Aging alone: Saigon's elderly struggle to eke out a living

The social security net is splitting, and Vietnam's elderly are in danger of falling through it.

The clock strikes 5 a.m. as Nguyen Thi Lan steps out of her front door, a stack of lottery tickets in hand. The 75-year-old woman will be patrolling Saigon’s alleys looking for fortune-seeking punters until 2 a.m. the following morning.

Lan makes VND100,000 ($4.4) on a good day, earning just VND1,000 for each ticket she sells.

“But those days are rare,” she said. “That only happens if I sell all of the tickets. On average, I make just a few thousand dong per day.”

Eight years ago, Lan was living in the central province of Phu Yen where she sold bamboo shoots and wild vegetables she harvested from the jungle near her house, but then a devastating flood struck.

“In just one night, the floods swept away my house, and I fell and broke my leg. It has never healed properly,” she said.

Nguyen Thi Lan shows a photo of herself sitting in her house back in Xuan Quang Commune, Dong Xuan District, Phu Yen Province. “It is a gift from my neighbor,” she said. “My house was rebuilt from bamboo and coconut leaves after the flood, but now the roof has been upgraded to corrugated iron.”

She decided to travel nearly 640 kilometers (400 miles) to Ho Chi Minh City with friends in the hope of finding a job to cover her medical bills. “I never thought the day would come when I'd be selling lottery tickets in Saigon.”

At the moment, Lan is living in a rented room with 15 of her senior friends in District 1 who also sell lottery tickets for a living, and who are also among the growing number of elderly workers in Vietnam.

Nguyen Thi Lan sits in her rented room in District 1, which she shares with 15 of her senior friends. 

The 76-year-old woman prefers to stay in the city as long as she can. “Here I can make some money. Plus I have friends to chat everyday.”

After decades of the economy being driven by a young labor force, Vietnam's population is aging fast, and the support mechanism for the elderly has failed to keep up with the pace.

In fact, with one in ten people aged 60 years or older, the country has entered the so-called “aging phase” this year, according to the United Nations. At the same time, the social safety net for elderly people, such as pensions and support, can currently cover only 30 percent of what is needed.

What is more alarming is that Vietnam only has 20 years to prepare before it enters an “aged population” (10-19.9 percent of people aged 65 and over). Without “comprehensive reform”, the country is likely to lose long before the finish line.

“The pension scheme will start running a deficit in 2020 and the reserves could be totally depleted by 2029, causing big problems for Vietnam’s economy,” said Carlos Galian, an expert with the International Labor Organization in Vietnam.

VnExpress International went out to talk with elderly people who are already working on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and their stories unveil different layers of the bigger picture.

Cao Thi Thuy, 76, from Tien Giang Province

I pray everyday for good health so I can keep working for my family.

Thuy moved to Ho Chi Minh from the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang with her husband over two decades ago. With their business on a sidewalk in District 10, the couple makes a living from dismantling old TV sets to sell the spare parts.

“My husband and I used to have a small convenience store back home, but it didn’t go well,” Thuy said.

They have nine children; the oldest of whom is almost 60, but none of them can take care of their parents. “They are all either sick or too poor,” Thuy explained, pointing at one of her sons, a 31-year-old man who was helping her to unload a TV from an old van. He has just been diagnosed with a mental disorder shortly after his younger schizophrenic brother died three months ago. “Now I’m working for him and mourning for the other.”

Her family earns roughly VND7 milion ($308) a month, enough to put food on the table and pay for a small rented room.

When asked about the future, Thuy said she is waiting for the apartment building behind them to be completed so she can sell porridge to the residents.

“I pray everyday for good health so I can keep working for my family,” said the 76-year-old woman as she turned her attention back to the pile of old TV sets.

Tran Thi Theu, 90, from Tra Vinh Province

From a working greengrocer in her hometown, Theu left for Saigon 20 years ago to sell flowers at Ban Co Market in District 3. “Back home I made practically nothing from selling vegetables,” said Theu. “Both of my daughters are old and struggling to make ends meet for their own families. They work as housekeepers.”

Her daily earnings range from VND30,000 to VND50,000, topping up her monthly pension of VND380,000 ($17).

Theu left for the city carrying one item of value with her: a checkered scarf given to her by her late husband. “I've had it since I was young. Whenever I wear it, I feel like I am a young Mekong lady again,” Theu said.

Nguyen Van Bac, 72, from Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City

I used to picture myself in my later years relaxing and enjoying cold beers in the afternoon like other people.

Bac, a xe om aka motorbike taxi driver, was a soldier in the U.S.-backed Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. When the war ended in 1975, he returned home empty-handed.

“My father helped me to get a job as a mason. I went on to marry my wife and have three kids who are all married now,” he said.

Bac has worked as a xe om on Ham Nghi Street for five years, but never planned on working until to the age of 72.

“I thought my children would be more successful and be able to support us when we got old,” he said. “I used to picture myself in my later years relaxing and enjoying cold beers in the afternoon like other people. Now I have to work even harder than before, and I still worry about making ends meet.”

As a traditional xe om, Bac has found himself in the middle of a growing rivalry with modern ride-hailing services such as Grabbike and Uber.

“Everyday I get on this bike and drive out of the gate, without being sure if I will have a single customer the whole day,” he said. “Now everyone prefers Uber and Grab, but I have to consider myself lucky because we have such a good spot in town. Sometimes I make money from delivering papers and running errands for companies and people in the neighborhood.”

Bac shows his “meal ticket”, a xe om membership card issued by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor. It allows him to park his motorbike and wait for customers on the sidewalk. In exchange, he pays a monthly fee of VND20,000 and has to have the card renewed every three years.

Last year, the labor ministry suggested raising the retirement age for men by two years to 62, and by three years for women to 58. The proposal appears to be in line with what the ILO has recommended for Vietnam to mitigate the economic impact of a rapidly aging population, Reuters reported.

However, it has faced resistance from legislators. With about 70 percent of a population of nearly 92 million currently of a working age, they are worried that if people work for longer, the younger generation will have problems finding jobs.

As the debate over labor policies and social insurance schemes rolls on, the clock is ticking.


Thanh Nguyen, Nhung Nguyen

By Nhung Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen