by Tieu Phuong-Trung Hieu
A brief advertisement on the online marketplace vatgia.com recently raised many eyebrows. Alongside postings for vacuum cleaners, cameras and second-hand cars, the note instead offered a service of a different kind that had been presumed consigned to the past:
"Do you cherish in your heart a message that you want your other half to know? Do you have a sacred feeling that you want to send someone? Do you want to thank or apologise to someone, but don't have confidence in your ability to express your thoughts on paper? We can help you by creating letters which will win them over with sincere and persuasive words."
Writing letters on demand, it turns out, is rapidly becoming the part-time job of choice for young people in need of some extra income.
Le Thi Bich, a final year student of the Foreign Trade University in Ha Noi, says she has been writing love letters for money for two years.
Her unusual sideline began when she was still in high school. Many people in her class knew of her way with words and persuaded her to craft love letters for them to send to their crushes.
As her reputation spread, Bich's service became increasingly in-demand. Such was her success; people even began crediting her for sparking marriage proposals. She is not limited only to notes of desire and devotion however. On the contrary, Bich can write for any occasion; a child sending a letter to their mother, a man writing to catch up with a far-away sibling, a woman expressing her feelings to her grandparents.
However, it is inevitably love that is the biggest seller.
"Most of my clients are young people, aged between 17 and 30, who have a weakness expressing their feelings. Most of the letters I have written have been for lovers or spouses. It is my job to put words in their mouths."
Bich is not alone. This service is also widely used at the Ha Noi Law University.
In her small dormitory room, Hoang Thi Thuy diligently writes a letter for a young client who is head over heels in love with his neighbour.
"Sometimes, my customers are very young. Recently, I got an order from a 10th grader who asked me to write a letter each week addressed to the stereotypical girl next door. He has requested that I send her anonymous note with some witty flirting, but he also wants it to be unique and romantic," she says.
Thanks to this job, Thuy can afford to pay the daily expenses of a final year student.
Bich too has found that a talent for expressing other people's feelings can offer financial reward.
While she usually charges VND50,000 per letter, for the poor students who come to see her on their bicycles she only charges VND30,000. For those who cannot afford even this, she is ready to help them free to get their message across.
Style and substance
Another letter writer, Bui Quoc Tung, a former student of the Academy of Journalism and Communication, says the most difficult thing for a hired letter writers is choosing an appropriate writing style.
"If the 'author' of the letter is inherently gentle, his writing style can't be too ornate and polished. Conversely, if the recipient is a person who does not like flowery words and poetry, the letter should sound more down-to-earth and sincere. Writing for an introvert should be different from writing for an extrovert.
"Writing for a dynamic and modern girl is different from constructing a note for a hard-working wife. Letters take a lot of time because we have to do several rewrites to satisfy our customers."
Tung says there are some people he has written letters for through courtship, dating, marriage and children. Outside of love letters, one man aged more than 70 asked him to write some poems for him to read at his grandchild's birthday celebration.
In the last three years, Tung estimates that he has written about 500 letters for clients.
"Believe it or not, for my regular clients I often encourage them to write letters themselves, so they can reveal their true emotions themselves," he says.
While it is becoming more popular, the service is in fact nothing new. It is thought to originate from ancient times in both the East and the West, when the majority of people were illiterate and could not express what they wanted to say with a pen.
In Viet Nam, there are a couple of hired letter writers who have been diligently getting on with their work for many years.
In HCM City, many people have heard of Duong Van Ngo, an 82-year-old man who writes letters at the city's Central Post. He has been recognised as the author of the highest number of love letters in Viet Nam, and the Viet Nam Records Book honoured him in 2009 for being the longest-serving letter writer in the country. His story has attracted coverage from many foreign newspapers, including Canada's Toronto Star and Germany's Spiegel.
His work has brought love and joy to many people over the decades. It would be nice to think that the young generation of romantic scribes like Bich, Thuy and Tung will follow in his illustrious footsteps. — VNS