Tet pressures not worth it, say migrants who stay back

By Long Nguyen   January 21, 2020 | 11:45 pm PT
Le Van Thanh is not swayed by the Tet bustle.

As bright lights illuminate the streets and loved ones gather to welcome a New Year, the migrant from the northern province of Ha Nam has not booked his ticket home. He will stay put in Ho Chi Minh City.

"I am not going home. Traveling before and after Tet is expensive, and then visiting my relatives requires me to spend a fortune."

While millions flock to bus terminals, train stations and airports to make their way home, many people are choosing to stay back rather than spend their hard-earned money on festival celebrations.

A man got stuck in the traffice while going home before Tet, which is a pipe dream for many migrant workers. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

A young man walks on a Saigon sidewalk with his valise, part of the teeming crowds returning home for Tet. There are many migrants who cannot afford the travel and other expenses who stay back in the cities. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

For them, staying back during Tet is a rational economic decision. It helps them save a significant amount of money they have worked hard throughout the year for.

In a neighborhood in HCMC's Binh Tan District, home to two industrial zones, many residents, mostly workers from the north, have stayed back.

While Thanh is busy cleaning up his 25-meter-square room, his roommate from Thai Binh Province is preparing to cook some traditional dishes along with several others. Their group of five have decided to celebrate Tet in Saigon.

Thuong, a woman in the group, said: "This is the second year I am not going home for Tet. It helps me avoid spending too much and avoid the travel rush."

She misses home, of course, but "money comes first."

With people staying back, some shops and restaurants also decide to remain open and make extra money.

In District 12, around the Tan Thoi Hiep Industrial Zone, some shops and restaurants are still open with Tet just days away. Most of their customers are workers living in the neighborhood.

"Many people are here, so I will open until the last day of the lunar year to serve them and earn a little more," said Truong Thu Hien, a grocery shop owner. Hien also provides an informal ATM service.

She keeps cash on hand for people wanting to avoid the Tet rush at ATMs. They can transfer funds to her bank account and collect cash from her.

Bottomless expense

Increasing travel costs and other Tet expenses like buying gifts are a severe financial strain on people who do not earn much.

Last year Thanh, a worker at a plastic company in HCMC's Binh Tan District who earns around VND9 million ($387.6) a month, paid VND 6.5 million ($279.9) for air tickets and a month’s salary on buying gifts and giving red envelopes with ‘lucky money’ during the Lunar New Year.

Going home for Tet without new clothes or gifts for family members is unthinkable.

A 2016 survey by market research firm TNS found a vast majority of people preparing to increase their spending during the Tet season. It estimated their average spending at VND14.2 million ($611.6), which is an enormous sum for people who barely make ends meet.

Staying back instead of going home does not mean the migrants will have a lot of free time. They take up extra work as motorbike taxi drivers, cleaners and other jobs to augment their meager earnings.

Huynh Trong Dat, a painter, is one of them. The 34-year-old from the northern province of Hai Duong moved to Ho Chi Minh City three years ago. He works as a painter during the year, but joins the army of motorbike taxi drivers in December since "most people have their houses repainted by the last month of the year," and he has nothing to do.

He said earns up to VND20,000 ($0.86) extra for a ride during Tet, "which is a good deal."

Tet is the most fruitful time of the year for many people, especially those who work in the beauty industry.

Nguyen Thi Huong, who works at a spa on Trang Thi Street in Hanoi, will not go home this year either. For the 27-year-old native of central Nghe An Province, the month before Tet is the busiest time of the year.

Grab bike riders waits for passengers on a street. Photo by Shutterstock/Asia Images.

Grab bike riders wait for passengers on a street. Photo by Shutterstock/Asia Images.

"Even on New Year’s eve, I have dozens of customers waiting for facials, and I don't want to miss a chance to earn more money," she said.

In fact, with a lot of the work in cities done by migrant workers, urban life would come to a standstill if they all left during Tet.

The greatest annual migration in the country began several weeks ago, and there will be a lull this Friday, the last day of the old lunar year.

For Thanh, Thuong, Huong, and many other workers who have decided not to join the annual exodus, Tet is a time of excitement and homesickness.

"I miss my family, but I will go and see them in summer when traveling is easier and cheaper," said Thanh.

Last week, he sent VND10 million ($430.7) to his mother in the northern province of Ha Nam.

"If I travelled before Tet, there would be no VND10 million to give her."

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