by Le Ha
The dancing flames flared brightly in the cold night. Several people gathered and sat down to get warm. These scenes in such a big city have become my obsession.
It was rainy and bitterly cold. The weather was about 10 degrees Celsius, even colder at night. For casual labourers who work outdoors, the most effective way of fighting the chill is to light a fire.
I arrived at Nguyen Khanh Toan Street and saw an old woman in a blackened wool hat scavenging through the rubbish. Shaking with cold, wrapped up in just a thin raincoat, she kept groping around in the landfill to find plastic bottles and pieces of scrap.
Later, she sat down by the roadside and made a fire out of scrap wood and waste paper. She raised her skinny hands above the fire to keep warm, sometimes turning her head to ensure that things she had collected had not blown away. I leaned towards her and said: "Excuse me! Why do you light a fire here? Isn't it banned by the police?"
Le Thi Thoi, the woman collecting scrap-iron, answered: "It is too cold. I just light a fire for warmth. If you come back tomorrow morning, you can see many heaps of charcoal from last night's fires."
Thoi has five children living in far away Phu Tho Province. She moved to Ha Noi years ago after her husband died to earn money by collecting scrap-iron and waste paper from rubbish heaps. She wanders into all the small corners of the city. She has worked hard to raise her children on VND3 million ($143) a month.
She said that after paying for meals and rent, she saved VND1.5 million ($72) a month, which is a small amount compared to dozens of millions of dong made by the rich.
The woman seemed older than my mother. It left me quiet and sad. At 9pm, cold rain started drizzling down, enough, surely, to weaken her. I wondered where her son or daughter were and if they knew where their mother was.
Tran Thi Xuyen, 27, an environmental worker sitting next to the old lady, said that police banned street fires and did not sanction the scavengers. But as Thoi said: "If we do not set a fire for warmth, we will die of coldness. Furthermore, many drivers, cleaners and street vendors also light fires. "However, the police do not seem to fine them," added Xuyen. "This old woman pick up scrap from dust-carts all over the city. She is very poor and old so she doesn't earn much money."
Casual labourers burn fire in many Ha Noi streets during winter, especially in Nguyen Khanh Toan, De La Thanh and Pham Van Dong streets where fires are popular.
According to Nguyen Van Son, senior lieutenant-colonel from fire fighting and prevention department of Ha Noi Police, fires in public places are prohibited. Although usually a spontaneous act by workers, they said it could also be dangerous. "If people do not stamp out their fires before leaving, the wind can carry sparks to other areas."
According to Le Dang Doanh, a former economist at the Central Institute for Economic Management, the casual workers are mostly from rural areas and have low skill levels. "They work in hard conditions and receive little from the State. They have little money to purchase air conditioners or radiators and have no choice but to light fires to keep warm on a cold night. This is the reality," he said.
Doanh said the scavengers were seasonal workers and self-employed, so they were not offered any social security. Moreover, it was difficult to get the Government to care about them. He said the State needed to build a solid policy to take care of them.
"I dare not say that Ha Noi is the city of the richest and the poorest, because in other regions, many people are poorer. However, Ha Noi is the city where the gap between the rich and the poor, the inequality in society, is clearly shown." said Doanh.
"I do not see lighting fires to keep warm is illegal, but I am really moved because of the lifestyle of the poor. Even though they don't know each other, they gather to keep warm and share food with each other, something I rarely see among the rich. It is a precious tradition of the nation since the war. Our Vietnamese forefathers used to protect and help each other in time of need," he said.
It is this writer's hope that there will be more fires of love, of unity, of energy in life and less fires on the sidewalks. When the rich become closer to the poor, when people truly care for each other, Ha Noi will not be so cold anymore. — VNS