residents dream of a better life
work, no play: The cleaners tidy up their shelters when they
have free time. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
care of others: One den mother boils water outside the damp
A small street nestled
near the busy railway line in the heart of old Ha Noi plays host to a unique
bunch of nocturnal residents, and though these inhabitants have no official
address, locals have dubbed the dwellings the Oshin commune.
The term Oshin comes from
the name of a famous Japanese television series character, who toiled away
cleaning houses and washing dishes for a living. And like the character’s
occupation, many residents from the Oshin commune also perform a similar line of
meagre pay does not allow for a lavish lifestyle, and many are forced to huddle
together for survival, taking shelter in the humble and overcrowded living
quarters of the Oshin commune.
During the day, the area
appears to be a ghost town to an outsider, showing very little signs of life,
even though around 80 women and children call this place home. When night falls
on the rundown dwellings, the area finally comes to life as the residents return
home from the city after a hard day’s work.
But their home is not
exactly a warm and welcoming place to return to after a hard day cleaning up
after others, as the 80 residents must bed down each night in the cramped
quarters. The commune consists of a row of neglected houses that run parallel to
the city’s busy train line, and each house contains one or several small, damp
rooms with minimal furnishings. There are around 20 rooms providing shelter for
around 80 people; each 10-sq.m space can sleep five to eight women on two
Despite their line of
work, the inhabitants of this commune also have another thing in common – many
have travelled from other provinces to try their luck in Ha Noi. While monthly
rental rates of VND400,000 may seem like a bargain when shared between six or so
people, the reality of the situation paints a far different picture.
Many nerves are frayed due
to the overcrowding, and personal space is a luxury that is very rarely
afforded. Most residents also compete on a daily basis for space for hanging
clothes, which, if hung outside, will suffer the fate of sticky fingers.
Sharing one bathroom also
tests the patience of many, especially during the summer months when water often
runs out, and during the winter when boiling water over fires fills the areas
When asked about safety
issues, most residents said they remained unmolested and felt safe in their
dwellings. The modest rooms belong to the neighbours across the streets, so most
residents are registered with the police.
"The residents show
me their identity cards, and I let them reside temporarily. Often we make
arrangements for longer contracts," says landlord Huyen.
"The tenants are
usually law-abiding and we rarely receive complaints," says a local
policeman, for the commune has a system of its own.
The place manages to
function with some civility and order, and each room abides by some simple rules
to maintain this unique and fragile arrangement. Each week, one person is
responsible for cooking and cleaning, and there is an unwritten code about
personal property and theft. Problems and arguments are addressed in a timely
manner, reveals one Phu Tho Province resident.
Newcomers are common, and
after learning the rules, many are tested with sleepless nights from the
constant noise from the passing, clattering trains. However, they soon adapt and
the noise fades into the background, some even claiming that the trains help put
them to sleep each night.
inhabitants tend to stick to their own Vietnamese houses usually have a
matriarch who rules the roost, and the Oshin commune is no different. Resident
Hop, from northern Phu Tho Province, is considered one of the den mothers and
provides guidance and assistance to many of the younger ladies also from her
Anyone from Phu Tho
looking for a job just approaches 58-year-old Hop and asks for her help.
"All they have to do
is telling me what they want to do and what kind of skills they have, and
usually within a week I can find them a job," she says. Working as a
cleaning lady and job finder for 10 years, Hop has earned credibility amongst
her neighbours and potential employers.
"I have a reputation
to uphold so I choose carefully and train them to do the job well," she
says. When Hop’s husband died and left her with three children, she moved to
Ha Noi so she could earn money to support her family. Even though her kids are
now grown and married, Hop continues to work.
"I like working, and
this job gives me a chance to earn money without depending on my children,"
Everyone in the commune
has a story, and most are sad.
Ngan, who is also from Phu
Tho, left her three children with their grandparents so she could earn more
money in the capital. While she was away, her youngest son drowned in a nearby
pond, and no one knew where he was for weeks until his body surfaced. Wracked
with grief, Ngan must continue to work for the sake of her other children.
moved to the capital and became a nanny for a family with a new baby. When the
mother was not at home, the father would take advantage of her. She needed the
money, but eventually couldn’t stand it and quit.
glared at me. They think I am so poor and I will do anything for money,"
Those from the northern
city of Nam Dinh often collect rubbish for recycle, and most of them are only
5-17 years old. The kids go out to pick up trash, and share their sales with
their "foster mother." At night they stroll aimlessly around the
restaurants near Phung Hung Street, selling chewing gums or polishing shoes.
Lan plays mother to about
10 of these children; she lets them sleep in her small room and provides them
with meals. Khoi, 10, lost his parents when he was very young. To him, three
meals a day and a place to sleep are good enough.
People from central Thanh
Hoa Province usually work in the restaurants on Phung Hung Street, which are
famous for their flavourful hot pots and overly solicitous proprietors.
"After finishing work
at midnight, we return to the commune to sleep, and then wake up early to go
back to work. This boring routine earns me about VND 500,000 to VND700,000 a
month," says one worker.
Huyen from Thai Nguyen
used to send money home to her husband and two sons. While she was away, her
husband would spend all the money gambling and drinking and abusing her boys.
They eventually ran away, becoming thieves and drug addicts. She doesn’t know
where they are now. She says sometimes she doesn’t want to go on living, but
her housemates convince her that things will improve.
Though life is hard in the
Oshin commune, the spirit of comradery and the small sense of hope keep the
residents focused on the future, and the promise of a better life ahead. — VNS