In Saigon’s backyard, migrants eke out a living on the edge of civilization

By Quynh Tran   November 19, 2017 | 08:37 pm PT
'I’d love to visit the city center just once, but I’m afraid I might get lost.'

A group of migrants from the southwest of Saigon live on a piece of vacant land in Phong Phu Commune, Binh Chanh District. They have been hanging on to the fringe of urban life for over a decade in shacks without electricity or clean water.


They make a living from growing vegetables such as cucumbers, gourds and bitter melons. “It started with just a few people but now we have around 20 families. We have no land to work back home,” said Nguyen Thi Ba, 74, from Can Tho.


A company that owns the land rents it out to the migrants.


Vo Thi Mai, 51, from Can Tho, said she works from dawn to dusk and sells her crops at a wholesale market every two months.


A pit lined with canvas is used to collect rainwater for washing and showers. People here have to buy bottled water to drink and cook with.


This 23-year-old woman and her 34-year-old husband from Can Tho take a shower in a pond as there's no tap water. “It’s itchy at first, but you get used to it,” the woman said. They joined the community recently and are working for another family for around VND300,000 ($13) a day. The city’s average income last year was $5,500 a person, compared to the national rate of $2,200.


A man fixes his motorbike by torchlight as batteries are their only source of power. They travel more than 10 kilometers (six miles) every week and pay VND35,000 to charge their batteries.


A family from Hau Giang Province tucks into a two-course dinner on their bed.


Without legal residence, and more importantly, money, the children can only go to a charity school. They help during the afternoons and do their homework at night.


Several kids share a phone screen. They have no TV.


All seven members of this family left their hometown in Kien Giang Province several years ago. They wake up early every day to work, hoping to earn enough to go home this Lunar New Year. “We have never seen what modern urban life looks like. I’d love to visit the city center just once, but I’m afraid I might get lost,” the 41-year-old father said.

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