Two young Saigonese women share their stories, from poverty to social reintegration.

HCMC is a bustling city in a country (Viet Nam) that, since 1994 and the opening of its economy to the world, has been obsessed with economic growth. From extreme poverty, the country managed in 20 years to offer its people improved living standards. A consumerist middle class is warily starting to emerge with the expansion of the service sector, while a growing minority of super-riches often parade the central district in high-end cars with high-end watches, (sun)glasses and shoes.

Yet, as the country drains precious FDIs and sits on an ever-growing debt towards international aid agencies, money masses in the hands of a minority and inequalities are increasing. Viet Nam’s economic lung has about 130 000 households living under poverty threshold (considered as living with less than $755 annually).

Kids and young adults are especially at risk. They are more than 10 000 surviving in HCMC’s streets. Alternatively tombola-ticket, noodle soup sellers, they wander in the city’s margins, exposed to all kinds of exploitation and abuses, HIV-transmission and drugs addiction. Some of them come alone from rural areas to look for a better life. Some of them are LGBT and fled their families because of their sexual orientation. Living in the social and economic margins of the city, they are invisible (volontarily or not) to the majority of the citizens.

Yet, in a complex politico-legal context (single-party system, heavy control of the society…), some organisations try to fill the void and help them out. Life Project 4 Youth (LP4Y) is one of them.

The organisation was created in 2009 by a French men living in the Philippines who wanted to help the marginalised youth. The idea was above all to give them a professional framework so they could reintegrate socially and economically.

‘I want to become rich to never sleep in the street again’

In HCMC, around 20 young people, all between 17 and 23 years old, come everyday to the District 8 small center with their difficult background and strong motivation to “have a better future”. A job as a baker, waiter•ress, tour guide, hairdresser…. anything that looks like a stable job with a stable income at the end of the month is a better future – for them and their families.

They are very realistic about what they can and cannot do, but the success of past trainees (bakers and waitresses in some of HCMC’s big hotels) give them hope. So methodically, they learn English, computer, communication and business management basics and to work collectively in two specific projects: bakery and lamp-making.

Tran and the Bread & Smile team © James Essig, LP4Y, 2015

The centers work like economic incubators where the youngsters are guided, for up to 18 months, in their personal development around a life project. A simple programs that enables them, every 4 months, to reach a new level (Autonomy → Responsibility → Management → Entrepreneurship), take responsibilities and gain self-confidence. Regularly, they present their ‘Life project Plan’ to a mixed audience of parents, friends, foreign partners. They present themselves, without shame or miserabilism, their dreams and ambitions with determination. Amongst the testimonies, that of a young men who just joined the center, particularly resonates: “I want to become rich to never sleep in the street again“.

Telling about life

A couple of weeks ago, I chatted with two young women about their lives for LP4Y’s newsletter. I wanted to share what they had told me and open a window on the ordinary lives of two young Saigonese.

Here are their stories.

Phuong : a goal to make your life more colorful.

As usual, Phuong is quiet and reserved. But today is not quite like any other day. This morning, her coach told her she would get an internship in a hair salon in one of Saigon’s posh residential areas. For Phuong, this is not just an internship, it is a dream starting to come true: being a beautician and hairdresser, owning her hair salon. Great are both her joy and pride, but she remains calm, focused and more than ever motivated. For this dream was, before joining LP4Y, like those of the youngsters: distant and inaccessible.

Little girl, she arrives in Ho Chi Minh with her family in financial difficulties seeking for a better future in the city. Evening classes are her only access to education with her parents’ meager resources. But when 17 years old, she stops. Her older sisters have left home and she must help her mother. Seamstress, waitress or nanny, she strings the jobs together to allow her youngest sister to continue her studies.

She has been working for a couple of months when two of her friends come one day to tell her about LP4Y. With the organisation, they explain, you learn English, a bit of business and marketing and how to be professional to find a more stable job. The case of Mai, a young woman who, in a few months, managed to handle English and found a bakery internship at the Sofitel Hotel, is a convincing argument. It can be possible, she thinks.

In March 2015, Phuong begins the LP4Y training. Her whole family is standing behind her, especially her mother, who believes that education is an essential tool to get by, and is still bitter that her daughter had to stop her studies.

The first month is difficult for the young woman. She does not speak a word of English and communication is often thorny with Lena, her coach – they can’t understand each other. Many times also, she thinks of stopping and finding a job to help her family, but her parents refuse each of her propositions and Phuong perseveres. Over time, LP4Y becomes a second family. Coaches and volunteers are friendly with everyone, encouraging, enthusiastic and attentive. With other youngsters too, the atmosphere is good and positive, everyone is trying to help the others.

Obviously, there are more tense moments. Sometimes coaches can be stressed and anxious and the atmosphere turns electric… Other times, it comes from the team, like last July. Each evening after school, she would change her outfit to turn into a waitress. When returning home around midnight, she had neither the energy nor the motivation to learn vocabulary. Until they understood that she had to work, her teammates acted severely towards her and forced her to do push-ups (as a small forfeit tradition that teammates established to encourage everyone to respect the rules).

Today, the challenges have slightly changed. It’s not so much about learning the vocabulary, but rather being professional…. and on time. She’s not a waitress anymore, but helps each morning her older sister who sells fruits in Binh Chanh market. As soon as she’s finished, around 7:30 am, she gets on her scooter and plots her route at full speed in the dangerous saigonese traffic to arrive on time at the center. Yet, often late, she’s again welcomed with push-ups.

This is one of her greatest challenges, she admits. And she’s a little stressed about it. At the hair salon, delay will not be tolerated. Fortunately, she argues, with that permanent job, she will not have to work alongside to help her parents and sister. No more push-ups…

Before that, Phuong thinks of staying at LP4Y for a couple of more months. She is determined to improve her English and professional skills. Phuong is very lucid; she knows that the road is still long to have her own salon – experience, a loyal clientele and a small capital are required.

But this dream of yesterday is today a goal for which she is going to fight and persevere. Because, she says, once you have a goal, you see life more colorful and optimistic.

Phuong during the interview © anordinarycity, 2015


Tran: change my life, have a stable job and be a good person

“I am the youngest of a family of seven children. My family’s financial situation has always been difficult and I had to stop school when I was 11 years old. I waitressed for a year, then worked in a cookies shop… After a few years, my boss started taking the bad habit of not paying me – he had no money – and I found myself in complicated situations: skipping meals or asking my parents for money. Then I moved in Nha Be district [south of HCMC] and found a waitress job in a Korean restaurant in District 7. I lived with a friend who was learning in LP4Y and one day she presented me the centre. I had several dreams: being a bartender, a translator or a graphic designer, and my friend assured me that by joining the organisation I would have a better future and a stable job – perhaps I could realize one of those dreams. I did not believe her, of course! But even if my waitress salary was not too bad, I thought I had nothing to lose by listening to her… So I joined.

At first it was very hard. Every day, the bus ride to the centre would take two hours. During these long hours, I would get distressed, think that I was behaving crazy and should get back to work. Moreover, I didn’t understand a word of English. The communication was very difficult, misunderstanding were frequent and I really felt under pressure. It was very intense, I could not calm myself and I wanted to give up. I was thinking too much and it made me sad. After two months I got a motorcycle, it helped changing my ideas. But above all, there were the coaches, always here to help us. And the team. The atmosphere is very good, everyone helps each other, I have real friends on whom I can count… When you’re not well, the others are really there for you… it motivates a lot! It especially helped me remembering why I was there: to change my life, have a stable job and be a good person.

Tran at work © James Essig, LP4Y, 2015

Tran at work © James Essig, LP4Y, 2015

Today I have followed the LP4Y training for 4 months and I’m in ‘Responsibility’ step. Compared to the ‘Autonomy’ step, everything is a little easier and harder at the same time. I managed early on to take responsibilities: I always propose myself for the purchases, preparing recipes or taking pictures. However, in the Bread & Smiles group, the others have studied longer and have a better level in English – compared to them, I’m lagging behind! It will be one of my main challenges in the coming months, especially when I pass the ‘Management’ step; there will be many more responsibilities and expectations… And I will have to speak a lot… in English!

As I want to be a bartender in a hotel in District 1, I think continuing until ‘Entrepreneurship’ step will give me the means to be truly professional and to improve my English. There are many tourists in District 1; if I want to communicate with them, I have to work my pronunciation and grammar! It will not be easy, but I am optimistic that I can make it and then help my family.

• December, 18th 2015 •