Nguyễn Văn Dũng (right) and his assistants under a tarpaulin on the island under Nhật Tân Bridge. The 49-year-old has spent the past 30 years recovering dead bodies from the Red River. VNS Photo Bảo Hoa
HÀ NỘI “I don’t need to go find the bodies. It’s a gut feeling that I have. Whenever I have an uneasy feeling I’d go to the river, and there they are.”
Nguyễn Văn Dũng is a peach-grower by trade but has found himself a far more macabre pastime.
This unassuming 49-year-old does a job no one else wants to do, but it is a job he feels, really needs to be done.
For the past 30 years, Dũng has been recovering dead bodies from the Red River. He estimates the amount of cadavers he’s pulled from the water easily tops the 650 mark.
“Normal people wouldn’t touch dead bodies when they see them,” he said, leaning back on his makeshift bed under a tarpaulin on the island under Nhật Tân Bridge.
“I often feel glad I found them, because they were humans just like us. Fishermen often get superstitious about it, thinking once someone’s been caught by hà bá (God of rivers) we should let them go.
“I do get traumatised, but as long as I still can find them I will help them.”
The majority of those recovered have committed suicide, deciding for whatever reasons they no longer wanted to be part of the world.
Dũng feels he is providing a service to those whose loved ones have gone missing as more often than not he is able to deliver closure to those families.
“I could have been tending to my garden and suddenly feel anxious. If I go to the river then I would definitely find someone.
“There is a shrine next to my house dedicated to a young girl that drowned in 1966. It was on a rainy day, my neighbours saw her floating in the river and pulled her out, and my father helped them bury her.
“I think it’s her that tells me [about the people that drown].”
Dũng was 13 years old the first time he did it.
“I was tending to my cows when I saw bodies of two men stuck in a clump of grass by the river. It was in Từ Liêm District,” he said. (Từ Liêm is a rural district of Hà Nội before 2013, now divided into Nam Từ Liêm and Bắc Từ Liêm new urban districts).
“I reported to the ward police and they told the district police. By the time the police came it was already dark, so they asked me to help them kept an eye on the bodies for a night, and I did.”
The experiences that will be etched in his mind forever are from two boat crashes in 1995 and 1996 when dozens of people died.
“It was heartbreaking. Too many people died,” he said. “They were locals crossing the river to go to market, their boats probably hit a military barge then sank.
“I remember one of them sank at about 11pm, and by dawn I had taken 12-15 bodies out of the water.”
But most of the bodies Dũng recovered recently were of those who no longer wanted to live.
“Very few of them died from water accidents, most of them have committed suicide. Debts, gambling problems, family issues… were the reasons,” he said.
In the past Dũng found and buried the dead himself. He has about 100 people resting in his garden, who were unidentified and unclaimed.
Now as a member of Nhật Tân Ward’s Red Cross Association, he is working with two assistants.
He added: “Bodies of those that drown are often too heavy for me to carry on my own, so I really need help. They help me pull the bodies out of the water and go buy funeral necessities.
“The entire funeral costs are about VNĐ20 million (US$862) for each person, which was covered by the ward’s Red Cross Association and police.”
Nguyễn Văn Dũng on his boat by the Red River. Photo danviet.vn
Receiving no financial rewards for what he does, growing peaches and raising cows to sell help Dũng make ends meet and raise his two children.
His wife gives him her full support.
“I had already been doing it when we met,” Dũng said. “There was a time when she was constantly expressing concerns, saying I shouldn’t ‘disturb’ the dead. But now that she found this is the right thing to do, she is totally cool with it.”
Maintaining a passion for such an unusual job after three decades, especially one he does not get paid for, is not easy, but Dũng said he will do it as long as he lives.
“To be honest no one can stand the smell,” he added. “If a pig or a dog dies from drowning they already smell bad enough, let alone a person. Even changing clothes for them is toxic for me, I know that. But I still ask others to help me help them since I think they were human just like us.
“I made a promise to the river and those that died that I will do this as long as I can. From now until when I’m 80, 90 years old, as long as I can swim I will still do it.” VNS