At the end of February vendors around Tan Dinh Market in District 1 and visitors began to notice a foreign woman every morning. “Cake! Cake!” she would yell out in Vietnamese with a slight accent. She was Irina Khmylnikova, 46.
In 2019 she traveled to Vietnam, promptly fell in love with the country, and decided to settle down in coastal town Nha Trang. With experience in doing business back home, she set up a small travel agency to sell tours to Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian tourists.
But with national borders closing due to the Covid-19 outbreak since late March last year, her business ground to a halt.
In order to make a living, Irina came up with the idea of selling frosted cakes in Saigon. She bought an assortment of cream cakes in flavors such as cheese, honey and chocolate from a bakery in Nha Trang and sold them at VND25,000 ($1.1) apiece.
She has a styrofoam box strapped to her neck with ice, cakes and plastic spoons inside. In the beginning she was hawking around Tan Dinh Market. But now she has a motorbike and so also goes to Phu Nhuan Market in Phu Nhuan District and Ben Thanh and Dan Sinh markets in District 1. From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. she stops outside nearby schools.
Irina Khmylnikova (left) sells cakes outside Tan Dinh Market in Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Ngan.
Irina only knows Belarusian, Russian and a little English, and so mainly uses gesticulations when interacting with customers. She is currently learning English and wants to learn Vietnamese too. Recently a customer gifted her a Russian-Vietnamese dictionary.
“I like vending and chatting with locals. Kids test their English skills with me while their moms enthusiastically listen to family anecdotes.”
The constant smile on her face ensured that Irina was quickly accepted by locals and other vendors. “Vietnamese are very kind and buy my cakes to help me. For that I am grateful,” she said.
Some customers even offer to treat her to food and drinks, regularly pay her a visit and help promote her business. One time a customer bought 30 cakes for a birthday and another time a woman bought her entire stock, she recalled.
But it is not always easy. On quiet days she stops earlier and returns home. Though the job is physically demanding since she has to walk in hot weather with a heavy box hanging from her neck, Irina insists she will continue.
“It is not a bad job. From this vending gig, I understand the country from the inside, which is not an experience every Russian or Belarusian living in Vietnam gets.”
But it does not mean all anxiety about her future has dissipated. “If things return to normal, my life will be easier. If not, learning Vietnamese it is,” she said with a chuckle.
Irina does not want to return to Belarus since she now sees Vietnam as home.
Most people who have interacted with her only have good things to say about her friendliness, polite behavior and even beauty and youthful appearance.
Mai, a vendor at Tan Dinh Market, said: “Her cakes are delicious, not too sweet and with a distinct taste.”
On Sundays Irina takes a break after a week of hard work and unwinds by traveling and exploring. She often visits pagodas and temples in the city.
Whenever she passes a new pagoda on her way to work, she notes its address down to visit at her earliest convenience. “I like visiting pagodas because they are so peaceful and tranquil,” she added.
Irina at the Ke Ga Lighthouse in Phan Thiet Town. Photo courtesy of Irina.