Workers leave cities only to fail and return

By Pham Nga   May 2, 2024 | 03:32 pm PT
Minh Tung called his cousin this year to help him find a room in Hanoi so he could find work, four years after returning from the capital to his hometown.

Previously, Tung, 37 years old, from the central province of Quang Binh, alongside his wife, were office workers in Hanoi, with a total income of about VND20 million ($785.7). Minus their own living expenses and the cost of raising two small children, they had only been save more than VND5 million monthly in those days.

Tung has been tormented that his low income has forced his children to live in the cramped urban jungle and polluted air of the city. His guilt intensifies whenever he has to drive his children through jammed roads during the hot rush hours of Hanoi.

Thus, Tung and his wife decided to return to their hometown to "live poor but happily."

Nguyen Thi Hong, his wife, applied to work for a company more than 20 km away from home, with a salary half that of her old work. Tung rented a shop to sell rice. But there were already three established rice sellers in the village.

Since everyone knows each other, they mostly only buy rice from people they know, not from newcomers like Tung. His relatives began "shop" at his store to support him, but mainly by promising to pay him back later for the rice they take. Four years after closing his business, Tung still hasn’t collected all the money he’s owed.

Living near the sea, Tung switched to opening a cafe, recruiting his wife, mother, sister, and cousin to work as servers. Minus all expenses, he takes home profits of VND500,000 a day. But even this shop only managed to last for the three peak months of summer.

Tung then joined his friend to work as a real estate broker. After a few months, Tung lost his job because the demand for land died. For many months, the whole family was relying only on Hong's salary of VND5 million. And the cost of raising their children has also only been increasing as they get older.

Soon, conflicts began to arise. "It's better to live in a cramped place than to struggle financially," Tung concluded.

He left his wife and children in his hometown and went to the city alone to earn a living. Tung started his days in Hanoi by working as a taxi driver. His income has been unstable, but he’s still made enough money to send some home to his wife.

Thuy arranges merchandise for the next days sales in her rented room in Bien Hoa town, southern Dong Nai Province, on the afternoon of April 17, 2024. Photo courtesy of Thuy

Thuy arranges merchandise for the next day's sales in her rented room in Bien Hoa town, southern Dong Nai Province, on the afternoon of April 17, 2024. Photo courtesy of Thuy

When the Covid-19 epidemic broke out, Le Thi Thuy, 42 years old, from central Thanh Hoa town, decided to return to her hometown alongside her husband, ending their life as street vendors in Bien Hoa town, the capital of southern Dong Nai Province. The couple was determined to stay because they were fed up with making money far from home.

Her husband opened a duck restaurant in front of their house, but he rarely had any customers because locals in his rural neighborhood usually only eat at home.

Thuy now works at a garment factory, earning more than VND4 million a month. But the couple have to take care of all the expenses of their three young children and an elderly mother. After two years, she was laid off because the business ran out of orders. The couple had no choice but to send their children to their relatives, while they returned to the city after months of unemployment.

These kinds of "second migrations to the city" are something new in Vietnam.

In the past many people had intended to return to their hometown and never return to urban life. A survey report on Ho Chi Minh City's post-restriction unskilled labor market in 2022 recorded that 42% of respondents affirmed they "will not return to the city".

In 2022, a survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and VCCI’s Ho Chi Minh City branch, which questioned more than 1,000 workers in Binh Duong, Dong Nai, and Ho Chi Minh City, showed that 15.5% had chosen to return home. Some 44.6% of respondents said they remained hesitant to do so.

However, the PAPI 2023 report published by UNDP in early March this year showed that nearly 22% of people want to migrate to Ho Chi Minh City, and 15% want to go to Hanoi. Two of the three biggest reasons people give are: 1) wanting a better working environment (22%) and 2) seeking a better natural environment (17%).

Research team member, Dr. Paul Schuler from the University of Arizona in the U.S., said that the desire to move to big cities to find jobs is directly proportional to the increase in the number of households with poor or very poor economic situations.

"What is interesting is that the proportion of people who evaluated their household economic situation as worse than 5 years ago has increased to 26%, an amount second only a pre-2021 figure of 29%," said Schuler.

Associate Professor, Dr. Nguyen Duc Loc from the Institute of Social Life Research, said this data showed that many people have at least thought about returning to their hometown for good. But of those who have embarked on this journey, many have since returned to the city.

Vietnam is developing a pioneering economy, with resources concentrated in urban areas, leading to a large gap between rural and urban areas. Even if people want to return to their hometowns, they cannot find jobs that suit their abilities, expertise, interests, or needs, he said.

Young people can find jobs in factories, but it is very difficult for older people like Thuy to find a suitable position that brings income.

Sociologist Dr. Pham Quynh Huong said that in addition to economic and educational issues, other factors such as urban services, urban culture and lifestyle, and urban civilization keep many people wanting to live in the city. Some people want to go to the city because they don't know what they want, or they want to explore or challenge themselves in a different environment.

"Some people realize their strengths in the city, but there are also people who realize they want to return home," Huong said.

Nguyen Van Truong, 28 years old, from the northern province of Hung Yen, and his wife, decided to return to their hometown three years ago to help their parents take care of more than three hectares of organically grown vegetables. Their income is stable so they don't face financial pressure, but Truong and his wife have been saddened by how much they miss the vibrant life of Hanoi.

Having lived in the countryside for more than a year, when his daughter was three years old, Truong decided to return to the city. In addition to his own personal needs, he wanted his children to have a better educational environment, and for the couple to study and develop their own professional skills further.

A street vendor is seen on Tran Tu Binh Street in Cau Giay District, Hanoi, on April 19, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga

A street vendor is seen on Tran Tu Binh Street in Cau Giay District, Hanoi, on April 19, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga

Loc believes that going to the city for work is a rule of nature. Whether they are taxi drivers, street vendors, or office workers, they all contribute to society. However, in the long run, workers moving to urban areas to take "under-the-table" jobs is also creating a large source of precarious labor, putting pressure on the social security system.

For those who want to return to their hometown, but have to go to cities, like Tung and Thuy, Loc advises that they change their mindset about life. Today, most people are influenced by the pressure put on low-income families by the wave of rising consumption in Vietnam. They feel deprived and plunge into a spiral of competition.

For those who want to stay but are forced to go to the city, Huong suggests that it may be because they do not understand their needs. "Leaving your hometown is also a way to really understand what you want and need," she said.

In terms of policy, Loc proposed that because Vietnam has already had 30 years of implementing key economic policies, it is now time to build a more harmonious and balanced strategy between rural and urban areas to shorten the gap.

He used China as an example. "China, in previous years initially focused their efforts on urban areas, but in recent years they have switched to compensating for rural areas so that workers can return," he said.

Tung still longs for his hometown. But after four years of hardship in the place where he was born, he knew he had to seek more capital for long-term stability instead of just returning as he pleased.

"It's really difficult to live poor and be happy," he said.

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