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In Saigon, visually-impaired masseurs, vendors work for livelihood amid coronavirus uncertainty



Despite constraints from their disability, visually-impaired masseurs, masseuses and lottery ticket vendors in Ho Chi Minh City, who have been struggling since the novel coronavirus first hit Vietnam in January last year, are making the most of their energy to make ends meet and fend for their families.

Le Ngoc Luom, a resident of District 1, spends his days feeling his way around the streets he knows like the back of his hand, constantly listening for anyone who might want to buy the lottery tickets he sells to survive.

He taps his cane so he can estimate where he is within a few steps at any time during his route.

Sometimes his rhythm gets interrupted by a parked motorbike or other obstacles, or worse, he may even trip up on trash careless people dump on the streets.

Just like many others with visual impairments, the 49-year-old man used to work as a masseur at a massage parlor, until Vietnam was first hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in January last year before battling the second and third waves in July last year and January this year.

When the country entered intermittent periods of social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, Luom and many found themselves out of work as non-essential businesses including massage services had to close.

Though he has peddled lottery tickets for the past 18 years in his spare hours to supplement incomes, the sale has become his daytime job and his family’s main source of income over the past several months.

With the COVID-19 pandemic dealing a heavy blow to the local non-essential industries and the customer base at the massage parlor he works for having shrunk considerably and even dropped to zero on bad days since April last year, Luom has found himself facing a crisis.

His current daily routine includes making his way to the lottery stand where he gets 100 tickets, then he sets up strategic places to sell tickets to passers-by before waiting for customers, if any, at the massage parlor at around 9:00 am.

After Luom’s parents died when he was less than one month old, he was brought up by his adoptive parents.

His life became even tougher when a serious childhood illness caused him to lose sight in both eyes at the age of three.

While many might have given up on themselves, the boy chose not to surrender to his disability and instead tried to pick up different trades to fend for himself.

The young man finally learned how to give massages at a parlor before he began to make money to support his wife and daughter.

Luom’s life journey is by no means rosy, but he admitted the pandemic has posed him and his family unprecedented challenges.

“We really don’t know what to expect. We kept closing and opening our shop on an intermittent, unpredictable basis,” Luom shared, adding customers are far and few between even on days the shop is open.

Previously, the man was able to earn around VND100,000-120,000 (US$4.3- 5.2) each day from giving three to four massage sessions.

When the epidemic hit and local residents hunkered down to wait it out, customers began to plummet.

There are days when Luom goes home empty-handed, prompting him to switch to full-time lottery ticket sales as an alternative to bring in some cash and pay household bills.

To make matters worse, the blind man often falls victim to thieves who snatch away his hard-earned money and even all his tickets.

“My wife and I still owe the lottery stand nearly one million dong [$43] as we were scammed or unable to sell the tickets before the results were announced,” Luom sadly shared, adding cheap instant noodles are usually their dinner staple. 

Things became even tougher when their 19-year-old daughter was made redundant after the new outbreaks hit.

Despite heavy loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, Ho Huy Binh and his wife, who work as a masseur and masseuse in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, stay optimistic about the prospects of their job. Photo: Dieu Qui / Tuoi Tre

Despite heavy losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, Ho Huy Binh and his wife, who work as a masseur and masseuse in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, stay optimistic about their job prospects. Photo: Dieu Qui / Tuoi Tre

In their 10-square-meter tenanted room in the Ma Lang residential area, the family has lived mostly on rice and vegetable soup, with little meat or fish, trying to cut down on spending wherever they could.

Ho Huy Binh, who hails from the north-central province of Ha Tinh, and his wife have also had to tighten their belt due to COVID-19-related hardships.  

The epidemic poses tremendous challenges for able-bodied workers, let alone the 46-year-old visually-impaired man, who has been struggling to make ends meet since early adulthood.

Binh was born healthy.

Life was looking rosy for the young man, then a college senior, who dreamt of a bright future with a decent job as an automobile engineer.

However, fate took a turn in late July 2002, when a road accident killed Binh’s father, who was sitting behind him on a motorbike and left Binh blind, completely changing his life and dreams.

Losing his eyesight in the prime of his life, the young man felt suicidal.

After a period of helplessness and despair, with the support of his mother, Binh began picking himself up again and training as a masseur at a parlor in the southern metropolis’ District 3.

Two years ago, he met his future wife, 47-year-old Trinh Thi Giam, who also comes from a humble background.

With money tight and their savings not lasting very long, the couple’s life was turned upside down amid the epidemic’s fallout.

“I’ve worked as a masseur for the past 10 years, but I’ve never experienced something like this,” Binh admitted.

“There are days when no single customer passes through our door.”

They earn a mere VND70,000-80,000 ($3-3.5) on good days, and cannot afford monthly rent and bills totaling around VND4 million ($173). 

Light at the end of the tunnel

Although their life is still full of difficulties ahead, Binh and his wife stay upbeat that they will be able to weather the storm.

“We’re still lucky to receive support from philanthropists,” said Giam, Binh’s wife.

“Just eat less. There are many out there even struggling more than we do,” she told her husband. 

As for Luom, the loss of his eyesight and poverty have never stopped him from leading a full life.

“Though we usually don’t have meat or fish, I love meal times the most, when our family sit down together and chatter happily,” Luom said with a smile.

“We should know how to dig joys out of sorrows.”

Along with 34 other locations in 10 districts and Thu Duc City, the Ma Lang residential area in District 1, where Luom’s tenanted room is located, was placed on lockdown in early February to prevent the infections there from spreading further into the community.

The lockdown dealt another blow to Luom and his family, as they could not peddle lottery tickets.

Nearly 1,500 visually impaired people affected by COVID-19

According to Nguyen Dinh Kien, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Blind Association, the organization has a current membership of 1,441.

Most of the members, who earn their living as masseurs, masseuses, and lottery ticket vendors, have experienced many COVID-19-related hardships and reduced incomes.

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Despite growing demand in Ho Chi Minh City, supply of affordable apartments flatlines



Ho Chi Minh City has seen a nominal number of new affordable housing projects in the past five years, which has greatly frustrated the road to homeownership of the city’s up-and-coming young workforce.

As per Vietnamese law, social housing is put under strict regulations, where hopeful buyers must meet a score of criteria to become eligible for purchase.

Members of the general public are resting their best hopes on privately-developed affordable housing projects, yet the category is finding itself in a tight corner of the market, catching little interest from developers.

Fizzling supply

After the housing bust that haunted the domestic market from 2009 to 2013, Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding locales observed a surge of housing projects from low- to mid-tier range, as 78 percent of the new housing projects in the area in 2017 were classified as B- or C-tier, according to a report from the real estate firm DKRA.

As per Vietnam’s Circular 31/2016, qualified apartment buildings are ranked in three tiers, with A signifies the highest standard, B the midpoint, and C the lowest possible, often associated with affordable housing projects.

However, in their report on the Ho Chi Minh City housing market in the third quarter of 2018, DKRA pointed out that supply of new C-tier apartments shrank to two percent.

By 2020, these numbers had almost gone to zero, while new high-priced units had dominated the market with 69 percent, the consulting firm said.

Meanwhile, the cost for the supposedly affordable housing units is rising over the typical workers’ heads, with the rate for an average C-tier unit going from VND16 million (US$700) per square meter to more than double that figure last year, which means a 15-20 percent increase per annum.

In the first three months of 2021, high- and mid-priced apartments were still seen taking over the market, while supply of affordable units remained scarce.

Buyers on a budget in Ho Chi Minh City are having a hard time finding listings at the price below VND35 million ($1,516) per square meter, as apartments in neighboring Binh Duong and Dong Nai Provinces have already soared to VND33-45 million ($1,429-1,949) per square meter.

A recent research of the Ho Chi Minh City Real Estate Association also confirmed the dominance of high-end housing projects, which covered 70 percent of the market, while mid-tier developments accounted for 25 percent.

Meanwhile, affordable housing only makes up one percent, or 163 projects, out of all housing projects in Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding areas that called for investments in 2020.

This proves an indication of the imbalanced development of the local real estate sector, which bodes a dubious future of unsustainability.

A house of 36 square meters wide that accommodates 10 people in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

An apartment of 36 square meters in area accommodates 10 people in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

The great hunt for homes

For the time being, the interest rate for private home loans, with no favorable conditions applied, floats at 10-11 percent per year.

At this rate, a loan of VND1 billion ($43,332) over a 10-year term would require VND200 million ($8,664) in compound interest per year.

In case of a future hike in interest rates, the total interest to be paid in 10 years could easily equate, even surpassing the initial loan amount.

Duc Minh, a father in Tan Phu District of Ho Chi Minh City, said a loan like above would require the combined income of his and his wife’s to reach at least VND30 million ($1,308) per month, as he still has to pay for food, schooling bills for his children, as well as saving for unexpected events.

“This is why we’ve been on the fence [about taking out the loan,] while the housing price is still skyrocketing,’ he said.

According to Minh, an apartment of 60 square meters in the outlying districts of Ho Chi Minh City would cost at least VND2 billion ($86,664), which is totally out of his financial capacity at this moment.

Khoi, a resident of Thu Duc City under Ho Chi Minh City, said he is scrambling to find an apartment in suburban districts with his budget of VND1.5 billion ($65,000).

“I feel like entering an unfair race between homebuyers and the market price. The rate always rises two or three times faster than I can save,” he stated.

Khoi attributed the phenomenon to the swing investors, who cram sales opening events of housing projects to buy and pump the price up, which will drive people with actual demands to find a place to leave the game.

Construction site of an apartment building project in Thu Duc City under Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

The construction site of an apartment building project in Thu Duc City under Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Manufactured hype

Last year’s skyrocketing cost of housing in Ho Chi Minh City can be accredited to developers’ choice to create supply scarcity, as well as a high demand for housing as investment property, which took up as much as 70-80 percent of units in new apartment projects.

On top of that, accompanying fees for land and legal procedures have pushed up real estate prices in the southern city, said Su Ngoc Khuong, senior director of investment at the real estate firm Savills.

Over the past three years, a real estate upswing in the southern metropolis has been recorded every year after the Lunar New Year holiday, which usually takes place in late January or early February.

“It’s just manufactured hype, as realistic transactions are very low,” said Pham Lam, deputy president of the Vietnam Association of Realtors.

“Real estate brokers are complaining as they have been facing struggles to sell for months.”

Regarding the recent real estate fevers, Lam pointed out that they all stem from insider reports of new master plans for development, which could drive prices of local land through the roof.

However, these information sources are usually manipulated by a powerful few, who seek to profit from the market mania on which they have the upper hand.

Lam also pointed out growth in idle money among Ho Chi Minh City citizens, as well as high hopes among speculators for the real estate market in a period of economic recovery, as reasons for the housing boom.

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Saigon witnesses rising demand for luxury goods ‘spas’



Although it might sound exciting to work with designer goods, the craftsmen who restore and repair luxury items face a difficult balance.

Designer bags, shoes, and backpacks are customers’ means of showing their social status in Vietnam.

However, how can these assets which might cost hundreds of millions, even billions of Vietnamese dong be repaired as they get older?

“I have a deep passion for handbags, even mangled ones,” said Pham Ngoc Hieu, founder of Auth Spa in Ho Chi Minh City’s Phu Nhuan District, about the motivation behind his luxurious bag ‘spa.’

The handbag savior

Hieu started trading high-end bags ten years ago after quitting his previous desk job.

He realized that no matter how well-made they were, sooner or later, handbags would be damaged.

Meanwhile, it was hard to find a person able to repair them.

Handbag touching up, at the time, was still a strange service in Vietnam.

Hieu went abroad to learn techniques of handbag restoration before opening his own spa, becoming the pioneer in the country.

He and his partners offer cleaning and repair services on premium handbags, shoes, and accessories made by world-renowned luxury goods manufacturers including Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton or Burberry, which are stained, scratched or deformed. 

Nguyen Thi Thanh Truc, Hieu’s wife, is a professional in restoring products’ original colors and changing leather hues.

“Bags which are severely stained or discolored need restoring with electromagnetic shielding paint and setting spray,” said Truc.

“For changing an original color into another, it depends on which shade it is.

“The success rate for basic colors is about 90 percent while for limited ones it’s only 80 percent.”

Their first account was to restore a handbag valued at VND70 million (US$3,000).

“I was scared at first because the bag was too expensive,” she recalled.

“Not clear about its leather’s characteristics, I tinted it wrongly.

“It took me a week to realize that for absorbing leathers, I needed to use a lighter shade of colors.”

Nguyen Thi Thanh Truc painstakingly repairs a luxurious Hermes bag. – Photo: Le Phan/Tuoi Tre

Nguyen Thi Thanh Truc painstakingly repairs a luxurious Hermes bag. Photo: Le Phan / Tuoi Tre

Upper-class services

Most valuable products repaired by Auth Spa are from Hermes, ranging from thousands to dozens of thousands of U.S. dollars for each item.

“We have processed dozens of Hermes handbags under VND500 million [$21,600],” said Truc.

“Their owners take good care of them as they are too expensive.

“Most of the orders are to restore straps and decolored parts, which required both meticulousness and skills.

“Otherwise, we would have to pay considerable compensation.”

According to her, fixers learn by doing. Through time, she has gained a lot of experience and created her own techniques of repairing handbags.

“Once we love the products and treat them as our own, we will be confident and give the best shot to take care of them,” Truc shared her philosophy.

In 2015, Hieu and Truc opened their first bricks-and-mortar workshop and got flooded with orders from Ho Chi Minh City and other localities.

Upper-class customers are the targets of ICUS – a luxury goods spa by Tran Huy Hoang, 29, in Ho Chi Minh City.

“A person who pays VND20 million [$867] for an item can definitely afford the repairing fee of VND3-4 million [$130-173]. It makes no sense to restore a bag that costs some VND500,000 [$21] at the same expenses,” Hoang said, adding the cost would be determined based on a bag’s damage levels and customer orders.

A bag valued at VND40 million ($1,700), for example, will be restored to be like-new at VND7 million ($303). The harder it is to be fixed, the higher the cost will pile up.

“I think for valuable, premium goods, the restoring expense of some million dong is not too high,” he added.

“We used to ‘revive’ a heavily damaged Gucci bag valued at VND140 million [$6,000] at several million dong. It might have been resold at VND50 million [$2,160] at least,” he added.

Some 10 percent of his frequent customers are celebrities.

“They are picky and strict when it comes to leather finishes and deadlines,” he told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper. 

“However, as authorized accessories need importing from abroad, late appointment is unavoidable.”

A staff of ICUS tints a Coach bag to fix discolored parts. – Photo: Le Phan/Tuoi Tre

A staff of ICUS tints a Coach bag to fix discolored parts. Photo: Le Phan / Tuoi Tre

A risky job

There are many invisible risks posed to people working in the industry, according to Hoang, since they have to deal with high-value products on a daily basis.

He recalled the compensation of VND20 million for a VND26 million ($1,126) Burberry bag for accidentally staining it when cleaning.

“The bag was constructed by different materials so staining and decoloring some parts were inevitable. The chance of making mistakes is about two to three of every 3,000 orders,” said Hoang.

Another risk is to deliver wrong items. He said a couple days ago, his staff carelessly put a VND30 million ($1,300) Chanel wallet into a wrong package for delivery.

“Luckily, my customer called saying she received a wallet that was not hers and asked us to take it back,” he said.

The most dangerous situation, according to Hoang, is to lose customers’ goods because it is not only about compensation but also trust issues. He has a budget to handle incidents.

“God blesses us, we barely need to use it,” he said.

To prevent any fault, craftsmen have to be able to shoulder pressure and pay attention to details. The reward is high earnings.

“They are all painstakingly selected and trained to both clean and repair handbags,” said Hoang.

“Staff in charge of tinting and restoring have to be arts and architecture students.

“We have our own team of delivery workers.

“Customers can review final products before deciding to receive or send them back to our workshop for further fixes.”

Although it has just been introduced for six months, ICUS has developed its list of frequent customers.

“I will soon launch laundry services for handbags, shoes, and backpacks. The market still has room to grow,” he shared his vision.

Besides two branches in Thu Duc City’s Thao Dien Ward and Ho Chi Minh City’s District 10, Hoang said he planned to open two other shops in District 3 and Phu Nhuan District.

Both Auth Spa and ICUS help their customers to distinguish real luxury goods from fake ones using their experience. The demand has risen since a lot of people are able to afford premium products but they cannot tell the difference between authentic products and counterfeits.

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From humble sedge come new creations



By Thúy Hằng

Despite being born and bred in Nga Sơn, a rural district in the central province of Thanh Hóa famed for its traditional bed mats and other products made of sedge, Trần Doãn Hùng never wanted to follow the craft and becoming involved in a business endeavour relating to the material never even crossed his mind.

HANDS ON: Trần Doãn Hùng weaving sedge bags at Cỏ May Craft’s workshop. Photos courtesy of Trần Doãn Hùng

Like many in his village, after graduating from high school he headed to Hà Nội to attend university and then worked for a few years in the capital.

In 2017, he went to work at a resort in the beach city of Nha Trang on Việt Nam’s south-central coast, where by chance he found a new direction in life. A female co-worker showed Hùng her new handbag, made of sedge. Admiring its meticulous weaving, he began to think about his hometown’s famed craft.

“I wondered whether this was something I could do,” the now 28-year-old recalled. “After some restless nights, I decided to quit my job and return home and found a start-up.”

And so it was that in 2018 Hùng founded Cỏ May Craft (Gold Bear Grass Craft).

“Gold Bear grass, the local sedge, is flimsy but durable,” he said in explaining the company name.

“Like many people who were born and bred in a village, when I was living in the city I was always nostalgic for home, with its green pastures and sedge. It’s what brought me back.”

Without knowledge and experience, though, he had to start out from scratch. While studying and learning the craft, he was fortunate enough to meet a helpful craftsman in the central city of Huế who was willing to share his skills and experience.

He also decided, though, to focus on sedge products other than mats, which had been made in his home village for hundreds of years.

BEST SELLERS: About 1,000 bags from Cỏ May are sold each month on Amazon in the US.

Cỏ May, therefore, specialises in producing women’s handbags. Together with sedge, the company also makes bags using other natural materials such as rattan, bamboo, straw, and hyacinth.

“Customers only accepted our products once they met their requirements in quality and design,” he said. “This why I pay particular attention to such details.”

His bags are rounded out by leather straps, handles or flaps, which add a modern touch. They also come with a removable inner lining, so they can easily be kept clean.

WELL-MADE: One of Cỏ May’s sedge tote bags.

For the young and demanding entrepreneur, product quality isn’t just about durability but also about style and elegance.

“Quality must be seen in every detail,” he said. “The product must look nice, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have to care about every single knot and seam.

CARE & ATTENTION: Every detail is important, according to Hùng.

“Keeping an eye on such details requires that craftsmen be experienced in observation and be self-disciplined.”

Fruitful endeavour

Though any number of enterprises have been seriously hit by COVID-19, Cỏ May has come through it all largely unscathed.

“Sales have only been down slightly, as we mostly sell via online platforms,” he said.

QUALITY IS KEY: Hùng casts his eye over one of his bags at a shop in HCM City.

The 1,000 bags produced each month are sold on Amazon in the US at prices ranging from US$75 to $150.

Hùng’s products have also found favour in France and Australia, with substantial monthly orders coming from traders.

COVID-19 did, however, give the young businessman a new idea.

“People weren’t able to go out during the pandemic, and instead spent more time at home,” he explained. “So the thought occurred to me: Why we don’t create decorative household items from sedge?”

WALL TO WALL: Cỏ May has been selling wall hangings on Amazon since February.

Cỏ May Craft then started to introduce decorative wall hangings made of sedge on Amazon in February and feedback so far has been positive.

Last year a project of Hùng’s called “Combining natural materials and leather to create handbags” won first prize at a contest on start-up ideas from young people organised by the Thanh Hóa provincial Youth Union.

To create stable jobs for his fellow villagers, Hùng has begun a training course for a group of women aged 35-55.

“Once they become skilled weavers of our particular products, instead of employing people from elsewhere, such as Kim Sơn in Ninh Bình or others from Huế, we can recruit local villagers,” he said.

He feels happy whenever he receives a photo of customers with one of his sedge bags.

“That’s when I realise my products have travelled all over the world,” he said. “I feel proud to have contributed to promoting ‘Made in Việt Nam’ arts and crafts to international customers.”

His ambition continues, with plans to cooperate with Vietnamese fashion brands as well as foreign retailers in creating a new range of items. VNS


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