by Thu Anh
Most of the time it is just a few feet or a metre below ground level, but for most of us, it is a world farther than the proverbial seven seas that we cross on non-stop flights.
Many people in HCM City and other localities nationwide earn their living working underground in a series of sewers.
The work that these people do – clearing drains and blocked pipes, is crucial to prevent flashfloods during heavy rains or overflow of the sewers in cases of blockage.
In fact, their work is indispensable for us to lead our "normal" lives, and we take their work for granted, not bothering to acknowledge the reality below.
For putting their health at risk and entering a dirty, stinking, polluted, dangerous environment day in day out, the workers are paid, on average, a measly VND1.5 million (US$75) a month.
Tran Van Sau is one of hundreds of such workers employed by HCM City Sewage Company, who spend their days clearing nearly 800 kilometres of drains and sewers around the city.
He works by the light of a head lamp, or a candle in some cases. He wears neither a pair of gloves nor a mask to protect himself. "Sometimes, the fluids come up as high as my nose and mouth – the content is absolutely unthinkable," says Sau.
Working conditions below the ground are unbearable because the liquid waste is full of chemicals, hospital waste and trash from the markets and houses, he says. All these cause serious irritation of the skin and blisters.
Sau, 43, began his job 20 years ago, after his mother's retirement. "My mother introduced me to the work," he says.
"We're poor. My parents worked very hard just to feed me. Without any other skills or qualifications, what can I do?"
Despite the fact that Sau, father of a son and two daughters, spends much of the daylight hours in the gloom of a sewer, it does not mean he is without hope.
"I'm doing this work to allow my children to lead better lives in the long term.
"I have told my children: Don't let your destiny limit your dreams."
Sau's oldest son is a second-year student at the HCM City University of Economics. He now has a part-time job with an online advertising agency.
"My son told me that one day, soon, he will replace my position in the family to take care of his younger sisters.
"Nothing is happier than seeing your only son moving towards success."
Earn more, live less
Young professionals in urban areas, especially big cities like Ha Noi and HCM City, have a hectic life. They are career-driven go getters and spend a lot of their time in offices and later, let their hair down in plush bars, karaoke parlors and other entertainment spots.
What this lifestyle means is that they do not have much time to talk with their parents, partners and children.
"I often work ten hours a day or more in my office," says Nguyen Thanh Huong, 28, a marketing manager for a Japanese company in HCM City.
Huong is very ambitious and works hard to be successful. "I want to earn a lot of money to provide for myself and my family."
She always gets back home late.
One day, Huong suddenly realised she doesn't have time to talk with her parents and her younger brother, a seventh-grade student.
"I have not had a meal at home in the past three months, although I prefer by far to have rice with favourite dishes that my mother makes."
Huong says she is very confident and dynamic but something is missing in her life.
A recent survey by the HCM City-based Phu Nu (Woman) newspaper found that the modern lifestyle brought in by the market economy is a factor in the growing number of divorces among young couples in the city.
It found Vietnamese family members today spend less time with each other than they did in the past. Many young married couples choose to divorce because they do not have the time to make family life work.
"We earn high incomes, but we don't have enough time to talk and share troubles in life with each other. We are like friends in our own family. Should we decide to divorce?" one couple in the survey wondered.
Many children live with feelings of sadness and loneliness in their luxury houses because their parents are not around; they only come home late in the night.
The youth of today make far more money than their parents, but are much less happy. — VNS