Take a deep breath with the mermaids in Nha Trang

"We have to work our tails off in the peak season."

Snorkeling masks off and glittering fish tails on, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Thuy and her colleague dive into the 6-meter tank. 

Children standing behind the thick glass in the aquarium cheer as the sirens glide silently through the clear blue water. Thuy and her co-star begin their routine with fish and turtles swimming around them, blowing kisses to the bedazzled spectators.

“It took us months to learn to dance with our legs bound together in the tank,” Thuy said, explaining how they mastered their underwater moves.

They also have to control their fears of sea creatures.

“It's our co-stars that scare us the most,” said Le Thi Na, another mermaid. “The giant sea turtles, rays and even sharks could attack us at anytime.”

Hon Tre Island off the coast of Nha Trang made a splash when it launched mermaid performances at its aquarium in 2010. Ariel-esque swimmers are employed to entertain visitors, and their 15-minute shows have become one of the most popular attractions at the aquarium.

“We have to work our tails off in the peak season,” said Ngoc Thuy. “We have shows booked as far as Phu Quoc Island.” 

Every day they don their brightly colored fins, designed and hand tailored by themselves, and go diving for around 30 minutes.

Even for such a short show, the team needs to practice for hours.

Le Xuan (left), a senior mermaid, has become an instructor. She helps choreograph the dance moves and trains her mermaids how to hold their breath and stay calm underwater.

To perfect their performance, the mermaids spend at least an hour a day practicing their routines outside of the tank. 

“To be a mermaid you need to be a good swimmer, of course, and have a great body and passion for the role,” Thuy said.  “You also have to sacrifice your looks for the role.”

Thuy waits for her afternoon shift.

After two years as a mermaid, Thuy suffers from skin and hair problems, the result of spending too much time underwater. 

She is now on maternity leave, but still plans to return to the tank next year. "I just can't quit this role. It's my dream job and provides an income for my family," said the 24-year-old.

Days spent in the seawater take their toll on the mermaids' hair and skin.

With a salary described as “only enough to live in Nha Trang”, several mermaids have quit their job. “The working conditions are harsh, so most of us have to find new jobs after two or three years,” Le Thi Na, a former mermaid, said. 

Le Thi Na (in the blue costume) and Nguyen Thi My Hanh during a performance a few years ago. Both of them have quit their tails for new jobs with more stable incomes.

My Hanh (second from left) dancing at a wedding party in Nha Trang. She now works as a performer for parties and events in town, and runs errands for her family's store.

After three years of mermaiding, Le Thi Na moved to dry land to become a tour guide at the aquarium.

Mermaid Tran Thi Ngoc Tuyet spends a day off with her kids.

Yet, all of them describes the job as a fairy tale come true.

Tran Thi Ngoc Tuyet, 27, has been fascinated by the mystical sirens since childhood. “I read fairy tales and watch movies with mermaids in them when I was a kid," she said. "Then I visited the aquarium with my family a few years ago and saw the "real" mermaids dancing. I thought, 'this is it.'"

Tuyet started her career underwater in 2015, and is trying to keep her tail for as long as possible.

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Thuy takes a selfie with her inspiration, Disney’s fictional character Ariel.

Thanh Nguyen

By Thanh Nguyen