In recent years, mascots and cosplay performers have become an increasingly common sight at many venues throughout the city, particularly in the downtown area.
On any given night, Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street in District 1 teems with life as city-dwellers and tourists take leisurely strolls and enjoy themselves with their loved ones.
At the heart of the throng are street entertainers in brightly colored mascot and cosplay outfits.
These performers cheerily amuse children with their chubby looks, pose for photos and offer candy for VND10,000-VND20,000 (US$0.4-US$0.8) in return.
|Le Hong Duc (in the green teddy bear costume), a local university student, mingles with his fellow mascot performers on Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Some take the job out of their love of children, while others cling to it as a source of income.
Over the past twelve months, Nguyen Khanh Duy, 26, from the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre, has been a regular at the venue, impersonating the Monkey King, a mythological figure from a much-loved Chinese fantasy film adapted from one of the country’s classic novels, “Journey to the West.”
Duy continually scratches his head and moves his stick just like his character, who is best known for his agility, evasive nature and magic powers.
Surrounded by eager kids, the lanky performer waved to one of his street colleagues dressed as Zhu Bajie, the man-eating pig-monster who later became one of the monk’s helpers in the “Journey to the West” masterpiece.
“I’m not selling anything tonight, just hanging out with the kids for fun,” Duy told a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporter.
He said that he had come to Ho Chi Minh City to realize his dream of becoming a magician, and had been training with an illusionist and giving mascot performances as a part-time job for one year, having noticed that children love watching and playing with characters from cartoons and fairy tales.
“I really love children. Their beaming smiles melt away my hardship,” he said, explaining that he started out for fun, but later began selling sweets for extra income.
|A pink bunny mascot performer is seen playing with young children.
“I earn a few dollars each day, but sometimes go home empty-handed as many come for photos but have no intention to buy sweets. It’s no problem though.”
There are times when Duy even gifts his sweeties to needy children.
A beverage peddler nearby said Duy also performs magic shows in parks and cultural centers to cover his living expenses.
“In my early days, it was extremely uncomfortable when I first put on the outfit. On hot days, I was soaked in sweat while tears and mucus dripped from my eyes and nose,” he recalled.
Curious looks from passers-by also left him feeling embarrassed.
“After a while I realized there’s nothing to be ashamed of. During one performance, my heart leapt with joy as children gathered around me for photos, which bolstered my confidence ever since,” he added.
Much like Duy, Le Hong Duc, a student from a local vocational college, has delighted children and youngsters on Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street in the outfit of an adorable Teddy Bear.
Duc said that hundreds of children and young people had posed for photos that night, but only three had bought his sweets.
“What I earn is barely enough for me to fill my bike with gasoline for the night, but it’s okay, as long as I’m happy,” he said.
The mascot performers continually remind one another that though sales are poor, they cannot pester visitors or coerce them into buying anything.
Duy admitted that there were times when he wanted to quit, but he returned to his job a few days later.
Students residing at the university neighborhood in Thu Duc District have also taken on this kind of work to support their studies.
One group of mascot performers living there lamented that they work part-time for a dairy company and receive VND150,000-VND180,000 (US$6.5-US$7.8) per four-hour shift.
Nguyen Khanh Tien, a sophomore at the University of Science under the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, said she stands outdoors in the heavy attire of a white bunny in the scorching heat for several hours a day.
“I once fainted out of exhaustion and was rushed to hospital. There have also been shows in which my pay was cut by half or 70% after I sat down for some rest or took off my costume to cool off for a short time,” she added.
New mascot costumes can cost VND10-VND15 million (US$434-US$651) apiece, while used ones fetch VND5-VND8 million (US$217-US$347) each.
Tight-budgeted performers can rent the outfits for VND80,000-VND150,000 (US$3.5-US$6.5) per day.
Amidst the immense hardship, friendship and romances have also bloomed between fellow entertainers.
Trong Nghia and Mai Phuong, both orphans from Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, approximately 120 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, and students of the University of Economics and Law, got to know each other while performing for an event launched by a real estate company in District 7.
Seeing Phuong exhausted and dizzy after wearing the mascot costume for hours on end, Nghia bought her some lemonade and went home empty-handed after his pay was cut for that session.
The couple have been inseparable since that day and now live together in a rented room at the university neighborhood in Thu Duc District.
Nghia performs at local eateries and restaurants in his Mickey costume, which he bought with a full year of savings, while his girlfriend invites diners to buy sweets.
Likewise, Duy’s girlfriend, a student at a local university, was attracted to him while he played the role of the Monkey King.
Despite opposition from the girl’s family based on Duy’s job as a low-income street performer, the young couple have persevered, set on culminating their romance in a blissful wedding.