Belarusian Baker in Saigon Shares Positive Experience: “I’ve Never Met a Unfriendly Vietnamese”

Though speak no English nor Vietnam, the lady named Irina has sold cakes in many different sites in Saigon center over the past months.

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Photo: Thanh Nien

During a visit to Tan Dinh market, our group of reporters serendipitously encountered a foreign lady selling cakes. She was elegantly dressed in a bucket hat and carried a styrofoam box filled with cakes. With a bright smile and expressive gestures, she attempted to sell her cakes. Upon asking locals, we discovered that the lady has been selling cakes in the area for several months, becoming a familiar face to everyone.

The lady in question is Irina Khmilnikova, a Belarusian aged 47, who only speaks Belarusian and Russian.

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Photo: Thanh Nien

A Westerner Selling Cakes on a Saigon Sidewalk

Irina’s greatest challenge is the language barrier. She can only speak Belarusian, with limited command of English and Vietnamese. “As I don’t own a motorbike, I walk slowly on the streets to sell cakes. In the morning, I sell cakes at Tan Dinh market, and in the afternoon, I move to schools and parks. Cake quality is of utmost importance to us,” she shared.

Irina Khmilnikova first visited Vietnam as a tourist in 2019. However, in February 2020, she returned in search of employment opportunities. “I used to work in tourism, selling travel tours to Russian visitors. However, the pandemic wiped out everything,” she sadly expressed.

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Photo: Thanh Nien

Few people know that Irina had a family with two sons in Vitebsk, Belarus. Both her sons are grown-ups. In Vietnam, she began selling sweet cakes with a Russian friend, establishing GUURMANN, a company that provides employment to Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. “We are either tourists or individuals working in the tourism sector, some even have their children studying here,” she shared.

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Photo: Thanh Nien

“I Love Everything about Vietnam”

Ms. Irina Khmilnikova shared her experiences traveling to various parts of the world, including Chile, Egypt, Thailand, Israel, Ukraine, and Russia. However, upon arriving in Vietnam, she instantly “fell in love” with the country.

After spending a week walking the streets of Saigon selling cakes, she dedicates Sundays to exploring and immersing herself in the local culture. Driven by her love for Vietnam, as well as her curiosity about its culture and history, she often visits hospitals, churches, museums, zoos, and parks. As a result, Irina has developed a deeper understanding and affection for the country’s beauty and its people. “I really want to learn Vietnamese to uncover more stories here. Vietnamese uncles, grandparents, children, brothers, and sisters have all been incredibly friendly, hospitable, and compassionate. It’s truly astonishing. Their warmth and kindness are what motivate me to learn Vietnamese,” Irina shared.

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Photo: Thanh Nien

Irina loves pho, Vietnamese coffee, and even the “karaoke culture” of Vietnam. She also admires the optimism of the Vietnamese people in addressing and solving problems, their approach to raising children, and the traditional family dynamics. “I don’t think I need to list more things; I simply love everything. I feel like I’m a part of this place, and honestly, I’ve never encountered any unpleasant Vietnamese individuals,” she added.

“I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t live here,” she said, expressing her intention to “invite” her sons to live in Vietnam in the future. “This is my home now,” she concluded.

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Photo: Thanh Nien