Hoa is 30 and has been selling pop up cards in Ha Noi for the past 12 years. It is an unrelenting 11 hour day seven days a week grind.
A single mother of one, her eight-year-old son lives with his grandmother in Hoa’s home province of Thanh Hóa. She normally only sees him for five days a month, the rest of the time she rents a small room in Ha Noi. Recently, though, she was at home for 15 days because she was sick due to the pollution she inhales each day in the city centre.
Hoa’s day starts at 5am. She walks the 2kms from her lodgings to Hoan Kiem lake aiming to get there for 7am. It is the start of a very long day, most of which is spent on her feet or circumnavigating the lake on the lookout for tourists.
She gets her pop up cards in a nearby store and adds a modest markup in order to make a living. To make each day worthwhile she has to sell at least five cards.
“Some days I sell five cards. Other days ten. It depends,” she explains. “At the end of the day I am exhausted and get a xe om back home at 7pm.”
Then it starts all over again. Every single day. The only days she gets off in Ha Noi are the odd day here and there when there is heavy rain. “Then I just stay in my room and rest,” she tells me.
Hoa breaks off and looks around for a bench to sit on. “I am so tired today, and I am looking after my friend’s baby.”
Seventeen month old Xuyen is fast asleep in a baby sling oblivious to the hustle and bustle around her.
I ask Hoa why she came to Ha Noi to sell cards.
“There is no work for me in the countryside. I can only work on the farm during June and July when the rice is growing. That’s why I have to come to Ha Noi. I can speak a little bit of English and some French now so maybe I can find a better job,” she replies.
How much longer will you work in Ha No?, I ask.
“I don’t know. What the future holds I don’t know. I miss my son. It is difficult…” her voices trails off, a deep unspoken sadness in her eyes speaks volumes.
I buy a couple of her pop up cards as I have been promising to do since we first met at Hoan Kiem. Hers is clearly an unforgiving and precarious way to make a living.
We chat a bit longer before I leave, I promise to look her up the next time I am at the lake.
“Okay, my friend, I will see you again soon,” a huge smile bursts onto her face.
I turn and leave. A heavy sadness dogs my steps.
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