Cheating the Lord of the Saigon River

By Nhung Nguyen, Tan Nguyen   November 7, 2016 | 06:23 pm GMT+7
Cheating the Lord of the Saigon River
Images from a video by VnExpress/Tan Nguyen

A couple has valiantly saved the dying and the dead from the Lord of the Saigon River.

cheating-the-lord-of-the-saigon-riverearching for the old man known as Ba Chuc feels like a morbid affair. A friend gave his address only as the Binh Loi Bridge — the red beast that stretches across the Saigon River linking Binh Thanh and Thu Duc districts.

“Why are you looking for him?” a neighbor asks, rising slowly from a plastic stool amid the din of trucks and buses racing overhead. “Did somebody die?”

Nguyen Van Chuc, 58, is less known for his work as a fisherman than the man you call when you find a dead body. Everyone in this small riparian community has his phone number.

Decades spent on the water in all weather have tanned his skin over aging muscles. His stubbly beard fails to conceal the wry smile forever creeping across his lips in dark moments.

“Sometimes, if I'm lucky, ah no, if they are lucky, I also save people,” Ba Chuc said as I climbed aboard his small, wooden boat docked under the bridge. Paintings of the Virgin Mary and official certificates of praise line the walls of the small wheelhouse that doubles as a bedroom.

Chuc steps out onto his terrace (the foredeck) and pours hot water over fresh green tea leaves. He speaks in a mish-mash of northern and southern Vietnamese.

“They call me when they see a rotting body floating down the river,” Chuc said. “Because of the strong smell, nobody dares to approach it but me.”

For the last 40 years, Chuc and his wife, Nguyen Thi Hinh, have hauled forlorn lovers onto the deck of their modest houseboat to give them a second chance or a proper burial. They survive on money earned from transporting goods and the occasional passengers along the river in a small motorboat.

Readers of a local newspaper pooled money to buy Chuc the boat following an early profile.

“The minute we hear a splash under the bridge, we quickly yank the engine cord and rush off to save them,” he said. “Usually they bob up a few times before disappearing beneath the surface; that's my only chance to grab an arm and haul them aboard.”

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Chuc recalled his first rescue mission in 1978 when the newly-wed couple were eating lunch and waiting for the tide to rise to catch more fish. Chuc heard a splash and saw arms flailing at the center of the river.

“My husband cut us loose from the bank and I began rowing toward the victim,” said Hinh, who does most of the talking. “Once we got the poor girl onto the boat, I realized how beautiful she was: like an actress they used to put in calendars back then. She was also covered in gold jewelry.”

The couple asked their neighbors to help take the woman straight to the hospital. “She was unconscious, and everyone later asked why we didn’t strip off a few rings or necklaces before bringing her ashore.” Hinh said, laughing at the thought.

Her husband continued: “We knew nothing about CPR back then, but the woman survived. People say she tried to commit suicide out of jealousy.”

Chuc says he later learned how to revive drowning victims while watching programs on a small television the family bought ten years ago.

They say they've managed to foil hundreds of suicide attempts inspired by broken hearts, loneliness or financial struggles. People fell so frequently, the old couple developed their own suicide prevention protocol.

“She and I make a good team,” said Chuc. “I revive the victim and she talks them out of trying it again.”

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Hinh says she tries to keep her counseling sessions simple.

“I just describe what it’s really like to drown in the Saigon River. I tell them: ‘You’ll end up stuck in the stinking muck at the bottom — do you know how polluted it is nowadays? Oh, and the fish. They’ll just love nibbling away at your flesh until someone finds your body, usually long after your eyeballs and hair have already fallen out of your head.”

Most of the survivors burst into tears and beg her to stop. But Hinh's not just waxing lyrical; she's only describing the roughly fifteen corpses they fish out of the river, every year.

“Since Tet, I’ve recovered eight of them,” he said with a sigh.

Ba Chuc said he saw his first body as a child, while rowing up the river with his fisherman father. “It was disgusting, of course. Then I got used to it. That’s what you find when you live on the river.”

His family gave him and his wife the first boat as a wedding gift when the couple moved out to live on their own.

From time to time, families hire Chuc to comb the river for a missing relative. Most of the time, neighbors call Chuc to fish out a body that never gets identified. In addition to their foul odor, many in Vietnam tend to shy away from dead bodies for fear that their spirits will possess anyone who draws near; Chuc has found his own way around that.

“I think the spirits understand that I’m only trying to help. Whenever I row close to a body, I pray: ‘Please let me help find you a grave to rest in.’ Then the stench vanishes and I can tie a rope around the corpse and pull it to shore.”

And then there's the Lord of the River.

Many who rely on Vietnam's rivers believe they fall under the control of a mythological deity called Lord of the River (Ha Ba). Humans and animals that drown in the river are viewed as sacrifices that should not be taken from Ha Ba. Anyone who dares to disobey, the legend goes, may pay with his own life.

“Everyone’s afraid of the Lord of the River,” says Chuc, a Catholic, who says he's more concerned about the dead.

“When you die on land,” he said, becoming momentarily philosophical. “You get a funeral, and a grave where your family can burn incense for you. I pity the people who die in the river. They’re human and shouldn’t be left in the cold current.”

“By the way, I’ve been doing this for years and look at me, I’m still here.” He added with a grin.

The police initially suspected Chuc and his family of foul play. When he first started producing bodies, he spent whole days sitting in police stations filling out detailed reports about his discoveries.

“But that was decades ago; things have gotten much easier.” Chuc said, giggling. “Now all I have to do is bring in the body and the police take care of the rest. Sometimes they ask me to help fill out a report, but they always buy me lunch if it takes too long.”

Lunch is no longer a simple affair. The river has become too polluted to fish.

“All that's left are carp people release on full-moons,” Hinh said. “People usually hire us to set them free in the river, so it wouldn't be right for us to catch ‘em again.”

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Photo by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen

In other ways, though, life has never been better for the couple.

“This is the biggest and nicest boat we've ever lived in,” Hinh said, waving an arm over her shoulder. “One boat, I remember, was so old, its hull rotted out and we had to bail out the bottom all the time.”

For a time, the couple slept with one foot touching bottom so any water they took on would jolt them awake before they went under. The couple raised five daughters in this way, floating from one place to another. Because they lacked a recognized household registration, the children didn't go to school and learned to read and write at a nearby church.

“We always feared that one of them might roll into the river while they slept.” Hinh said before describing how they've all grown up and found jobs on shore. One sells cosmetics, another groceries. Two work in factories. One works as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family in town.

The old couple decided to settle under the Binh Loi Bridge and plug into the grid after Hinh was diagnosed with diabetes in 2001. While technically illegal, the authorities turned a blind eye, due to their work saving the drowning and the dead.

“This is the first boat we've lived on with electricity,” he said, proudly.

When asked what more he wants most out of life, Chuc paused for a moment.

“I hope to have a piece of land,” he said. “Somewhere stable enough to rest and to be buried in when we both die.”

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