanoi, she must travel some 1,200 km to welcome in the new year in south-central Phu Yen province, where her husband hails from. They used to take a train, which costs about $180 return for her family of three. But the trip is the best part of a day, which was time-consuming and quite tiring. So they started to fly, which cost about $500 in total. 

Transport is also not the only cost incurred, as gifts and other items must be bought for parents and other family members. “It’s no small amount of money, maybe $1,500 in total, while my annual income is about $3,500,” Ms. Quynh said. “But it’s worth it. We are far from home for all of the year and it’s great to spend some time together with the family.”  

Away from home 

While white-collar workers like Mr. Tung and Ms. Quynh, who have stable jobs and stable incomes, are willing to spend a significant chunk of their savings on returning home, others, especially unskilled workers with tenuous employment, have trouble affording it. 

One, Ms. Kim Hoa, a 20-year-old textile worker at the Tan Tao Industrial Park in Ho Chi Minh City, made the decision not to return home to northern Thai Binh province this year. Coming from a farming family, she left school at aged 16 and briefly worked as a waitress before finding a job at the industrial park. “Of course I want to see my parents during Tet,” she said. “But it’s costly. The fare is a month’s salary, and the sort of things I want to buy to take home become more expensive just before the holiday, and I just can’t afford them. I’ll stay here and cook some traditional food and send some money home to my mother, who has a lung condition.”  

Not spending time with the family during Tet is completely opposite to the tradition, but in the modern world it simply can’t be helped. Demand for manual workers before and during Tet is high, as most people are on holidays. Working at this time involves overtime and low-income workers are often tempted to take it.

From northern Thanh Hoa province, Mr. Anh Tu, a porter at Dong Xuan Market in Hanoi, is happy to take on an extra job delivering flowers and bonsai, which are in high demand during Tet among people wanting to decorate their home. Normally working until the very last days of the old year and then returning home for just three days, this year he decided not to go home. 
Meanwhile, Ms. Ngoc Xuan, a waitress, chooses to work overtime during Tet, as the restaurant she works at remains open and pays triple the normal rate. “It’s sad not to see my family at this special time but it’s a good opportunity to earn extra, which I can send to my mother to feed my kids, who live with her,” she said. 

While working harder and having no holidays, all still try to celebrate the new year with some friends or colleagues in a similar situation. “But I still miss my kids a lot,” Ms. Xuan said. “I want to hug them and be there with them. I may return home next year if I can save enough money.”

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