Red worms lure Saigon divers into pitch-black waters

By Huu Khoa   January 3, 2020 | 05:24 am PT
Red worms lure Saigon divers into pitch-black waters
Cau dives into rivers, their branches and canals to catch the red worms. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.
Dang Van Cau has spent most of his working life diving into murky waters and canals of Saigon to catch red worms.

The resident of Nha Be is not the only one pursuing this unusual livelihood. Those living near the Go Cong Canal in District 9 occasionally see a plastic basin floating in the middle of the pitch-black river, surrounded with hundreds of tiny white water bubbles. That basin is the inseparable possession of Dang Van Cau, one that he has used to catch red worms for the last 30 years. 

Cau, 50, is one of several dozen people who dive into rivers, their branches and canals in Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring provinces such as Dong Nai and Binh Duong to catch the red worms. This work fetches around VND6 million ($258.98) per month. The red worms are used as food by those dealing with ornamental fish and fingerlings.

The only "protective gear" that Cau has is a hat his wife presented him last year. The cloth cap shields him from the rain and sun on the shore; and prevents hair from getting in his eyes every time he emerges out of the black waters to catch his breath. Cau cannot count how many hats have been damaged or lost over more than 3 decades. 

"This job is labor-intensive, but it’s flexible. You can stop working when you feel tired. No one manages your time", Cau said as he was gasped for breath, coming back after a dive to the bottom of the pitch-black canal waters.

Despite how black the waters are, he is not as concerned about the pollution as he is about other objects that he has to encounter on the canal bed, including knives, machetes, pieces of broken glasses and even human corpses. 

Along with the plastic basin, the net racket is a tool that Cau uses to scoop and get red worms from under the water. "One must scratch the mud on the surface and when the racket feels heavy, you lift it up and shake it so that the mud goes away... then you put the red worms into the basin." 

Cau puts the red worms into plastic bottles. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Cau puts the red worms into plastic bottles. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Later Cau puts the red worms into plastic bottles. Each worm bottle can sell for VND17.000 ($0.73). Cau says that a red worm raker could catch an equivalent of 50 worm bottles every day in the good old days.

In the last few years, the waters have become so polluted that even the red worms are not able to survive. The number of worms has decreased by half, he estimates. "This job depends on luck, some days you can easily earn VND2-3 million ($86.32-129.48), and on other days, you can't get enough money to pay for gas (for the motorbike)." 

"Sometimes we describe this job as exchanging your own blood for money. Many times my feet and legs and arms have been cut by needles or pieces of glasses thrown into the river," Cau said as he washed his scarred feet before having lunch.

Cau’s family lives in a temporarily shelter erected on the land of a real estate project in Nha Be District. After 10 p.m., he fixes the canvas shielding the house. "In the past, my wife and I had a decent house nearby. After she fell sick, we had to sell it to pay the medical bills," he said. "We stay here for now, but I am not sure how long can it last."

Cau and his wife have two children, a son who works as a bricklayer in Thu Duc District, and a married daughter who is works in Binh Duong. Every day, they take care of their grandkids in the temporary house. 

Cau patches the net of the racket used to rake worms. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Cau patches the net of the racket used to rake worms. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

"I have lung and joint problems, and I have been unable to walk for the last 10 years. Earlier, both of us caught red worms every day. Now, he has to work alone to support the family," said Le Thi Van, 41, Cau's wife. "Even though the work is hard, he doesn’t seem to mind. He really cares about me, our children and grandchildren."

"In this job, one has to keep an eye on the water level to work, so the time is not fixed. Sometimes I work from 1-2 a.m., sometimes it is 4-5 p.m. I go around to rivers and canals in the city and surrounding provinces," Cau said as he steered his motorboat on the Sai Gon River, heading to Dong Nai Province, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.

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