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Cast adrift on the river of life

Update: July, 08/2014 - 08:32
Nguyen Thi Vy dipped her bucket into the muddy waters of the Red River. She used the water to rinse some rice and wash vegetables to prepare dinner.
by Thu Van

HA NOI (VNS) — Nguyen Thi Vy dipped her bucket into the muddy waters of the Red River.

She used the water to rinse some rice and wash vegetables to prepare dinner.

"I know the water from the river may not be clean, but if other people in the village can use it, then my family can use it," she said.

Vy's home has no potable water supply or electricity connection, and lacks most of the facilities a normal house would have.

What she calls home is a small saggy boat.

Vy and other residents of Van Vi Fishing Village in Dan Phuong District, just 30km from the centre of Ha Noi, live a life that is far removed from their brethren living on land.

The 40 or so households in Van Vi Village have no other choice than to use water from the river for all their needs – to wash, to drink, to cook. The river also accepts their waste.

It is not just that they lack some of the basic amenities like water and electricity; they, and their children, also lack access to basic services like healthcare and education.

It is not surprising that these households yearn for a home on land, but the yearning becomes acute when the weather gets bad.

"It's just sheer misery when it rains heavily or when there are storms. All our clothes, blankets and other stuff get wet. I still remember last summer when my daughter-in-law was pregnant. It rained heavily and she was drenched. We could do nothing but pray for the rain to end," Vy said.

Nguyen Van Duoc, who lives on land, understands Vy's plight and desperation. He is a former resident of the Van Vi Village who managed to buy a plot of land and move.

He recalled that he and his family could not sleep a wink on stormy nights, watching over their boat-house. They could only rest when the rains stopped.

No future

Nguyen Van Hai, another resident of the village, was sad that his children couldn't get a proper education because of the family's floating, nomadic existence.

"Today we stay on this side of the river, but tomorrow, we might have to move to the other, sometimes because of erosion, sometimes for other reasons. This means that my children have to move schools from this side to the other as well."

If they do not move schools, they would have to pay for a boat to fetch them to and fro. When it rains heavily or a storm strikes, they would not be able to return home until 8 or 9pm, Hai said.

And it can get much worse, he added.

"Some families in the village have lost their children to the water after leaving their homes for fishing. Because adults in the family have to work, the children have to stay home and look after each other. One man lost his 18-month-old baby."

Hai said the commune authority has promised to give them land so that the villagers could lead better lives, but they have heard nothing since.

"I'm sick of this lifestyle. I don't see any future for me, and for my children."

On paper

Nguyen Van Duoc, village headman, said that in 2012 the commune authority had made a plan to move all households living on the water. But two years on, nothing has changed.

Duoc's statement was confirmed by Nguyen Van Hieu, chairman of the Trung Chau Commune People's Committee: "We knew of the people's wish to move inland so we had made a plan and submitted it to the district authority. But that's all we can do. It's the district authority that can make decisions."

The district authority passed the buck back to the commune, saying proper procedure had not been followed.

"We haven't received any documents from residents of the fishing village. The commune authority has to create separate documents for each household, so we know the situation in detail," said Nguyen Dong Hieu, deputy head of the district's Natural Resources and Environment Unit.

In the floating village, Nguyen Van Huynh said he feels quite lost.

"Last Tet holidays there was a funeral in the village. The family of the one who passed away had to pay VND5 million (US$235) to have a piece of land for the burial. It's heartbreaking – we don't have a piece of land for ourselves when we live, and we don't have one when we die."

With a distant look in his eyes, he asked: "When will this end?" — VNS

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