'Hammock motels' shield destitute from Saigon rat race

By Diep Phan   July 21, 2020 | 05:59 am PT
Woken by the night rain, Lam takes his motorbike inside before returning to his hammock, strung up among dozens of others.

"I want to buy shampoo," Lam told the landlord while taking some clothes from his bag and heading to the washroom.

The entrance is smelly with the combined sweat of many lodgers. Lam, 62, from southern Ben Tre Province, uses half the VND2,000 (9 US cents) packet on himself, the other half to wash his clothes, full of cement dust after a long day working.

Along National Highway 1A in Binh Tri Dong Ward, Saigon's Binh Tan District, dozens of hammock motels have served the city's poor workers the past decade.

"Renting a studio costs at least VND1 million, not mentioning buying mats, fans, etc. Staying at these hammock motels costs only VND20,000 ($0.86) per night, including electricity, water, and wifi," Lam said, adding if paying monthly it would cost him only VND500,000 ($21.54).

People rest on rental hammocks with their stuffs placed above them. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Migrants rest on rental hammocks, their belongings stored above their heads. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

After his wife passed away several years ago, Lam, having no farm, left his hometown for Ho Chi Minh City and became a builder. At first, he rented a studio next to his workplace, paying VND1 million ($43.08) per month. But the old man can no longer do heavy work and earns less than VND200,000 ($8.62) a day.

"Some days I had no work, so eventually, I could not afford rent, food, electricity and water," he said, adding during his first year in Saigon he had accumulated no savings.

Lam first learned about "hammock motels" after moving to Binh Tan District. Working all day, all he needed was a place to sleep, so he decided to give up his studio, sell his fan, and take his bag of clothes to a "hammock motel" on National Highway 1A.

He chose a hammock next to a Jamaican strawberry tree, since all others were occupied on his first night. With hammocks having formed an integral part of his childhood, it was easy for him to adjust to his new living conditions, despite the noise of trucks outside and barrage of mosquitoes.

In the middle of the night, he was woken by the rain. As per habit, Lam immediately checked his pockets for his phone and money, his most valuable possessions.

"My neck hurt the next morning," he recalled, adding it took him several days to recover.

Not too far from Lam's place, another "hammock motel" on National Highway 1A is managed by Trinh, 44, from central Binh Dinh Province. Many migrants traveling from Saigon to Mekong Delta choose Trinh's joint as a rest stop.

Under the trees outside, two women sweep leaves and clean up cups used by lodgers.

"Have you taken down the clothes?" Thuy asks Hoa, walking to the back yard to collect the dried clothing hung on a rope.

"If you leave them until the afternoon, you will forget," Thuy complains.

Thuy, a fish ball vendor, alongside Hoa, who sells lottery tickets, have stayed at Trinh's "hammock motel" for a while. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Trinh does not charge them anything. In return, the duo help him with the housework.

Six years ago, Trinh opened a barbershop and put up some hammocks on the pavement for those wanting to rest and enjoy a drink beneath the trees. On the back of increasing demand for overnight lodging, he decided to buy more hammocks, plant more trees and rent a larger plot for his business.

Loan and Hung prepare snacks to sell to local drinkers. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Loan and Hung prepare snacks to sell to passing customers. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Trinh's "motel" holds around 40 hammocks, all placed under the trees with a "roof" made of old plastic sheeting. During the daytime, he sells snacks and drinks to passersby, while at night, the same hammocks are turned into "beds." Trinh additionally hires two guards to watch over his patrons' motorbikes while they sleep.

"Different people come here, from poor workers to beggers, and drinkers, etc.," Trinh said.

Though welcoming all, Trinh is always worried when the elderly arrive to rent hammocks, making sure to carefully collect their address and personal information.

"What if they are sick and I don't know," he lamented, adding he never causes any trouble.

Last year, Trinh took an old man to hospital in the middle of the night after he suffered a stroke. Apart from pre-paying the hospital fee, he traveled to Saigon's District 8 thrice to look for his family. Several days later, the man passed away just when Trinh had found his relatives.

Seeing the low-income family's circumstances, Trinh did not claim the VND2 million ($86.16) in medical expenses.

"I can't stop the elderly from renting hammocks, but I remain worried when they do," he said.

According to Nguyen Quan Minh, vice chairman of Binh Tri Dong B Ward, all local "hammock motels" have business licenses, though authorities do not regulate how many customers frequent them.

"Normally, local authorities check on these facilities once per year, in the absence of any serious issues," Minh said.

A 100 m from Trinh's place, Hung and Loan are washing 5 kg of peanuts and boiling hundreds of quail eggs they intend to sell to local restaurants.

Loan, 35, and Hung, 39, moved to the "hammock motel" with their son last year after failing to pay their previous landlord. Their seven-year-old son, having never attended school, helps his mother sell food every night.

Loan and her quail eggs at the hammock place, where she has stayed for more than a year. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Loan prepares quail eggs for sale at the "hammock motel" she has stayed at for over a year. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Suffering from a heart disease, Hung is too frail to help his wife. Their income, around VND100,000 ($4.31) per day, depends on her sales of snacks like boiled quail eggs and peanuts.

"If we have money, we buy three boxes of rice. If we do not have enough, one is enough, with one pack of instant noodles," Loan said.

With her old motorbike, a stove and a pot borrowed from a restaurant owner, Loan travels from restaurants to restaurants from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

At the "hammock motel", they have two bags of clothing and a feature phone.

Loan, wishing to soon stop sleeping on hammocks every night, could not save more than VND1 million ($43) per month since the beginning of the year. Renting a new home would cost at least a two month deposit.

"I know paying VND60,000 ($2.60) for three hammocks every day is more pricey than renting a studio. But we can only pay daily. So how can we save for a deposit," Loan said.

When Loan finishes work and returns to her hammock, around 70 sleepers, mostly men, are busying themselves in one way or another, the old resting, the young scrolling up a storm. Some even sit huddled around a shared TV in the middle of floor while ceiling fans whirl above.

Having sold all her food, apart from a few eggs she herself had for dinner, she takes her son to wash his face and prepare for bed.

"Today is weekend, I sold everything," she tells her husband as she lies down, remembering to put her hands on top of her pockets before she falls asleep, carefully guarding the VND150,000 ($6.47) she has earned.

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