When work becomes a chore: professionals begin to explore gap year

By Phan Duong   September 15, 2021 | 12:46 am PT
Though he still gets up at 5 a.m. Ha Manh has not had to grapple with meeting deadlines for the last four months.

He says: "There's no more pressure. But if you're not strict with yourself, time off from work won't mean anything."

The 30-year-old who lives in HCMC's Binh Thanh District decided to quit his media and advertising job in May after working for 10 years.

Western countries refer to a year people take after completing high school and before going on to university or taking up a job as a "gap year". This is generally a time to relax and set down goals and interests.

Now the concept is becoming popular in Vietnam, but among people in white-collar professions who feel they have lost their drive for work or are running aimlessly and wasting their youth.

Ha Manh at Lenin stream during a trip to his native Cao Bang Province in May 2021. Photo courtesy of Manh

Ha Manh at Lenin stream during a trip to his native Cao Bang Province in May 2021. Photo courtesy of Manh

Manh, a native of the northern Lao Cai Province, had been constantly feeling tired from long working hours.

He says he used to earn VND50 million ($2,100) a month but that came at a cost: The nature of his job meant he constantly had to come up with new creative ideas and concepts, stay on top of social trends and achieve monthly targets.

"The feeling of exhaustion and burnout is very common in this industry."

Hoa Tran, a photojournalist at an online newspaper, found himself in a similar situation as Manh.

"I kept wondering why I used to love taking pictures and travel but hate it so much now," he says.

So when people around him were shocked when he quit his job in May, he felt calmer and more relaxed than ever.

"Once when I went to a photo shoot, I realized I was still passionate about photography. What I was bored with was working for a company."

My Huong, 28, quit her corporate job in early 2020 when Covid-19 first appeared. She had dreamed of taking a gap year as a student, but the opportunity came only now.

When working she felt that the company was not the place for her. She was constantly depressed and sometimes isolated herself from colleagues and family.

In 2019 she took a two-month break to volunteer in the Philippines, but says "it only provided temporary relief from depression."

My Huong (L) hangs out with her friends before giving medical examination and treatment for people in Phu Linh Commune in northern Ha Giang Province,  January 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Huong

My Huong (first left) with friends in the northern Ha Giang Province when they went there as volunteers to help provide medical checks to local people in January 2020. Photo courtesy of Huong

Time off

On his 30th birthday Manh came up with financial plans for a year without work when he would pursue his passion for technology.

Hoa decided to do nothing for a year after quitting his job, and to live off his small savings.

He returned to live with his family after nearly 10 years away, started buying saplings to plant, redecorated his house and spent time cooking for his parents and talking to his sister.

Because of the outbreak, his plans to explore the northwest had to be shelved.

Hoa Tran poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Hoa

Hoa Tran. Photo courtesy of Hoa

He picked up the habit of reading again, set himself a goal of learning Thai in six months and study design and drawing by himself.

Sometimes he does vlogs about his time off from work.

"This is the first time in many years I have the chance to slow down and see things clearly. It calms my mind because I've been trying to run at a fast pace for so long."

Huong volunteered in Ha Giang Province, helping provide medical care to ethnic minority people and teaching English to children.

In her free time she would drive around to explore the open roads there and participate in charity trips.

When Covid broke out, Huong, who was then in Ha Giang, organized a campaign to donate and sew masks for people living in border villages.

"I am busy from morning to night but don't feel tired. On the contrary, I feel better about myself when giving back to the community."

Nguyen Thac Thang, a well-known headhunter, says while taking a break is not common among employed people because of economic and family pressures, employers appreciate those who do take a short break for improving and learning new skills.

The pandemic has in the last two years proved how difficult it is to have a steady job with businesses closing down, many permanently, and people losing jobs.

According to the General Statistics Office, unemployment in the country rose by 7.3 percent in the second quarter to 1.2 million, while the average income fell by 3.8 percent to VND6.1 million ($264) per month.

Though Manh could not fulfill his dream of traveling across Vietnam to make a documentary due to the pandemic, he is still fully engaged since he had carefully prepared in advance.

He has again taken up his hobbies of writing and making videos and podcasts, and is learning about documentary making to be better prepared when the time comes.

After more than half a year of living in the highlands has revived Huong and she is now ready to take up a new job. Currently she is a freelance writer.

"I have many writing projects. I recently received an invitation to write review for tea from a foreign company," she added.

A close friend of hers, who spent a year at home and learned data analysis by herself, got a new job that pays twice as much as the old one.

A former colleague who has a family but still decided to quit his job to learn English, now has a job in a higher position and gets triple his old salary.

Huong says: "A year off gives us confidence and maturity. Now I can deal with anything that comes without fear."

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