Migrant workers eke out Tet at homes away from home

By Dang Khoa, Linh Do   January 31, 2022 | 06:00 pm PT
Staying put instead of returning to their hometown for Tet, the Lunar New Year festival, migrant workers are finding ways to celebrate despite pandemic concerns and financial constraints.

For Vietnamese migrant workers who toil all year long, Tet is inarguably the most anticipated holiday when they are eager to get home and share time and the fruits of their labor with loved ones.

For the past two years, however, the pandemic has forced many to stay put, unable to go back to their hometowns for fear of getting infected with the Covid-19 virus.

Though the pandemic has subsided countrywide, different provinces have set up their own safety rules, so some migrant workers have opted to remain where they are to avoid hassles, ensure safety and save money in these hard times.

For Dang Hoang Hai, personal trainer at a gym in HCMC’s District 3, and his girlfriend, this is the second Tet they spend in the southern metropolis.

Though they’re away from home, the couple, who hail from the southern coastal province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau, have been making the most of the Tet break, busily cleaning up, buying fruits and flowers to deck out their rented room in District 5.

With HCMC expected to resume most Tet activities except the firework displays, Hai has quite a few plans: head down to Nguyen Hue pedestrian street and enjoy its floral transformation, see movies in theaters, visit friends’ houses and attend parties.

Hai has plenty of friends in the city so spending Tet away from home has some valued compensations.

On February 4, the fourth day of the new Lunar Year, his neighborhood will also hold a small party in the alley with every household contributing a dish.

"Tet in Saigon has its own charm," Hai said.

An alley in HCMC is adorned with colorful Tet decorations in January 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

An alley in HCMC is adorned with colorful Tet decorations in January 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Not so lucky

Many migrant workers aren’t as lucky as Hai to get a Tet break. For those who have suffered significant income loss during the pandemic, there is no holiday, just days of hard work ahead.

Delivery driver Nguyen Minh Thuan, 32, and his wife, who works for a textile company in HCMC’s Binh Tan District, plan to work through the entire 9-day national Tet holiday.

The couple, who have rented an apartment in District 11, will only take morning or evening off to go to the pagoda to pray for good luck before resuming work.

"We will stay in Saigon to make money," Thuan said. "I was jobless for months last year, so I want to use Tet to earn some extra income."

Thuan and his wife, who make around VND13 million ($574) per month, had to use up all of their savings during the recent lockdown in HCMC. Last week, they called their families in the central province of Nghe An to say that they wouldn’t be home for Tet.

"We can’t afford traveling to Nghe An and buying gifts for families and relatives," Thuan said sadly. "Our parents and children were all very sad when we told them we couldn’t be back, but there is nothing else we can do."

To celebrate a quiet and modest Tet during which the couple don’t plan to see anyone, they have bought a banh chung (glutinous rice cake) and other essential traditional Tet food.

The couple said that in Nghe An, every family makes sticky rice in a big pot in front of their houses during Tet, creating a warm, unforgettable image of the auspicious occasion.

Le Thu Huong, 25, a hairdresser in HCMC’s Go Vap District also plans to work during Tet instead of going home to reunite with her family in Hanoi.

"The pandemic is still raging in Hanoi, so I don’t think it’s safe to go home now," Huong said, adding that her parents supported her decision to stay put and she had sent them VND5 million ($220) as her Tet gift.

Though Tet in Hanoi and HCMC isn’t much different except for the different symbolic flowers (cherry blossoms for the cold and humid northern climate and yellow mai blooms for the sunny south) and ways of making sticky rice, Huong said she misses cooking Tet dishes with her mother dearly.

Last week, she and her colleagues held a small year-end party.

While many of her co-workers returned home to the Mekong Delta region, Huong went to work until Jan. 31, and picked up another part-time job as a salesperson at a tech store to earn more money.

When she has spare time, Huong said she would also go down Nguyen Hue flower street to hang out and take photos with friends and join in the festivities.

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