The cows swam across the Cambodia border into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta at first light on a recent foggy morning.
Barefoot herders emerged as muddy as the animals after the long crossing to auction them to Vietnamese farmers and slaughterhouse buyers.
Despite the difficulty and danger the journey entails, many of the herders said they've made the trips, every monsoon season, for dozens of years.
A Thanh Nien reporter visited a recent cow market in Tan Khanh Hoa Commune of Giang Thanh District, Kien Giang Province, just as the bargaining began to heat up in Vietnamese and Khmer.
Duong Hoang Phong has rented out his front yard for the auction for nearly 20 years.
Phong said it’s like a festival every morning, full of mooing, haggling and cackling laughter.
Hien, a customer from Kien Giang, said Cambodian cows are cheaper and more abundant than those raised in Vietnam, although his profits have ebbed in recent years.
He and other Vietnamese dealers once resold Cambodian cows to local farmers who needed them to work the land or buyers from slaughterhouses.
But many of his customers customers now have their own cattle farms along the border.
Cows that Cambodian dealers have sold to a Vietnamese customer at a border market in An Giang Province. Photo: Tien Trinh
Ha Van Dung, the owner of one such farm in the neighboring An Giang Province, said Cambodian cows are usually sold in Vietnam during the flood season when dry grazing land becomes scarce.
“When the cows swim over here, they're generally worn out and skinny. So a few of us with a little money to spare buy them, fatten them up and sell them at a profit,” Dung said.
The market near his farm, he says, is more modern and equipped with disease quarantine system.
Most of the cows at the border market are sold off by 9am when stacks of cash change hands and the cows are marked with paint to signify their new owner.
Each auction usually ends with a few unsold old and weak cows being loaded onto a truck and carted away to make room for more coming in from Cambodia.
Since their wages depend on the number of cows that cross the border, each herder is just as eager as his employer to sell off his lot, so he can rush back to Cambodia and fetch more.
A cowherd named Po, speaking broken Vietnamese, said he gets 5,000 riels (US$1.23) for each cow he brings over the border, plus meals and the occasional tip.
Po said the buyers are the happiest ones at the market because they either find a good cow or leave and lose nothing.
Po, a Cambodian cattle herder, ties an animal to a pole where it will be auctioned to Vietnamese customers. Photo: Tien Trinh
Cowherds like him, meanwhile, have to work hard.
Another herder named Ba Giao said they herd the cows five kilometers over fields and rivers.
“I have to begin the night before each auction,” he said.
Mosquitoes and leeches pose a common annoyance, but poisonous snakes remain a source of constant fear among the herders.
Most know the story about a lucky man named Buol, who was driving cattle across a field when the animals suddenly ran wild.
As Buol struggled to herd them back together, he went cold with the deadly sensation of a snakebite.
The herders in his company carried him to a traditional healer, who saved him from the poison.
“The lad was lucky. Not everyone can survive like that in this wild border region,” Giao said.