Hanoi migrants stay afloat as Covid-19 contracts economy

By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam   April 8, 2020 | 06:31 pm PT
For Hanoi’s slum dwellers, losing their livelihoods are often far more concerning than the new coronavirus itself.

Hesitant to leave, Ngan asked her employer: "So when could I return to work?"

No one had the answer.

The factory where Ngan and her husband, Son, work started suspending operations since the afternoon of March 31, one day before the entire nation employed a 15-day social distancing campaign to serve its Covid-19 fight. During this time, gatherings of over two people are not allowed, while all citizens are expected to remain home.

Waiting until everyone had left, the factory owner called Ngan over. She gave her, the cleaner and cook at her firm, a box of braised fish, a bag of chicken, instant pho (Vietnamese noodles), and boxed milk for the kids.

The factory makes toothpicks and sits in Hanoi’s Ha Dong District.

Neither Ngan nor Son are residents of Hanoi. In fact, they have no residence.

They live in a makeshift house on one of the alluvial plains formed in the middle of Red River, which flows from Yunnan Province in Southwest China through northern Vietnam to the Gulf of Tonkin.

The plain underneath Long Bien Bridge is home to a community of over 100 people who had migrated from different localities to the capital, where the urban life with factories and the strong growth of the service sector allows them to find manual jobs with decent income. Most have lost their household registration in their places of birth and are not registered residents of Hanoi.

Members of Ngan and Son’s community do manual work and mostly reside in floating homes, stuck together with buoys and patched with anything from canvas to an old blanket or discarded billboard.

A family in the ion]

A floating family abode in the middle of Hanoi's Red River awash with community spirit. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Ngan, 29, dropped out of school after third grade while her husband is illiterate. Before finding work at the toothpick factory, Ngan washed dishes at restaurants across the capital while Son delivered goods for a confectionery producer. Son navigates by following the directions pictured in his head or by asking passersby.

Five years ago, the couple started work at the toothpick factory.

Each morning at seven, Son takes his wife the 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) by motorbike to work in Ha Dong District.

Ngan is paid VND3.5 million ($150) per month while Son transports toothpicks from the factories to downtown dealers, including those at Buoi Market in Tay Ho District and along Hang Buoi Street in Hoan Kiem District, earning a monthly salary of VND5 million. The two are offered lunch at the company.

Aside from their four children, the oldest a sixth grader and the youngest 2.5 years old, the couple has to cover expenditure for Ngan’s mother, who has suffered from diabetes for years and cannot work.

Life got harder in February when the economy got pinched by the Covid-19 pandemic. One after another, restaurants across Hanoi suspended services as customers avoided large gatherings in fear of infection. As a result, toothpick orders were slashed by half, forcing the factory owner to cut its 30 employees’ salaries.

On March 26, Hanoi announced the closure of all non-essential services. A week later, Vietnam launched its social-distancing campaign, and it was decided the factory would be temporarily shut.

When Covid-19 hit Vietnam in late January, Ngan had never thought "it could be this serious."

Other community members had lost their jobs as cleaners, janitors or scrap collectors and vendors much earlier than her and Son.

Rationing food to stay afloat, Ngan hid the milk boxes her employer gifted the couple, handing her youngest child one only every two days.

Beyond one household

Around a kilometer from the floating community near Long Bien, hundreds of migrants live in rented rooms the height of their heads. Residents here work as porters, vendors, scrap collectors and do any type of manual labor at Long Bien Market, the largest vegetable wholesale zone in Hanoi.

On the evening of March 31, Nguyen Thi Anh, 60, pushed a cart of sticky rice and sweet soup back home. Nguyen Van Chi rushed out to help his wife with the cart, a task he has done for over two decades.

Never before had Chi felt such weariness. "Nearly half the food is left," she lamented.

Nguyen Van Chi smokes tobacco from a bong in front of his rented room in a slum next to Hanois Long Bien Bridge. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue

Nguyen Van Chi smokes a traditional water pipe or "dieu cay" outside his rented room in Long Bien slum in Hanoi, March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Migrating from the outlying district of Phu Xuyen that lies 40 km (25 miles) from the downtown, Chi and Anh have sold sticky rice and sweet soup along the streets of Hanoi since their youngest son entered kindergarten. Now, he is nearly 30. Through all those years, the cost for one glass of sweet soup with black beans and coconut milk had jumped from VND200 to VND10,000 (less than half a dollar), but the couple has never thought of moving.

The only furniture in their eight-square-meter room, rented for VND900,000 a month, is a low flat wooden platform they use as both dining table and bed. Above is a suspended single bed where their youngest sleeps.

The most valuable asset in their possession is a radio cassette from Chi’s days as a soldier, alongside a set of cookers Anh uses to make sticky rice and sweet soup. Together, they have raised three kids and sent them all to college. Their two eldest now have their own families.

Every morning at six, Anh pushes her cart to the city’s Old Quarter. In a normal day, she walks tens of kilometers to earn VND200,000 ($8.52). She is proud to say nearly all Old Quarter residents have sampled her cooking.

On the afternoon of March 26, Chi learned via radio news all non-essential services would be suspended across Hanoi. Concerned, Anh responded: "Even if I lost half the revenue I would still go out and work." Ever since, having reduced the amount of sticky rice and sweet soup they produce, she still returns with only half sold.

Worried the police may confiscate her cart, Anh stopped frequenting the Old Quarter and certain other streets, sticking to the Long Bien market area.

"Since the day I started this job, I’ve never experienced such a quiet and deserted Hanoi," Anh said.

Each Cold Food Festival, a traditional event celebrated in northern Vietnam, China and South Korea, Chi produces 100 portions of banh troi, a dish made of glutinous rice flour wrapped around a sweet filling. This year, he only made 20 for the festival on March 26, much of which remained unsold too.

"If this situation is to last, we’re gonna be left half dead," he said.

Anh’s son works in the testing department of a clinic in town, obsessed with the thought of losing his job if too  few patients attend and staff are cut.

Residing next door, Le Dinh Hong is now "jobless." A native in Phu Tho Province, a neighbor of Hanoi, the 52-year-old of less than 60 kilos worked as a porter in Long Bien Market.

Each day, he would deliver ten carts of vegetables and fruit, each weighing 30-40 kilos and got paid VND400,000. Now, though he still pulls his cart around, he rarely gets hired.

Le Dinh Hong stands next to the cart tion]

Le Dinh Hong stands next to the cart he uses to work as a porter at Long Bien Market, Hanoi, April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Despite the challenge, neither Chi, Anh or Hong want to return to their hometown. On the night prior to the 15-day national distancing, half their community had left their rented rooms for home.

"It would be irresponsible to return with our four grandchildren back home," Chi said.

Though Hong’s wife and two daughters had called on him to come home, he is overwhelmed by the thought of possibly carrying the virus back with him and prefers to remain put to look for more work.

"At this age I could never find work that could earn me even VND50,000 a day back home," he said. 

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