Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome you to my family’s motorbike parking service. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m Van, the chairperson of this ‘family economic cooperative.’ [Laughs]
I was born and raised in Nam Dinh. In 1979, I graduated from high school. I was 18. Next, I went to Thai Nguyen to study as a technical worker and, after three years, I was assigned to work in Tool and Equipment Factory #1 where I worked as a highly-qualified turner. Things were fine, but suddenly everything changed when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Because I needed an operation, I was forced to change my work assignment. So, in 1998, I became a cook in the factory’s cafeteria. I ended up working there until I was given early retirement in 2006. Since then, I’ve worked all sorts of jobs. I was doing some odd jobs for Al Fresco’s (a chain of restaurants selling Western-style food) for a couple of years before I gave myself a ‘second retirement’ [laughs] and started to work full-time running this parking service out of our home.
Actually, my family’s been working in the motorbike parking business since 1996 when we started looking after customers’ motorbikes for the vendors at the market beside Tool and Equipment Factory #1. After the market closed in 2002, we changed the business model a bit. It’s based in our home now and, since I’m ‘retired’, I’ve changed the availability and pricing options to a 24- hour, pay-by-the-month service.
Honestly, though, I don’t do this because I really want to. The income isn’t that great; I get VND150,000 a bike each month, and the most I can really make a month is VND2 million because the space we’ve got can’t hold more than 15 bikes. Also, the cost of living goes up every day, so even if I could change my fees to account for rising prices, inflation would still make it hard for me to match income with costs. Obviously, VND2 million isn’t enough to satisfy all of my family’s needs.
Aside from not earning all that much money, motorbike parking is a poisonous and generally hazardous work for anyone. Clearly, breathing gas fumes all day can’t be good for you, and gas is flammable so fire is definitely a possibility too. And this is only one potential danger. There are lots of other workplace hazards like being burned by hot exhaust pipes or getting crushed by a falling bike.
My job is more than just dangerous though, it’s also exhausting. You have to be strong, both physically and mentally, to arrange the motorbikes so that you can bring them in and out quickly and efficiently. It gets particularly bad during rush hour, which happens twice a day, day in day out. During rush hour, I just get dizzy and worn-out. The work pace is just so frenzied; I’m moving bikes around really fast while more and more people arrive to check bikes in or out. Still, the most difficult aspect of this job has to be the responsibility we have to our customers, to remain open and available 24/7. Because of our 24/7 pledge, my family can’t ever really go out together all at once. There’s just no way we can leave the shop unattended.
Yeah, some of the neighbors have complained about the noise and the stench of gasoline during the night, but as time has passed, they’ve all learned to live with it. In fact, they can sympathize with us now, primarily because more and more first-floor families in our apartment building have decided to join the business themselves. Now they even try to compete with us. No, but in all honesty, the level of competition isn’t that serious. It’s surprising, maybe, but competition is actually decreasing. Motorbike use is increasing quickly, and so is the demand for parking space. In our neighborhood alone, for example, there are only four families who run parking services, and yet there are dozens of families and students living on the upper floors who need somewhere to park their bikes. so essentially, as long as we’ve got space to park, our customers are satisfied, not to mention that our family’s service is 100 percent wholehearted.
No, I’m not concerned that we’re ever going to run out of customers who need a place to park their bikes. But that doesn’t mean I want to be doing this forever. I only want to do it until my kids are grown and my family’s situation has improved, because this job is dangerous and time consuming. But for the time being, this is the work that helps me support this family, so, from the bottom of my heart I’ll live up to our pledge to provide customers with “friendly, careful, and conscientious service.”
Additional contribution provided by Mai Lan, Mai Quang Huy, Colleen Ngo and Josh Mayhew. It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today is available in paperback on Amazon or as an e-book on iTunes.
Images by Ngoc Tran