Pham Tan Luc sits on the floor of his house in Binh Trung Commune of Quang Ngai’s Binh Son District to rearrange photos and documents related to the construction of Da Nang-Quang Ngai Expressway, which runs 139 km (86 miles) between Hoa Vang District of Da Nang City and Tu Nghia District of Quang Ngai Province.
The files he keeps span five years, traded for sweat and blood. On his journey of construction supervision along the expressway, the 61-year-old has been harassed and attacked so many times he has stated "I'm no longer afraid of death."
Luc is a son of a war martyr. He lost his father at seven.
He was a soldier himself. After discharged from the army, he returned to his hometown, got married, worked as a carpenter and sometimes, contractor at small building projects.
Cuong, his wife, is a watermelon trader. Life has never been easy, but unlike many other people in the central region who had left their hometown, where the tough weather affects farming, to work in big cities, Luc insisted on staying.
Ten years ago, his family hit a bumpy road as Cuong got cirrhosis. For treatment, she had to go to Hanoi every month and spent VND6 million ($260) per trip.
To cover the cost of her treatment, they had sold everything they could, leaving just the house they inherited from Luc’s mother. Being a carpenter and impermanent contractor could not ensure him a stable source of income.
Via an acquaintance, Luc signed up for a job to guard a fleet of motor vehicles used at a construction site for a Chinese contractor at Da Nang-Quang Ngai Expressway.
Construction started at the expressway in May 2013. The project was divided into 13 packages with a total investment of VND34.5 trillion ($1.4 billion), raised through loans of VND16.79 trillion from Japan International Cooperation Agency and VND12.42 trillion from World Bank, with the rest contributed as counterpart funds by the Vietnamese government. The main investor is Vietnam Expressway Corporation (VEC).
In 2015, work commenced on a VND1.3-trillion section running 10.6 km through Binh Trung Commune overseen by China’s Jiangsu Provincial Transportation Engineering Group Co., Ltd, or JTEG.
JTEG is quite a famous name in the field of infrastructure. As its website states, the group makes seven billion yuan ($979 million) each year operating a series of projects in poor and developing countries, from Central African Republic to Mongolia, Fiji, Cambodia and Bangladesh.
For the expressway contract in Binh Trung Commune, JTEG would not have drawn much attention if it had not hired Pham Tan Luc, a random resident living next to the construction site, as one of its guards.
Reading about the VND34.5-trillion project that would be carried out over several years, Luc reassured himself it was a decent job because he could work close to his home, and the income of VND5 million ($215) would be enough for him and his wife.
But ever since he started work at the project, it has been an unending confrontation between him, a lowbrow man with a compact digital camera as his only weapon, and the two infrastructure giants: JTEG and VEC.
Shortly after he took the job, Luc repeatedly returned home with complaints about how the contractor had conducted its business very carelessly. According to what he had observed, the contractor did not employ site clearance but simply leveled everything on the spot, including all types of soil, stone, and even the root of a big three. On one section, 300,000 cubic meters of mud remained in situ during foundation leveling.
With his experience in the construction sector, Luc drew up a list of misconduct: the contractor used oversized rocks when building the uneven foundation, with workers simply pushing the stones into the pit. The aggregate base was then built way too thick, which did not meet the required standard.
From what he had recorded, Luc decided he had to speak up.
"I talked to the interpreter, demanding the contractor correct its mistakes, nothing more, but all I got was silence."
More than one year after he took the job, Luc was fired for repeatedly putting his nose into the contractor’s business.
But Luc could not let it go. He was obsessed by what he had witnessed at the construction site. Eventually, he filed a petition listing all the mistakes made by the Chinese contractor, calling for an investigation and replacement of incompetent employees.
The petition was filed on June 6, 2016, but Luc did not dare sign his name. His neighbors also refused to give their support.
"Of course it is scary. I am nobody and yet I accused the ones behind a billion-dollar project. I was scared of revenge, and I was also worried no one would believe me because I got no evidence."
After some point, Luc signed and submitted the petition to the party chief of Quang Ngai Province, the management board of the expressway, and Binh Son District police.
He waited, and waited, but got no response.
"I need to buy a camera," Luc said, giving VND3 million to an acquaintance. Days later, he owned a compact digital camera that measured half his palm. It took him almost a week to master the gadget.
With his camera, Luc got back to business.
Knowing all the areas where the contractor had made mistakes, he sneaked into the construction site during the lunch break and took as many photos as he could.
"The more I looked for evidence, the more misconduct I uncovered, all threatening the quality of the entire project," he said.
Luc could spend all day listing a series of items he called "wrongdoing": the asphalt was not heated to 150 degrees Celsius before use, the iron was left outdoors through the rainy season, rusting and unwashed, and when the foundation was still full of mud, workers commenced to pour in concrete.
Several months later, the interpreter of JTEG was assigned to watch out for Luc. Every time he showed up at the site, he would be stopped from entering.
But Luc justified his action: "Residents have all the right to inspect the contractor. Except when the project’s management board issues a specific statement with reasons stipulating why I could not enter the site."
Unable to argue the point, the contractor moderated work during the day and pushed for full capacity at night. "Who could stay up all night to keep an eye on them?" Luc said.
Yet after a period of struggling alone, Luc started receiving calls from workers at the project and others in the neighborhood telling him of other illegal aspects he may help to expose.
Those calls usually came at night. Luc never missed any. He always got up right away and rushed to the scene. In many cases, he was scared because the spot as mentioned to him was deserted and it was already late at night. But deep inside, Luc had a belief that only when he showed up, the contractor would be alerted and fix its mistake.
"If it wasn’t for those calls [which came from workers and engineers at the project], I would never have discovered all these faults."
As more people learned what he was doing, strangers started stopping by his home, offering him VND6 million each month if he ceased his quest. When he turned them down, they approached his wife, but Cuong said she knew her husband and refused.
Yet at the end of the day, Cuong did not want her husband to continue what he was doing. "Please, could you stop hitting a stone with an egg," she begged. But Luc did not listen.
Then came the day when stones literally fell onto their house.
Every man for himself
A night in March 2016, stones as big as a human’s fist were thrown into Luc and Cuong’s home.
Luc was not home. He had taken a new job as a guard for a dam project nearby. There were only Cuong and their grandson.
Lying in bed, Cuong heard the sound of stones falling on the tiled roof and hitting the door but did not dare get up. Only when they had all gone did she turn on the light.
After the incident, Luc showed up more at the expressway. He was outraged. He yelled at the workers and had words with those who worked as inspectors. He was not scared for himself anymore but he "could never live in peace" if it was his family who got hurt.
Yet there was not much Luc could do instead of continuing to strengthen his supervision and remind workers nonstop that they were "building the expressway for the Vietnamese people, not the Chinese contractor, and that the contractor will return home once their job is done."
Day by day, he called the project management board, and the construction supervision engineer, requesting them to strictly follow the design. "If not, I will send my photos to the media," he threatened. More than once, the contractor agreed to redo the section that did not meet the standard as pointed out by Luc.
But the stones were just the beginning.
An afternoon of a late autumn day in 2016, when Luc was moving from the dam project to the expressway to continue his inspection, a man named Hung from a neighboring commune who worked as a porter at the JTEG site asked him to join his group for some drinks. As they sat down together, Hung asked Luc what he had done so far at the construction site. Luc showed off some photos he had taken and all of a sudden, Hung called Luc names, punched his face and kicked him to the ground.
Luc was taken to hospital and received six stitches. The wound next to his eye left a scar. Days later, he received calls from unknown numbers, threatening his life. Luc reported all these incidents to the police. Everything settled down.
Gradually, the media learned about his plight. His face appeared frequently on the news, revealing the faults of JTEG.
Such fame once again sparked hatred. But Luc could never imagine that one day the one who would assault him would be his cousin.
On a summer day in 2018, Luc was lying on his bed watching TV when Nguyen Thai Hung rushed into his house from the expressway’s construction site. Without a word, Hung thrashed Luc. From the back of the house, Cuong jumped in and used a stick to beat Hung back.
As Hung left, Luc called the police before heading to hospital for a week. Hung was summoned by the police but as the two are cousins, their families decided to handle the case in private.
Luc found out later that Hung, as a worker on site, had been disciplined for skimming iron building materials. Thinking it was Luc who had reported him, Hung decided to teach Luc a lesson.
"Our neighbors said he must have been crazy for putting his nose in other people’s business," Cuong complained.
But Luc insisted he "has lived long enough to no longer be afraid of dying."
In his 60s, Luc does not have much money. There had been days when he received calls or messages from workers reporting faults at the project but he could not afford to buy gas for his bike.
Determined, he went to his neighbors, asking to borrow their motorbikes for a while, lying to them that he needed to pick up his grandson or go to the market on some urgent business.
There had also been days when he had to take some money from the workers at the expressway so he could top up his mobile phone and continue calling the project management board and the supervision engineer.
But aside from anonymous calls reporting faults and some money for credit, Luc had fought the battle alone.
Though he did ask relatives working in state agencies and friends in the police to help him with petition letters, no one wanted to lift a finger. He traveled hundreds of kilometers to the office of the expressway management board in Da Nang City, but they always refused to meet him in person.
Luc grew disappointed. He even lost his appetite and some weight. But he refused to give up. "Every time I showed up at the site with my camera, the contractor would have to make workers fix the faults I had pointed out," he said firmly.
Responding to his determination, officials from the project management board chose to threaten him, suggesting they could help him repair his house or create jobs for his family members at the new toll stations.
But Luc kept inspecting the project and sending out petitions.
On November 28, 2017, his petition received 15 signatures, indicating his efforts had finally paid off.
Later, people even joined him to inspect the project. Some learned from his guidance to detect areas where the contractors had slacked off. Almost two years since Luc started his lone battle, he finally received calls from neighbors, thanking him for helping ensure the quality of the expressway running through their hometown.
What goes around comes around
Over the years, contractor JTEG has built a reputation for misconduct.
It got contracted to construct the elevated part of a bus rapid transit system running through Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, a project funded by Asian Development Bank in 2017. Yet, the project remains far behind schedule, with only 20 percent of work completed, according to the bank.
In 2011, a project to upgrade the Srinagar-Jammu highway, which runs from Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley southward to Jammu city as one of the two road links connecting the valley with the rest of India, was awarded to JTEG. It was pledged to be completed within three years but after almost 10 years with many promises and adjustments to raise investment capital, the project is also far from done and dusted.
However, Vietnam Expressway Corporation is ultimately in charge of ensuring the quality of Da Nang-Quang Ngai Expressway.
Luc’s strongest evidence for misconduct by the Chinese contractor arrived after heavy rains in late November 2018. By then, the
expressway section running from Tam Ky Town through Binh Son District to Quang Ngai Town inside Quang Ngai Province had been completed and opened
to traffic for two months.
With the rains, the expressway surface started showing cracks and undulation.
Luc did not miss such an opportunity. He took all the photos he could and called the reporters he had met before. "The rain will reveal the true quality of the expressway," he told them. For his part, Luc did not forget to file more petitions.
Luc attracted more attention than ever, a concerned public suggestion he be rewarded for his efforts. In response, local authorities said they needed more time to verify his petitions.
But the public did not need such verification.
Ever since the rainy season hit in 2018, the quality of Da Nang-Quang Nam Expressway, including sections not overseen by JTEG, kept revealing faults.
Along the section built by JTEG, the cracking and undulated surface could be seen with the naked eyes. In addition, the Chinese contractor has failed to complete its package as scheduled. Until today, it has still not finished work at Dung Quat Roundabout to connect the expressway with Tri Binh Street leading straight to Dung Quat Economic Zone.
In June last year, a section of the expressway not built by JTEG suffered subsidence. Three months later, potholes appeared on a section in Da Nang City. The expressway management board blamed it all on the rain.
Inspectors from the Ministry of Transport were sent to the scene following a criminal investigation launched into the case, in which officials from the VEC were charged with violating construction regulations that caused serious consequences.
In November last year, police detained and probed four VEC officials over the charge.
In early May, Le Quang Hao, deputy general director of the firm, was arrested.
The news came to Luc when he was working as a guard for a company in Da Nang. He called his wife immediately, reminding her to keep all of his documents on inspecting the project safe, "in case the police need them."
Authorities of Binh Trung Commune have since asked Binh Son District to reward Luc and recognize his contributions.
But Luc does not need such recognition.
All he cares about is that after all these years, his sweat and tears have not been wasted. He truly believes it was for his presence at the construction site that held the contractor to account.
"I had done what my conscience told me and was really happy when authorities eventually acted. The Da Nang-Quang Ngai Expressway might show even more faults in future each time it rains heavily, serving as a lesson for other expressway projects in Vietnam."
These days, Luc sleeps and eats way better. He has gained five kilos to hit 50 kg. But still, he struggles to find inner peace.
Now that he has switched to a smartphone, Luc still has his feature phone kept safely along with all photos and documents related to the project. The old phone bears "all the threats and who knows if one day the police might need it," he said.
Every now and then, he has to shrug off rumors he had put his nose in VEC’s business only to later blackmail the company.
By Nguyen Dong