If you don’t have money, don’t even dream about having a girlfriend and completely forget about getting married,” said Tri, a taxi driver, when I was in his cab one day. He’s not alone; many young Vietnamese men also have to put love on hold because of their financial situation.
However, fairy stories can always happen in the most mundane of lives and the toughest conditions. Ordinary furniture workers at the Saigon River Factory Vietnam have found love in their workplace and have nurtured it as best they can. They feed their love by sharing their daily ups and downs, their sadness and happiness. And, like the emotions experienced by the well-off, their love has many shades and tones.
Love at First Sight
Khanh and Phien are a strange but interesting couple. The wife, Phien, seems more open and ready to share their love and family stories while Khanh, as a man, doesn’t seem to talk too much.
They met each other for the first time in 2008 at Saigon River Factory. Cupid’s arrow struck Khanh right away, but it took him nearly a year, and the help of a friend, to enable him to reveal his true feelings to Phien. Having waited for so long, Phien said yes right away when he asked if she would be his girlfriend.
“People usually know if someone has feelings for them,” she explains with a blush.
They spent three more years getting to know one another more and strengthening their relationship. They didn’t have much time together socially (due to Phien’s strict father) but they had lots of dating-time memories at work. They finally tied the knot in 2011 and their first child came along in 2013. Although still living in rented accommodation, their burden became lighter when Khanh’s parents moved to Binh Duong to help with childcare.
“Our savings were more than enough before the marriage,” says Phien. “Now, it’s just enough because, you know, kids often get sick.”
The couple — who never seem to be able to stay mad at each other for a long time — still have a dream of owning a plantation in the Mekong Delta where they are both from, even though neither of them has ever touched a hoe.
One of their dreams is also a new addition to the family, although only “if our financial situation allows it,” says Khanh.
Compared to Khanh, Dieu is open and talkative. He met his wife, Tu, in 2004 when he started working at the factory. After seven years of getting to know one another and eventually falling in love, the couple, especially Dieu, seems satisfied with the happy ending despite such a long wait.
“I was so sure of my feelings towards her,” he says. “After two years of dating, I wanted to marry her, but I wasn’t sure how she felt.”
Their story started out as one of mutual dislike. She was tomboyish, with a man’s haircut and an active, go-getter personality; he was more passive and always took care of his appearance. But love always finds a way.
“In 2004 when the company was new and there were not many workers,” says Dieu while looking at his wife, “we had to work together and many opportunities to talk. After a while, she became like my little sister.”
That ‘sister’ position quickly changed into ‘girlfriend’ after Tu helped him mend a broken heart from a previous relationship. Now they have been married over three years. But although both of them are over 30, they haven’t thought about having children.
“We know we are not young anymore,” Tu explains. “But we need to get everything prepared before having kids.”
One of the advantages that Dieu has, compared to other workers, is that he comes from Binh Duong, where the factory is. Finances are less onerous since they do not need to rent. Going forward, they also have dreams where Dieu has his own business and Tu becomes a mother while also taking care of the kids and running a convenience store.
With his occasional loud and silly laughter, it could be easy to cast judgment on Dinh. But this was not always the case. One of the first staff members at Saigon River Factory, Dinh was one of those people who excelled at everything he did. He was a key factor in the growth of the company, and over the years his remuneration came to reflect his importance.
Then everything went wrong.
In 2013 he came down with Japanese encephalitis and suffered a brain hemorrhage. Now this man from Central Vietnam knows he will never get his previous normality — or his wife — back.
“She has a boyfriend now,” he says quietly.
Describing his wife, Thao, as “a beautiful girl with long hair and fair skin”, his eyes sparkle when he recalls the day he met her, near where his rented house was located. But after three years of dating, eight years of marriage, a five-year-old child and a property he bought from savings in Binh Duong, she still needed something else.
“She gets home from work every day around 10pm,” he adds.
After recovering, Dinh went back to his family in Quang Nam to recuperate for a year. His wife cared for him for two months, but after that, he was neglected. Driven to the edge, he jumped off a bridge, which caused him further damage — this time to his wrist.
“Don’t worry,” he says while rubbing his wrist. “The doctor said an operation could solve the problem.”
Understanding his situation and remembering his ability, Peter Arts, the founder of Saigon River Factory, encouraged Dinh to come back to work after his recovery was complete.
“Peter said you are a super star!” I tell him. Except for a slight smile, his face doesn’t show any expression.
I ask him about his plans for the future.
“I don’t know. Maybe just live like this. Future? I have no idea about it.”
Saigon River Factory
Founded in 2000 by Peter Arts and Hedwig Pira, Saigon River Factory specialises in the design and production of home decorations, furniture and tile collections. Located in Binh Duong, the company has 100 workers and 15 staff, most of whom have been with the company since the beginning. No less than eight worker couples have found love while working in the factory, and the company prides itself on operating as a family where workers are brothers and sisters, cousins and neighbours.
To maintain the family environment as well as to ensure its duty to care for its staff, Saigon River Factory guarantees that the number of workers will never exceed 150 people.
“When they are happy, they will introduce their family or friends to work with us,” says the company’s head of sales and marketing, Nico Greeve. “Everyone seems to know each other, or is happy to connect with the little social ecosystem. I guess romance is inevitable.”