Fisherman living on rafts to enjoy their first Tết on solid ground

February 01, 2019 - 10:00

Tết is a special time of year for everyone in Viet Nam, but it means a bit more for some families this year.

Fishing facilities of Sê San 4 village at the Sê San 4 hydropower plant’s reservoir. — Photo
Viet Nam News

KON TUM — Tết is a special time of year for everyone in Việt Nam, but it means a bit more for some families this year.

After 10 years of nomadic "living on the water" at the fringes of a hydropower plant reservoir in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum, 29 families of about 100 people are excited to spend Tết (Lunar New Year) on dry land.

That’s because they finally have recognition as legal residents and houses.

In the newly formed village named after the Sê San 4 reservoir in Ia Tơi Commune, the usually stern fishermen are relaxed with a quiet contentment.

Nguyễn Hai Triều, a 45-year-old man, said his house was built after Ia Tơi Commune’s authorities decided to grant each household 400sq.m of land and VNĐ50 million (US$2,160).

He used all his savings and borrowed more money to complete the house, with a total cost of VNĐ300 million, a decision that other families in the village quickly followed suit. Just days before Tết, the construction was completed and the family only needed to do a thorough cleaning before they could move in.

Triều said his family was one of the poorest households in his rural hometown, Vĩnh Phước Commune of Tri Tôn District in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang.

His life there was an extension of the life of his father’s and his grandfather’s, a life on the boat and constantly moving between rivers and lakes throughout the province.

In 2012, he went to Sê San 4 Lake, the reservoir for its namesake hydropower plant that lies in the downstream of the Sê San river system, after it was completed and become operational the same year.

Seeing the abundant fish resources in the lake, he and other nomadic fishing households decided to make their living there.

At first, the sudden appearance of a small community on the fringe of the reservoir was not welcomed by local authorities and the memories of dark days evading authorities during raids haven’t faded.

Newly constructed houses for the residents of Sê San 4 fishing village. — Photo

Chế Hồng Quyền, chairman of the Ia Tơi Commune People’s Committee, told Thanh niên (Young People) newspaper that he recalled the day when a flustered Hai Triều came to the office to ask for permits of temporary residence to make a living legally on the rafts.

Quyền submitted Triều’s request to provincial authorities. Some time later, the local border guard invited all the households in the makeshift fishing village to reaffirm their wishes and granted them temporary permits.

At the end of 2017, secretary of the Kon Tum Province’s Party’s Committee Nguyễn Văn Hùng went to the fishing village to meet with the residents and directed the district’s authorities to grant them land, household registration books and help them relocate to land. With their now legal status, the children can enroll in local schools as well.

Tuấn Vũ, 42-year-old, said that during the general election year, district authorities sent a bus to bring the entire village to a polling place to cast their ballots.

“Honestly, for the longest of time, we didn’t even know what voting was. I still remember that my hands trembled a lot holding the polling card. It took quite some time for it to sink in that being able to vote means we are now legal residents, officially recognised by the authorities,” Vũ said.

Since their legal settlement, the households can now invest in the fishing business without worrying about having to pack everything up at a moment’s notice to evade local authorities.

“The hurried escapes meant broken nets and cages, and letting the fish out back into the lake, which was a huge loss for many,” Vũ said.

Aside from small fries like goby and tench, they can now cultivate larger size like carp that net higher profits and are now the main source of income for the fishermen. Their fried dried anchovy is also enjoying increased popularity across the southern region.

Three households in the village came up with the idea to organise boat trips to bring tourists on a sightseeing tour across the scenic lake, earning a handsome VNĐ5-7 million a month, in addition to their fishing business.

According to Bùi Văn Nhàn, vice chair of the Ia H’Drai District, local authorities have offered the fishing village preferential loans and other support applied for poor and near-poor households.

Nguyễn Hai Triều, the fisherman resident of the Sê San 4 village prepares dried anchovy. — Photo

First Tết ashore

Lighting an incense stick on his ancestor’s altar, Triều said ringing in the new year on the fishing rafts for the past decade was not pleasant as it served as a bitter reminder of their vagrant existence.

“Naturally, we didn’t have vehicles to drive to the marketplaces or the fairs, which were usually quite far away and walking would be too tiring. Near Tết, we would usually ask for things we wanted for the traders to bring in, like meat, wine or cakes and sweets. The whole village would club together and celebrate the new year for 4-5 days. One household would host the party for a day. We would’ve drunk ourselves to oblivion because there’s nothing else to do out on the lake anyway,” Triều said.

The whole floating village would sometimes gather around Sáu Doi, a zither player who knows how to sing đờn ca tài tử, popular folk tunes that usually carry a melancholic air. This year, however, the women in the village have already talked of a night gathering to cook the traditional bánh chưng (square sticky rice cake) and bánh tét (cylindrical-shaped sticky rice cake).

Many even plan to bring their relatives to the new houses to celebrate their new life on the shore, something that was unimaginable just a few years ago.

But the communal celebration of Tết that has formed during the 10 years on the floating rafts won’t change too much now that they live on solid land, Triều said, informing Thanh niên newspaper that the Ia Tơi People’s Committee has gifted the village a 70kg pig to feast at the year-end party.

Chế Hồng Quyền, chairman of the Ia Tơi Commune People’s Committee, said provincial authorities previously pledged to invest VNĐ3 billion ($130,000) to bring electricity to the new village, with the power system expected to be completed this weekend before the lunar new year, which falls on Tuesday next week.

Authorities also presented all 29 fishing households with Tết gifts worth VNĐ500,000 a few days ago.

Now masters of their own domains, the men and women of the fishing village can start to dream of a stable life, starting with something as ordinary yet beautiful as a proper new year’s celebration. — VNS