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Where the dead help the living

By Trong Nghia   December 23, 2018 | 06:57 pm PT
In northern Vietnam, old people risk their lives to pick up small notes drivers toss out on a highway to honor the dead.

It’s around noon and Hoang Van Dang sits quietly in a shabby hut on a national highway, his eyes glued to the street.

Then, suddenly, he plunges into the highway before returning with three VND500 and VND2,000 (8.6 cents) currency notes in his palm. The 76-year-old man in a pair of worn-out flip-flops is quick and agile.

Within 10 minutes he runs out to pick up bills five times.

Hoang Van Dang sits in his hut by a national highway that runs near his house in Lang Son Province in northern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia

Hoang Van Dang, 76, sits in his hut along a national highway that runs near his house in Lang Son Province. Photos by VnExpress/Trong Nghia

And Dang is not the only one to do that.  

Every day four or five older men and women wait along a 100-meter section of National Highway 1A that runs through Van Thuy Commune, Chi Lang District, in the northern province of Lang Son for such bills disregarding the clear and present danger posed by trucks and buses.

Dang said he has been doing this for seven years.

"This section is famous for fatal accidents. In 2009 there was a tragic one that killed 14 people. Locals then built small temples to pray for the dead and drivers would stop by to express their condolences, burning incense and leaving small notes at the altars."

But gradually drivers stopped pulling over, partly due to the huge traffic on this section, and instead began to toss notes out of their windows.

Dang picks a note on the street. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia

Hoang Van Dang picks a note on the street.

Locals started to pick up what they threw out. Every day from 4 a.m. a group of several elderly people, and sometimes children, sits along the highway to pick up the notes.

Along with Dang, his wife Vu Thi Xit, 74, Vu Thi Thieu, 71, and Tran Quoc Viet, 62, are the other permanent note pickers in this area. They even take turns, with each person taking the spot for four hours a day to avoid fighting.

"It doesn’t feel right to let money scatter all over the road like that," Viet says.

Dang is about to jump out to pick the change.

Vu Thi Thieu walks along the highway to check if drivers have thrown out money.

And to do this, these old men and women have to be quick and precise at the same time.

"Sometimes a 30-ton truck is only 10 seconds away, but I still pick up three notes," Dang says.

With the colors of Vietnamese small bills quite difficult to make out when they fall on soil, they have to focus hard to make them out.  

The busiest days are the first and 15th of each lunar month when drivers do not throw just cash but also food. On those days up to 20 people gather at this section all day.

Dang says with a smile: "There are people throwing money on the street, so there should be someone to pick it up. And I’m old now, there’s no job I can do to make money."

He started to scavenge for notes in 2011 and is now considered a master at the job, and makes around VND100,000 ($4.3) a day.

Hoang Van Dang is about to jump out to pick notes on the street.

Hoang Van Dang is poised to jump on to the busy highway to pick up notes.

Dang used to be a solider before becoming a people’s committee official in Van Thuy Commune.

But since he and his wife had more than the permitted two children, he was forced to retire earlier than scheduled and without a pension.

Since their children are all married and live far away from home, he and his wife are on their own, and have chosen this highway section to earn their daily income.

At 2 p.m. Xit and Thieu take the shift. They even need a stick to help walk, but nevertheless pick the money as well as the others.

Xit says: "I know other people are worried about what we’re doing. We’re worried too, but there are spiritual things that are very hard to explain. And the drivers know that we’ve been using part of the money to take care of those temples and worship the dead."

Vu Thi Xit needs a stick to walk probably but still jump out to pick the notes whenever she could.

Vu Thi Xit probably needs a stick to walk but can still jump out to pick currency notes thrown on the road.

Dang Tien Dong, 37, a truck driver in Lang Son, says: "For us, throwing out the money is now for the living, no longer for the dead. It’s like we want to offer locals here a little help. If we want to do it properly for the dead, we would at least stop the trucks and burn incense."

Hoang Van Phach, chairman of Van Thuy Commune, says the authorities have spoken to the old men and women and told them to stop the dangerous practice, but cannot put an end to it because drivers still throw money out.

And for years these old men and women have sat down together under the torn hut at the end of each day to straighten out each note and count how much they have earned.

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