Vietnam is a strange place, but maybe that’s what makes it so appealing. It certainly is attracting people of all stripes who come here to discover that there are plenty of niches yet to be filled in this transitional country. Amid Vietnam’s rapid and often lop-sided development, even a trade as simple as cupcakes can be new and customised. This month AsiaLIFE speaks to expats and locals who’ve taken advantage of this endless opportunity and make a living by doing something a little different. Photos by Alex McMillian and Fred Wissink.
The Fortune Teller
Julia Jay spends her nights walking the Pham Ngu Lao circuit in District 1 where she goes from business to business plying her trade.
Wielding a pack of tarot cards, intuition, and knowledge of the palm, Jay probably has one of the most unique jobs of any expat in the city, supporting herself entirely through fortune telling.
Born in Sussex, England, Jay first learned the ways of a fortune teller at age 8 from a friend of her adopted grandmother. She practiced her craft casually before leaving England at 19 and heading to Asia, where she has spent most of her adult life.
Choosing a transient lifestyle, Jay began buying precious stones and silver in India and selling them in Greece, where a friend gave her a pack of tarot cards. This is crucial because true fortune tellers can only be gifted the cards, which cannot be bought.
She then moved on to Bali, where she ran a guesthouse for 10 years and, more importantly, became interested in meditation. The meditation led to the honing of her fortune-telling skills.
“I believe I’m 100 percent accurate,” she says. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I weren’t.”
She adds that her repeat customers are also proof that her abilities aren’t to be scoffed at. Her clients are mainly Vietnamese, perhaps unsurprising in a country where many life decisions are based on fortune telling. Many hire her to come to their homes.
“The Vietnamese are very knowledgeable about fortune telling,” she says. “They are very demanding and know exactly what to ask.”
Citing personal principles, Jay never reveals to others what she discovers in a reading. But she says there are often nights when an ordinary, 15-minute reading turns into an emotional two or three-hour session ending with the customer in tears.
“After some nights I feel completely emotionally drained,” she says. “I try to only do six readings a night.”
She also says she has gained a good reputation among the Vietnamese. On one occasion, a lackey for a local mafia-type came searching her out to set up a session for the boss.
“Afterwards he [the mafioso] ordered loads of beer and insisted on me staying there,” she says. “Then I asked the translator, ‘He’s happy with me, right?’ and he said, ‘Yes, he loves you. You’re 90 percent correct.’”
Foreigners in Vietnam, on the other hand, have more mixed feelings about her.
“Some tourists, mainly young English guys, in a foreign country for the first time are feeling unnerved and want to show off,” she says. “They can sometimes give me a hard time.”
But others are more open, even the more scientifically minded who dismiss fortune telling altogether.
“You can’t judge somebody until you’ve tried it,” she says.
The TV Show Host
One week Matt Cavanaugh could be making candy and selling it on the street. Another day, he might milk cows before leading them out to pasture. It’s all part of the job.
That is, his job is to host the TV show Living Vietnam in a Day, in which foreigners attempt a typically Vietnamese vocation, often in remote locales.
“I get to go to a lot of places tourists wouldn’t think to go to,” says Cavanaugh, 26.
The communications major from Fergus Falls, Minnesota didn’t exactly move to Vietnam with dreams of making it big on the small screen. Amid the economic malaise in the United States, Cavanaugh relocated here in 2011 thinking he might take a typically expat vocation, teaching English.
One day, a friend had to pull out of her guest spot on a Vietnamese TV program on VTC 10 and asked Cavanaugh to replace her.
He agreed, shooting the episode in a northern pottery village where he tried his hand at the local craft. Cavanaugh was still new to Vietnam at that point, so cramming into a van with strangers, venturing out into the countryside, and then diving into the art of clay was intense and a little disorienting.
But he was surprised by how much he liked seeing the final product.
“Actually watching it was good because it made me realise they weren’t making fun of me, they’re laughing with me,” he says, referring to Vietnamese crew and onlookers. “The way they edited it didn’t make me look like an idiot, but like I was having fun.”
What’s more, producers later invited him back, not as a guest but as the host. Back in Minnesota, Cavanaugh had had some public speaking experience. As a marketing intern for a baseball team, he spent some game intermissions entertaining the crowd. But he says hosting his own TV program was a whole other ball game, especially the first day.
“Oh I was horribly nervous,” he says, adding, “You could see I was not remembering my lines or not knowing what to say. But it got easier, I got more comfortable with the cameras there and having people watch you. I kind of block it out and try to act normal.”
In the cow episode, he alternates between reading a script and shooting the breeze with his non-English speaking guides, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes making for light moments in the 30-minute spot. Cavanaugh shovels bovine waste, connects udders to milking machines, and does his best not to get kicked. It’s all a little odd, from the communication barriers to the sight of a white foreigner copying a Vietnamese farmer. And that’s the point.
The Puzzle Maker
An entrepreneurial spirit and the willingness to try almost anything has led to a life of strange jobs for Matt Wilson. One of his more recent endeavors is Saigon Puzzles, a small business in District 2 that creates custom jigsaw puzzles.
“Puzzles are something I’ve always liked to do,” Wilson, 33, says. “Sometimes I think of puzzles as like the Buddhist sand mandalas. You spend hours focusing and carefully deciding every piece, and at the end you break it up and chuck it back in the box.”
The idea for the business started after he brought back a puzzle from a trip to Seattle and was putting it together with his girlfriend.
“We were talking about my trip while putting it together and she liked it so I wanted to do it again,” Wilson says. “But the only puzzles I could find weren’t good quality.”
This was three years ago, and puzzles still aren’t too easily found in the city. This is despite the fact that Vietnam holds the world record for the largest puzzle. Assembled in 2011 at Phu Tho Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City, the 15-metre-by-23-metre puzzle was made up of 551,232 pieces and depicted a lotus flower.
But Saigon Puzzles has plenty of customers, both Vietnamese and foreign.
Wilson admits that running a small puzzle company may be a little strange, but that’s what living in Vietnam as a foreigner is all about.
“It’s Vietnam, you can do a lot of things here you can’t do anywhere else, as long as you’re willing to put the time into it,” he says.
At first all his puzzles had musical themes, since the company was based out of the Performance Arts Academy of Ho Chi Minh City, a small music centre Wilson and his brother started. But now most of them are photos sent in from customers that are then printed on the puzzle pieces.
Now that the puzzle shop is up and running, Wilson is putting his energy into his newest idea, Everybodyenglish.com, a collection of English lessons and games he compiled while teaching.
The idea came about when a school he worked for required him to teach young children. Eventually he started developing a curriculum for them and his lessons were so effective other teachers started to use them.
“I started to show other teachers what I do, and they said, ‘It works, a robot could do this,” he says. “And so I thought, ‘That’s exactly what should happen, a robot should do this.’”
The Model Salesman
By day, Ha Viet Dung would sell cheap sugarcane juice from his cart parked near a university in District 3.
By night, he would dress up his sturdy frame, clean-shaven face and lush hair to work a fashion show, walk a runway, or hobnob at a party.
Dung is a model by profession — one that, as it turns out, doesn’t pay as well as the glamorous lifestyle suggests. Whenever people found out that he also hawked sugarcane juice on the side, most were surprised.
“They don’t think a model would sell things,” he says. “I respond, it’s just a way to make money, nothing wrong with it. I’m not shy to tell people.”
Dung, 26, says male models make far less money than their female colleagues, sometimes as little as one-tenth. And scandals plagued beauty kings and queens when Vietnamese press last year revealed that some models have traded sex for money throughout their careers. Dung says he’s been propositioned, but doing odd jobs instead helps him pay the bills.
Those include making jewelry, waiting tables, and now, selling essential oils. He recently stopped the sugarcane business when a landlord took back his property.
Wearing a silver chain that showed through his unbuttoned shirt, Dung says he had never thought about modeling until it happened. “My family is from the mountains, we didn’t know about modeling,” says Dung, who is a member of the ethnic Muong people in northern Vietnam.
After a stint in the military, where he says he learned to be active and resilient, Dung entered a modeling competition and placed third, which led him to gigs here and there with different agencies. “The job found me, I didn’t find the job,” he says. Dung likes the modeling industry, though it can be demanding “personally and emotionally”.
Last year Dung, who also likes to fish and shoot billiards, made another career turn and played his first role in a film. After Mua He Lanh, or Cold Summer, hit theatres, he made a lot of new fans at the sugarcane stand he had at the time, serving mostly students.
In the film, he spent one scene swimming in a dirty, oily river, and a different scene on a high rooftop with no barriers. It was thrilling.
“It changed my life,” he says. “After that I knew I wanted to be an actor.”
The Vietnamese might have inherited a lot of things from the French, but a culture of tasty, high-quality desserts isn’t one of them. Ho Chi Minh City is sprinkled with bakeries and street carts that sell steamed (rather than baked) treats that do little for the sweet tooth.
“They look really pretty but they don’t taste like you expect,” Barbie Thompson says of Vietnamese desserts. So she is offering an alternative.
Out of her Sweet and Sour shop in District 2, Thompson sells everything from banana bread to macaroons, with a special emphasis on cupcakes.
“You know, all the kinds you find in American bakeries and you don’t know which you want,” says Thompson, who is from North Carolina.
It’s not every country where a foreigner can set up shop and have a thriving business in no time. In Vietnam, Thompson looks for little ways to set her bakery apart, whether it’s edible glitter, or homemade vanilla extract. Thompson, 36, also sources local ingredients when possible but “bringing in special things you can’t find here” in Vietnam, such as certain high-end chocolates and flour, “keep it different from what everyone else has here.”
Thompson, known as Mrs B around the shop, says one of her favourite odd projects was a crocodile cake — that is, 40 cupcakes combined into a 50cm reptile decorated with frosting, candy and chocolate.
Sweet and Sour, which also sells its baked goods through L’Uisine in District 1, has catered events for the likes of MAC Cosmetics, Coach and Christian Louboutin. Of the shoe designer, Thompson says, “Of course his personality is very crazy, so I tried to make the cupcakes crazy with glitter, sprinkles, and shoes printed on the chocolate.”
Thompson hasn’t delivered on every request; one potential customer asked for a cake featuring a half-naked man, which the mother of two says was a little beyond PG for her.
That’s why she got into the business. Thompson has lived in Vietnam 16 years, exporting lacquerware with her husband until deciding to stay home to raise children, who are now 3 and 5. She’d been a self-taught baker for years, but turning the hobby into a living allowed her to spend more time as a mom. Like so many Vietnamese, Thompson, who interrupted the interview to pick up one of her children, lives above her place of work in District 2.
Thompson says she got her patience to bake from her mother, who is French-Vietnamese and owns a restaurant. Her heritage also allowed her to visit relatives in France regularly, taking in the appreciation for a well-made pastry, as well as to tour a bakery as a child where her uncle once worked.
She has trained several Vietnamese staff to create her baked goods, and plans to open another Sweet and Sour in District 1 soon.