Workers polish wood in a furniture factory outside Hanoi. With many firms struggling to even survive, workers fear their Tet bonus this year will shrink drastically.
Nguyen Van Thai looked somewhat mystified.
Asked about his bonus hopes for the upcoming Tet, the employee of a woodwork company in Hanoi said: "We are not able to get enough salary, so forget bonuses."
While it is still early for many companies to talk about bonuses for the Lunar New Year, employees have very low expectations compared to previous years. As firms struggle to survive, many workers consider it lucky if they receive wages on time.
"Over the past few months, the company has received only a few small orders. It has not managed enough money to pay us wages. It has owed us our salary since May.
"In such tough conditions, it is very lucky to have work and get our salary before Tet," Thai said.
His firm has cut half of its labor force since early this year, and owes others wages.
Nguyen Anh Tu, manager of a factory that makes parts and components for machinery in Hanoi's Quang Minh Industrial Park, said: "We are trying to offer employees Tet bonuses to motivate them at work. However, it cannot be as high as last year because our sales have plummeted by over 30 percent."
He said his firm usually gave Tet bonuses equaling a month's salary, which ranges from some VND6-8 million (US$290-385).
Nguyen The Hung, deputy director of Hanoi's Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, said bonuses for this Tet, which falls next February, cannot be higher than last year. Many companies have narrowed production or even shut down their business amid the economic slowdown, he said.
Some 55,000 firms are expected to be dissolved by the end of this year, according to the Department of Business Registration Management under the Ministry of Planning and Investment.
According to the management board of Ho Chi Minh City's industrial parks and processing zones, 146 firms had reported their bonus plans by mid-December. Based on the reports, foreign-invested firms are expected to offer an average bonus of VND4.4 million ($210) this Tet, while the figure is VND2.8 million ($135) for local firms.
Electronics producers are offering the highest average bonus at some VND5 million, followed by textile and garment companies and footwear producers at VND3.4 million; and food traders, VND2.5 million.
Last Tet, the average bonus paid by foreign-invested and state-owned firms was VND4.2 million and VND3.7 million respectively.
Nguyen Hoang Tuan, director of a property firm, said real estate prices have fallen by 20-40 percent in all market segments since late last year, so many firms have suffered losses. "We are just trying to pay wages for employees before Tet. I don't think that we will have funds for bonuses this Tet."
Banks, which used to offer employees high bonuses, are also expected to hand out moderate payments this year as many of them are facing business difficulties.
Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam Nguyen Van Binh said banks have been banned from increasing salaries or offering bonuses until they set aside enough funds to prevent risks and deal with bad debts.
Some private firms producing consumer goods or food items, have said they plan to offer employees their own products, or allow them to extend their Tet holidays instead of giving them a bonus this year.
Meanwhile, workers are facing an even more difficult time during the festival, not only because of smaller or no bonuses, but because they also have to deal with increased prices.
Many experts have predicted that the prices of most commodities, especially food items, would continue to increase in the coming months as consumption rises during the festival season.
Annual inflation is likely to be 7.5 percent, the government said early this month. The increased consumer prices would hurt low-income workers the most.
Nguyen Thi Minh, an employee of electric appliance trader Phuong Hong, said she and other workers at the company are worried about a difficult Tet ahead even though they have been promised bonuses.
Prices have been increasing recently, she said. For many products, prices have doubled over the past few years.
Since workers typically receive bonuses just before Tet, when prices increase the maximum, the smaller bonuses expected this year will pale in comparison with price hikes, Minh said.