Peddlers in Ho Chi Minh City are mostly migrants from other provinces who, despite their low income, persist at work to fend for both themselves and their family members in their hometown.

“We are genuine workers,” one old peddler said.

“We are happy to be making money ourselves.

“Thank you for being compassionate, but please don’t take pity on us.”

Uncle, nephew, and a wok of hazelnuts

Tran Van Loi and his nephew Ngo Dinh Phong get ready for their day of selling hazelnuts around town during the predawn hours.

Parking their motorbike by a tall tree along No. 31 Street in Binh Tan District, the two quickly ignited their mobile stove using wooden sticks, already dripping with sweat from the effort.

A Tuoi Tre (Youth) correspondent asked Loi why he did not light it at home so it was ready when he reached his spot. 

With a click of the tongue, Loi explained how it was not possible.

“We share accommodations with lots of people in a tiny place on Provincial Highway No. 10. Although the landlord does not forbid us from lighting the fire [there], we are not taking any chance,” he said.

The uncle and nephew moved to Ho Chi Minh City from south-central Phu Yen Province more than ten years ago. 

Though Loi is married and has two children back in his hometown, he decides to stay in the city for a living. 

“There are four of us, and we can’t just do farming with merely 500 square meters of field,” he explained.

“My wife might be good at farm work and childcare, but that field can provide just enough for us to eat.”

Tran Van Loi roasts hazelnuts at his roadside stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Manh Dung / Tuoi Tre

Tran Van Loi roasts hazelnuts at his roadside stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Manh Dung / Tuoi Tre

He further explained that the income for his whole family comes mainly from him peddling in Ho Chi Minh City. 

For years now, the man and boy have never taken a single day off. 

“We still go to work whether it rains or not,” he said.

“Selling just a little bit is better than lying flat down on the floor, watching lizards on the walls and earning nothing.”

“After all our expenditures, we can normally send home around VND4 million [US$172].

“But it’s only VND3 million [$130] if the weather’s bad.”

Their situation is worsened following the coronavirus pandemic and the government-mandated social distancing policy.

There are days when they go to work for over 24 hours at a stretch, but can only earn VND300,000-400,000 ($13-17) before subtracting the costs of purchasing hazelnuts, food, and gasoline for their bike.

But the uncle keeps his chin up, believing that there is always a better day to make up for a bad one. 

“We will cover longer distances. We’ll save up even more. All bad things will come to an end,” Loi said.

Ngo Dinh Phong, Loi’s nephew, portions roasted hazelnuts into paper bags at their roadside stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Manh Dung / Tuoi Tre

Ngo Dinh Phong, Loi’s nephew, portions roasted hazelnuts into paper bags at their roadside stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Manh Dung / Tuoi Tre

The elderly along the streets

From the observations of a Tuoi Tre correspondent, the majority of peddlers actively selling at night pubs along the streets in Ho Chi Minh City are women over 50 years of age.

They largely come from Phu Yen and neighboring Khanh Hoa Provinces, and are usually selling lottery tickets or plastic bags of snacks and beans.

“Last week there were still lots of kids selling around here, but they went back to their hometown for school already,” Hoang Thi Tu, a 70-year-old peddler lottery seller, said.

The beginning of September marks the start of an academic school year in Vietnam.

“If any child is still working here, he must come from a really poor family.”

She herself had been walking around for five hours from 5:00 pm, but could only sell around 30 tickets.

“Keep on working. Those tickets won’t be checked until late tomorrow afternoon,” said Dieu, another lottery peddler around the same age as Tu. 

According to Tu, she needs at least VND3 million every month for accommodations and food. 

“If we can’t sell over 200 tickets a day, then we’re doomed.”

She came to Ho Chi Minh City from Phu Yen Province, following the advice of her seniors. 

“We elderly people will just sell lottery tickets. Those a bit younger often work at restaurants or become housemaids. But these days few people need our help,” she added.

Last year, she could still manage to send VND1-2 million ($43-86) a month to her family, but this year it is already too hard taking care of herself. 

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