Nguyen Thanh Tuoi (2nd, left), 13, and his brother and sisters on their porch in Dong Nai Province. The parents left Tuoi to take care of the five. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre
Nguyen Thanh Tuoi became his family's bread winner at age 13, with five mouths to feed including himself.
He leads a hunt for scorpions every day, doing the catching while a younger brother and two sisters help by spotting scorpion holes and carry a basket of ants used to irritate and draw out scorpions, which are common in the red-soil mountainous province Dong Nai, not far from Ho Chi Minh City.
It usually takes two or three days for them to catch a kilogram, around 70 scorpions, to sell for VND100,000 (US$4.74).
But they only get to keep VND70,000 after the buyers deduct money for the ants they provide in advance, leaving the children a lot of gaps to fill in their belly, and they usually have to resort to pick up falling fruits at local fields or dead animals thrown away.
"I'm not afraid of scorpion bites any more," Tuoi said, grasping the tail of one from a baseball-size hole under a rock.
"The bites felt painful at the beginning, but my hands are bitten all over now they have been hardened."
Neighbors in Phu Tan Commune, Dinh Quan District said the children's father left as a fugitive more than a year ago, and the mother followed suit several months later.
The five have an 18-year-old brother and two sisters of 15 and 17 years old who all work outside the province, and do not earn enough even to feed themselves, a neighbor said in a Tuoi Tre report.
That's how the youngest one, 3-year-old Pham Thi Kim Cuong, fainted one day.
"I was hungry," Cuong said for herself when a Tuoi Tre reporter asked among the children about the incident.
Neighbors found her unconscious and breathing hard on a hill near her home.
She was rushed to a medical station and doctors diagnosed her with hunger.
As she collapsed steps away from the house which is a charity house given to poor families, a neighbor said she must have lost patience while the others went around looking for foods, and tried to help herself.
Her name means diamond, Tuoi means bright and healthy, and others' mean good, money and many.
But their parents' dream to rise from poverty seems to have never come true.
Nguyen Thanh Tuoi grasps a scorpion by its tail as part of his day job to earn money for feeding his siblings
Locals said they have been giving the children rice once in a while, but it is apparently not enough.
Le Thi Tuyet, vice principal of a local primary school and a commune councilor, said one time she brought rice over and the children said they ate already.
"They said they had chicken, which surprised me. I kept asking them and found out they had picked up a dead chicken someone threw away and cooked it," Tuyet said.
The children recently lost the key to their house, they walk in and out by pulling off the iron frame of the door, helping each other to climb over.
The house is not only empty of adults. It as few assets besides several pots and bowls scattered on the floor.
While four of them are still active and speak innocently, Nguyen Van Tot, 11, who is after Tuoi, has withdrawn into his depression and turned his head down at strangers.
Le Van Tu, a campaigner for children in Phu Tan commune, said he has been calling for donations for the children but they need an adult to take care of them.
Tu said the commune recently assigned a person to talk with the five's eldest brother but he refused to let the children move to a neighbor's.
"I want to live with my mom," Tuoi told Tuoi Tre.
"I wish me and my brother and sisters have full meals every day and we can go to school like others."
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