In most countries, workers would have cheered the news that the workweek was being cut to 40 hours, with Saturdays off.
But here in Vietnam, an industrious country where leisure time is all but unknown and people think nothing of working seven days a week, the government's recent announcement reducing the workweek by eight hours brought mostly grumbling.
At his family-run leather goods shop on Ha Trung Street, Thach Van Khanh, 37, laid down his scissors to ponder a life with more free time.
"I don't like it," he said. "Maybe it's good for the rich who have money to shop and do entertainment, but I'd rather work the extra hours and get more money. The 40-hour week won't affect me at all. If there are customers, I'll keep working 60, 70 hours, whatever it takes to fill the orders."
Initially, the 40-hour workweek applies only to government and office workers, although it is expected to spread to other areas when the government finishes the details.
Labor Minister Nguyen Thi Hang said the shorter workweek is in keeping with practices being adopted in the rest of the world. Other labor officials said Vietnam hopes the measure will create jobs, cut down on office expenses and, by giving people more time to shop, increase consumer spending.
Vietnam has traditionally been Southeast Asia's most aggressive protector of workers' rights and, once again, is ahead of the pack in adopting a 40-hour workweek. Most countries in the region still have a 48-hour week--a law that is irrelevant for millions of workers required by their employers to work 11 or 12 hours a day, often with no overtime pay.
"The fact is, there is still a big gap in the region between what the law says and what goes on on the ground," said Phil Robertson of the Solidarity Center, a Washington-based organization that promotes trade unionism worldwide.
"We're hopeful labor rights in Southeast Asia are on the rise, but progress is very uneven," said Robertson, who is based in Bangkok. "When I hear Vietnam is going to a 40-hour week, my reaction is, 'Fine, but who's going to enforce it?' "
For teacher Phan Kim Thuy, 39, the shorter workweek creates more problems than it solves. "Actually, I don't welcome it at all," he said. "I work. My wife works. It means that my 4-year-old boy's kindergarten will be closed on Saturdays. So who's going to take care of him on Saturdays? I guess I'll have to ask my mother."
And for Minh Hang, 26, who owns a clothing shop, the new law doesn't necessarily translate into more profit. "Salaries remain the same, even though people are working less hours, but if they're going to shop more, they're going to have to cut down on other expenses. So I don't expect much improvement in sales."
Nationwide, the average Vietnamese earns about $1 a day--and perhaps four or five times that amount in urban centers such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City--thus making discretionary income a term that has not entered the vocabulary. Millions of Vietnamese work two jobs to make ends meet.
For the majority, holidays consist of family visits and inexpensive outings such as picnics. American- and European-style summer vacations to the beach or the mountains are unheard of for most here.
Hanoi, a city of 2.5 million, has no shopping malls or supermarkets and, although the first bowling alley recently opened, little entertainment. Theater, opera and movie theaters with recent releases do not exist. Tennis courts, playgrounds and athletic fields are relatively few.
CAPTION: Thach Van Khanh, working in his family's leather goods shop in Hanoi, says he won't observe shorter week because it will mean less money.