Baby boom swallows Vietnam village

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 Children under 15 account for half of Con Se Village's population in the central province of Quang Binh / PHOTOS COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

The tiny island of Con Se is technically only a small village, but it looks like an urban jungle.

So many houses have been built that any new homes have to be built on the slippery, muddy banks of the island and its canals. But they continue to be built, almost everyday. 

The next thing you notice about Con Se is that nearly everyone you see on the streets is a child, and any adult you meet has numerous children in tow, even if the adults are still teenage parents. 

That's because the houses on Con Se are not being built by new migrants, they're being built by young and middle-aged couples from the island village that are each having 6-7 children on average, with some having as many as 15.  

Vietnam's official fertility rate is now 2.05 births per woman, compared to 6.36 in 1960-1964. In southern provinces and cities like Ho Chi Minh City, the rate is as low as 1.45, prompting experts and officials to urge local couples to have more babies, saying that if the rate decreases more, they will face problems like labor shortage and aging population.

However, it is a different story at Con Se village, located off the coast of the central province of Quang Binh.

According to official statistics, the village's population was more than 3,100 as of last year with children under 15 accounting for nearly half. There were more than 500 children under five.

Nguyen Anh Them, chairman of People's Committee in Quang Loc Commune -- the authority that governs the village -- said local agencies have tried every solution to stop families from having too many babies, but "it is too difficult."

Villagers believe that the more children they have, the wealthier they are, and they also need sons to inherit their fishing boats and business. So, they keep giving birth to kids.

"In this village, most of families have many children," said Nguyen Thi Long, a 37-year-old mother of four boys and three daughters.

"Some people that own big fishing boats say that they will give birth to more so that they can have enough crew members for their boats," she said.

Overpopulation

Long said that spondylosis, or spinal arthritis, keeps her husband from fishing offshore these days. He stays at home, doing odd jobs and helping her fish near the shore. However, their combined incomes are no longer enough to support their growing family.

Long said she no longer brings in as many fish from the local Gianh River as she used to, claiming that the massive families of Con Se have over-fished the area's waters. 

"Perhaps with too many people catching them, fish do not have enough time to reproduce," she said.

The woman said she had to send three of her children to live with her parents, parents-in-law, and her sister. She also said that although their eldest child has recently found a job in the south, there are times she has to borrow money to feed the rest.

"We gave birth to too many children, and now both we and our children are in trouble," she said.

With the increasing population and a tendency towards early marriages at 17-18 years old, the demand for land to build houses in Con Se has surpassed the six hectares of land available.

Despite being an island, the village now looks like a crowded city where houses are built up against each other without any spaces in between.

Nearly 100 families have even built houses right next to the river, with concrete or makeshift materials, regardless of the risk of flood and erosion.

Mai Thi H., a woman in her late twenties with one child, lives in a house that was built a couple of months ago on a muddy canal near the river on the outskirts of town. The house is made from plastic canvases covering a wooden frame, and its wooden floor moves with every step.

H. said she and her husband had moved there because their parents did not have any land to give them after their wedding.

She said they are worried most about the stormy season. Whenever the river's waters rise, they carry their child to the middle of the village for shelter.

The house will eventually be swept away, she admitted. But "it can't be helped," H. said.

According to local authorities, about 200 other families are waiting to be provided with land to build homes.

Nguyen Cuong, head of the village, said that besides the shortage of land and general poverty, many people are illiterate.

Most local children quit their studies after fifth grade because their families cannot affordto keep sending them to school, he said.

It is also because they have to find a job to support their parents in raising their younger brothers and sisters, according to Cuong.

Boys follow their brothers and fathers to go fishing off shore when they are about 14-15 years old, while girls follow their mothers to make fishing nets for sale. Some leave the village to find jobs in the south, the official said. 

The problems that go with having many children are so visible in Con Se that a few newly-married couples have started feeling reluctant to go with the trend.

Mai Hoang, 32, said seeing how other families struggle with raising their kids, he and his wife, Pham Thi Huong, 24, do not want to have many children, and instead want to save money for rebuilding their house.

He said they now have one two year-old daughter, and planned to have the second child, when their daughter is about five or seven years old.

However, authorities are not positive that a change will take place in the village soon.

Hoang Thi Kim Ngan, director of Quang Trach District's Center for Population and Family Planning, said every year local authorities organize campaigns to raise people's awareness.

But, with low education level and old-fashioned mindset, Con Se people do not want to listen when it comes to birth control, she said.

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