Poverty negates Tet festivities on Vietnam's Wall Street

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A woman on Calmette Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City cleans the family's altar for Tet. That was the only celebratory activity she can afford for the country's biggest holiday

Vendors who work the banking streets in Ho Chi Minh City's downtown area do not even take one day of vacation for Lunar New Year's.

They just cannot afford to take one day off, let alone buy flowers, new clothes or special snacks for the country's biggest holiday known in Vietnamese as Tet, Tuoi Tre reported.

"The best year, I could save enough to buy ten kilos of rice, two kilos of meat and some vegetables. This year might not be that good as I am in a lot of debt," Nguyen Thi Nga who lives in an alley off Pho Duc Chinh Street in District 1, where major banks such as Eximbank, SaigonBank, and the country's largest lender Agribank are based.

"I will try to afford a pot of meat to give the children a taste of the holiday. Well, sticky rice cake or other stuffs are beyond dreams," Nga was quoted in the report as saying.

The 53-year-old woman shares a 12-square-meter apartment with her husband, two daughters, a son, three grandchildren, her brother and his wife. They had to construct an attic right below the roof in order to create enough space for everyone to sleep.

Her husband is a freelance electrician, her brother a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver, her daughters sell lottery tickets on the street, while the grandchildren all go to school.

They come and have lunch every day at her drink "shop" on Pho Duc Chinh, which actually is nothing more than a cooler of iced tea and other bottled drinks, plus several plastic tools.

She has a portable gas cooker to make lunch for the family.

"I buy rice twice every day, each time half a kilo, for two meals a day. Other dishes are leftovers from nearby families. When there're no leftovers, we have boiled eggs with fish sauce," Nga said.

Like that, Nga said meals are not a burden, but her debts are. She is working hard to return more than VND4 million (US$192) that she borrowed from a neighbor last month as she needed to go to hospital for her heart condition.

"I have to make an extra of around VND50,000 a day to pay the installments," she said.

The family also owed money to the city poverty alleviation fund.

Nga is on daily heart medication but she has not left her shop idle for any day.

Tran Doan Bao Tran, a 19-year-old college student, said her family of four children depends on her parents' tiny coffee shop at a nearby alley that earns just over VND100,000 ($4.8) a day.

Tran said she has no idea how she'll celebrate Tet, as the holiday seems doomed to pass just like any other day, with them vending and eating a modest lunch on the street.

She said she is worried about an even worse future as her parents have become old and weak, while the children are all still going to school. "My wish for the new year is that my parents won't be sick."

But Nga's wish for Tet is a toilet, at least "for the children."

There are tens of families that live off their meager street vending businesses in Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, as there are in an alley off Calmette Street, where eight houses of between five and eight square meters each are shared by 13 families. The street is home to the offices of Sacombank and Military Bank.

Given the space, none of the families have a toilet. They use public ones.

Nga said local authorities last year gave each family in the neighborhood VND500,000 ($24) for Tet, but this year she and the neighbors would use the money to build a toilet.

Le Thu Huyen, vice chairwoman of the ward, said it has 16 poor families and 100 more on the verge of poverty. Vietnam's official poverty line for urban areas is VND500,000 per person per month. Those who earn less are considered impoverished.

At least 569 families are struggling to make ends meet, Huyen said, adding that local authorities have set a state budget of VND129 million and allotted 60 gift packages worth around VND1.5 million to distribute among them.

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