Vietnamese engineer a Saharan Tet

By Anh Ngoc   January 24, 2020 | 09:43 pm PT
Vietnamese engineer a Saharan Tet
Vietnam's oil research, exploration and exploitation project in Hassi Messaoud, Algeria. Photo courtesy of Do Duy Khoan.
Even though it's the second time celebrating Tet in the middle of the Sahara for Do Duy Khoan, the longing for home still weighs heavy on his heart.

On such days, while his wife and children shop and decorate their home in Hanoi to celebrate Lunar New Year, or Tet, Khoan, 37, labors 12 hours a day in Hassi Messaoud, a town in eastern Algeria. Having worked in the country since 2015, he now serves as head of the Mining Technology team, charged with the geological side of a local oil research, exploration and exploitation project.

"Our project has a total of 32 Vietnamese staff. Due to the extremely stressful nature of the job, each shift lasts for 28 days straight, after which we get a 28-day break," Khoan told VnExpress. "This year there are about 12 of us staying here instead of returning home for Tet to assist operations."

Hassi Messaoud lies in the middle of Sahara Desert, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) south of Algeria's capital Algiers, where the weather can be extremely harsh. Summer here is very long with temperatures of up to 45-50 degrees C (113-122 degrees F), while during winter they could drop to just 3-5 degrees C (37-41 degrees F).

Khoan and his colleagues have had to adjust to life surrounded by sand, eating and sleeping on-site inside containers and prohibited from venturing out due to the many dangers and threat of accidents.

Thanks to technological progress, connecting with the outside world and communicating with their families back in Vietnam have become more convenient for Khoan and his team mates, though the pangs of sadness remain. 

"Tet is an occasion to reunite with family and relatives. Sometimes, when listening to the melody of  'Xuan Nay Con Khong Ve' [This Spring I'm Not Coming Home], most of us find it hard not to shed tears," he said.

Khoan still remembers his first Tet in the desert back in 2017, a burning wood stove with "banh chung" (square sticky rice cakere) placed by blazes from the massive oil drilling system. By the time Vietnam rang in the new year, it was still 6 p.m. in Algeria so he and his colleagues asked to leave work early for the day, put up an artificial peach branch brought from Vietnam, then sat down together for a celebratory drink.

In his phone call back home, Khoan laughed and asserted his Tet away from home was already "extremely grand" given the circumstances, as he didn't want to let his wife and children notice his grief. 

Khoan serves as head of the Mining Technology team, charged with the geological side of a local oil research, exploration and exploitation project. Photo courtesy of Do Duy Khoan.

Khoan serves as head of the Mining Technology team, charged with the geological side of a local oil research, exploration and exploitation project. Photo courtesy of Do Duy Khoan.

"My wife and children really looked forward to me coming home and celebrating Tet with the entire family I had to stay and complete my assigned tasks," he said.

Another Vietnamese celebrating Tet in Algeria this year is Nguyen Minh Long, a 41-year-old employee at an oil field about 100 kilometers from Hassi Messaoud. As the Vietnamese community in Algeria is relatively small and mostly concentrated in Algiers, the only Vietnamese living in these distant desert lands are petroleum engineers.

The oil field where Long works is located 50-60 kilometers from the nearest settlement, and the number of Vietnamese there varies from up to 20 at peak times to only 3-4. First arriving in Algeria in 2014, Long and his colleagues needed quite some time to adapt to the living environment, weather and language, different culture and local cuisine.

"At first, everyone craved Vietnamese food but eventually got used to the local flavor," he said. "Our lives revolve around work, are isolated from the outside world and requires us to always stay focused in order to avoid making mistakes, which could lead to fires."

A total of eight engineers remained at the oil field during Tet this year, of which Long is experiencing his first away from home. In previous years, he was allowed to return to his wife and two daughters but had to leave again on the third day of the new lunar year.

The journey home for those like Long and Khoan is not an easy one. They would need a total five days to travel from the oil field to the center of town, then take a flight to Algiers before finally flying to Hanoi via Paris. Those returning to Algeria right before Tet would often take advantage of the occasion to bring with them a few "banh chung" and other traditional food to share with their colleagues.

"The first Tet without being by my wife and children's side feels a bit strange and uneasy," Long admitted. "This year, I'm not home so my wife and children will be celebrating Tet back in their hometown to lessen the heartache. For the new year, I just wish for my family to stay healthy so I could be at ease when working far from home."

Khoan shared the same wish for the new year, having had to let his wife take care of their two small children by herself with a heavy heart.

"I could only encourage and explain to my family the situation. I hope they would always stay healthy that we may continue to support one another," Khoan said. "I promise my wife that in a month's time I'll return to Vietnam and celebrate Tet with them again."

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