The Whole World in One Place

Portraits of Vietnamese in 21C

the gioi vao mot noi

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

The three-story house is in a small alley. From Hoàng Văn Thụ park in Tân Bình district, turn left and right many times to get there. This is where Hải Hà Lê Hoàng lives and works. The house is her home, office, and warehouse – all in one place. The living-room mirrors a showroom, as all the bags of products are piled up on one another, upon the shelves running from the floor to the ceiling along the two walls. Within arm’s reach, whatever Hà needs is on the shelves, if not in the extra stocking rooms upstairs – also where the bedrooms are located.

Entering the house, one steps into the space of two different worlds: work and family.

From Employee to Employer

For 15 years Hà was slaving herself in the auto sale industry, climbing to the position of Manager for a Volkswagen Distributor in Sài Gòn. One day in 2009, it occurred to her that the time to open her own business had come. Within a few months, Hà and her husband, Thắng, started the retail-wholesale clothing business targeting middle-income families in Việt Nam.

They have a shop selling children clothing called Hải Triều on Nguyễn Thượng Hiền street, District 3, where they hire four employees to manage. At their resident, the couple, together with two other employees, are in charge of the wholesale of both children and adult clothing. In total, four out of Hà’s six employees are from out of town, and they are now living in the same house with her family as an extended one. She has a nanny to take care of her baby daughter, but as the l-i-v-i-n-g and the w-o-r-k-i-n-g happen in close proximity, the baby girl plays with and seems to be raised by everybody. Together, everyone keeps an eye on her and together they tackle the world they call work and family.

This business model of employees and employer living and working in the same household is a very common practice in Việt Nam, especially in big cities like Sài Gòn. Sometimes the household is smaller composing of only two other employees who help with one small shop. But it could be bigger to include a workshop area where people are actually producing something on the spot such as clothing. A tourist would not be able to see all these behind-the-scene aspects of this business model. What one sees easily within the vicinity of a walk around the city are simply streets after streets of resident-cum-business office-cum-shop that griddle the city map. These houses have actually created threads of sweats and tears inter-weaving the everyday economic life in Việt Nam.

A boss’ paradise

As self-employment is one way for people to pull themselves out of the employee’s shackles to live a more flexible lifestyle of their choice, most young Vietnamese when asked would express a wish to own their private company of some sort at some point in their life. Whether they know it or not, the prerequisite for a company’s establishment could be their small-ish savings, but its survival and growth in the free market environment in Sài Gòn could not be humble at all, instead the more essential factors must be their huge commitment and perseverance.

It used to be those middle-aged corporate employees who saved enough in their life and who are experienced enough to establish their own sizable network to strive for a private business. Nowadays, the number of young Vietnamese over thirty who have started to count the days to run their own business is rising. They are dynamic individuals who live strong and big in the present, at the same time keeping an eye wide open for any opportunity that comes their way. What they have garnered in terms of people skills, computer skills, office and business management, as well of knowledge of the Vietnamese market and consumers during those years under the yoke of their corporate employers has now come to serve as their springing board for the launching of their own companies. Hà is one of them. Three years into the new wholesale business, she has developed more than 500 products, collaborated with approximately ten suppliers/manufacturers, and distributed to dozens of retail and wholesale shops all around the country.

Family = Work 

For Hà, a day starts at seven in the morning when her 17-month old daughter wakes up. By eight, she is preparing breakfast for everybody. Nine-thirty sees her husband taking their 7-year old son to school, the employees going to the shop, and Hà sitting down in front of the computer. She starts her work right here right there, in the living-room.

Everyday, Hà studies products from various online websites. After the analysis and selection, she moves on to designing her own products based on the style and materials most suitable for the local market and weather. Once a design is ready, she sends it off to the suppliers who are in fact clothing manufacturers who then turn her design into real products. In theory, those are procedures she performs on the computer uninterrupted. In reality, if she can sit in silence for ten minutes, that is her lucky moment. Her two cell phones will take turns ringing every other minute. Whether it is a delayed arrival of one product, or the tardy payment from another client, they are mostly headaches she has to deal with everyday.

in one place

Ten minutes without the phone ringing is a blessing for Hà. She takes the opportunity to update the website – that is another juggling ball on her hand; not to mention all the other technical issues of taking the pictures, touching them and putting them on the website; plus accounting. After all, she still holds a lot of the responsibilities, but now as a satisfying boss with her husband who is right by helping with consultation, delivery, decision making, and other cooking chores. Following her eye movement from point to point on the screen is almost impossible, very much like trying to catch the wings of the hummingbird’s flapping. So too is watching the movement of the computer mouse in her hand. Get ready for a headache.

Suddenly, as if to make up for the silent phone, her daughter is crying out loud somewhere upstairs or in the kitchen. She must have slipped and fell. The baby knows the most comforting thing to do is to run towards her mom. This she does. Therefore, with the phone on one hand and the baby on the other, Hà is a real juggler. Sometimes the phone ringing and the baby crying burst at the same time. Consider it ‘everyday music’ to Hà’s ears. It is not in any way devoid of laughter as children are a constant source of amusement, encouragement and inspiration. Hà’s 17-month old baby is nothing short of a “model” for the children clothing line.

Work = Family

At the peak of spring, summer or winter, if Hà cannot come to check out the sample products, the suppliers could have their representative bring her the samples. At times like these, her living-room turns into a mini trade fair. All over the floor, there lie blouses and pants and dresses and a variety of fabrics. Hà and the representative discuss intensely about what to do with what they have at hand. To add to the commotion of the scene, the older son is home from school at three in the afternoon. The already opaque concoction of sounds and sights in the tiny space, of the shuffling of fabrics; the thudding of bags of clothing on the floor; the feet sweeping the tiles; movements of adults and children; the colors of clothing more abundant than can be described; is now filled with even more talking. In the air thick with cotton and spandex and lace and jean, the kaleidoscopic changes of emotions on the faces of children and adults seem to be the final touches to complete the work-and-family-scape. What an incredible feeling of envy and joy for a life so full and rich. One could not ask for more than that.

What then is the difference between work and family for Hà ? Which one is more important? She said, “It is difficult to say which of the two is more important to me. My husband and children are my life; I work to support my family. I cannot put either of them down. They are equally important to me.” She would not sacrifice family for work, or the other way round.

The savings are already adequate, in the near future Hà hopes to find reliable employees who she can entrust with new shops she wishes to open around the city. Together with a loving and supportive husband, Hà is threading their hard-fought dreams, weaving and living their own happiness.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News. Read the Vietnamese version here.

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