by Thu Huong Le
HA NOI — While Le To Uyen has a degree in economics, in 1996 she chose to start working as a professional housekeeper/cook and nanny for foreign families in Ha Noi.
Despite the perception that housework is a low-level job, Uyen is still on the job after 16 years. She makes about US$300-350 (VND6-7 million) a month working full-time.
The most important characteristics for the job, she says, are honesty and hard work.
"Besides English, we need excellent culinary and child-care skills since most families have been living overseas in countries where domestic help is highly capable," Uyen said. "For example, you even need to learn how to perform first-aid when something goes wrong with a child."
Unlike in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand or the Philippines, housekeeping in Viet Nam is often not viewed as a serious profession.
"Family members are expected to help out in the house," said Mike Langrish-Smith, managing consultant for Maid in Viet Nam Company Limited, which provides housemaid training and hire services in Ha Noi.
"People who come here from other parts of the world are often quite disappointed at the relatively low level of domestic service available here."
Maid in Viet Nam, which opened in 2,000, claims to be first licensed house-maid operation in Viet Nam. It caters mostly to foreigners.
Those who sign up at Maid in Viet Nam must have relatively good English or another foreign language. They undergo one-week of basic training and longer specialised courses if they want to become a nanny, cook or housekeeper.
They are also supervised at their first job by someone from the company.
"Often Vietnamese domestic helpers ignore the threats from bacteria, viruses, cross-contamination and personal-hygiene, which can be problematic in a hot climate," Langrish-Smith said. "Our staff have to study health and hygiene, kitchen management and household safety as basic training."
The training even includes instructions on how to lift heavy loads, and how to use stairways, ladders and fire extinguishers correctly to ensure their own safety and the safety of others.
Maid in Viet Nam has about 20-25 people on its full-time payroll, and another 100 working as part-time or temporary staff. The full-timers earn up to $400 per month, depending on their experience and language competency.
In recent years, several maid services have opened up, catering to middle and upper class Vietnamese families whose requirements are quite different from foreign families, especially where child care is concerned.
In 2007, the Ha Noi-based Employment Centre offered a class in co-operation with the women's associations in Hoa Binh, Phu Tho and Vinh Phuc.
Women were taught how to operate basic home appliances in addition to communication skills, such as how to relate to the heads of families.
But after four months, the centre had to close. Other centres could not recruit enough learners as most people still thought the job does not require any special skills.
Tran Thi Diem Chau, general director of Promaid in HCM City, which provides services for both individuals and companies, said that her company found it difficult to recruit highly qualified maids for foreigners since.
"Many foreign households here have to hire housekeepers from the Philippines because they can speak better English," she said.
Now in her 50s, Nguyen Ngo has been working as a housekeeper since 1997. She earns about VND12 million ($600) a month working for two families.
Nguyen said foreign families often had very strict requirements in regards to cleanness. She also complained that the work was unstable since foreign families usually only stayed for a limited period.
Asked whether she had encountered any cultural differences, she said that once she was scolded by her boss for not buying enough ingredients for a family party.
"I thought that I was good at saving costs, but he told me that I should not do that," she said. "It was his party, not mine."
Jamie Hills, a 45-year-old Australian who has been living in Ha Noi for three years, said his girlfriend sacked about four housekeepers in China but was able to find the right one after the second try in Ha Noi.
"Having a housekeeper is an extremely personal thing," he said. "You have to find someone that you are comfortable with. Definitely housekeepers are much more friendly in Ha Noi and much more willing to work with you." — VNS