Cut adrift

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Families living on boats along city waterways run the gauntlet of random police raids as they eke out a meager living

Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy, 27, sits on her boat, tied to a small, unnamed wharf in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7. For the past year, residents say that the local police have been shooing them off an otherwise unused stretch of sidewalk, making their lives even more difficult.

Around twenty wooden junks bob in a stinking cloud of fruit rinds floating in the waters of a small, unnamed wharf in District 7's Tan Thuan Tay Ward.

The dinging decks are loaded with rusty bicycles, drying laundry and mangy dogs. Inside their creaking holds, poor families struggle against debt, poverty and an indifferent city.

Every day, poor fathers, mothers and children work in shifts husking coconuts, scavenging scrap metal and catching brief naps when they can.

On a recent Monday evening, Ha Van Da, 56, and his wife scoured their boat for a photo of their thirty eight year-old son, Ha Van Son, who died in October from an AIDS-related illness.

Son's wife, who had also contracted HIV, drowned in 2008 after falling overboard. His daughter succumbed to the same fate at age two the following year.

"Poor them and poor us," said Da. "Three deaths in three straight years. I've never seen so much grief in my life."

As the day comes to an end, Da's five grandchildren four boys and a girl file aboard, disheveled and sunburned.

Their parents are elsewhere. Two of Da's sons were jailed recently following a street fight and his youngest daughter, who has been married three times, is financially incapable of taking care of her 10-year-old daughter.

Da says his greatest concern is remaining healthy enough to look after his grandchildren until they're old enough to make it on their own.

Hustling lifestyle

Twenty years ago, Da migrated to the city from An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. Since then, he's lived on his junk, tied to the wharf.

Like most of the families here, Da and his wife peddle fruit on the adjacent sidewalk. They also sell coffee (as drinks and beans) from a small collapsible shop.

Their interaction with the authorities and institutions of Ho Chi Minh City is limited to random harassment by the local police, who shoo them and their goods off the sidewalk every day.

The kids have learned to hustle their little stand from the sidewalk to the boat in a flash.

Da has fashioned chairs out of wood so they can float. When the police arrive, he throws them into the water and has his grandkids retrieve them later.

He worries about them.

"They wander the neighborhood looking for scrap metal to help bring in a little more money," Da said. "But what I'm most worried about is that the kids don't have birth certificates or permanent residence papers."

Under Vietnamese law, without these documents, they cannot enroll in public schools, land good jobs or access social services.

Early this month, Oxfam and ActionAid, two international antipoverty NGOs, issued a joint report criticizing the ways in which Vietnam's "permanent residency registration" system fails to address the needs of Hanoi and HCMC's poor migrant workers.

The broad systemic shortfalls are glaringly apparent here on the waterfront.

Three of Da's grandkids have reached school age and have no choice but to study at an evening charity class run by a retired woman.

"I really want to study at a public school but my grandparents told me I can't," said Nguyen Thi Be Tuoi, 10, who stands out as one of the best second-graders in her class.

Sunday on the waterfront

In many ways, Sunday is no different from any other day of the week for Pham Van Duong, 32, and his wife Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy, 27.

The handsome couple sits in the hold of their junk, surrounded by hundreds of Ben Tre coconuts, deftly shaving the green skin away with a pair of hand-sharpened machetes.

Their three year-old son sleeps in the hold full of coconuts, while their eight-year-old daughter attends classes in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre, where she lives with her grandmother.

Thuy keeps a watchful eye on the sidewalk, where she's set up a small plastic table stacked with a pyramid of shorn white coconuts. When a motorbike pulls to the side of the road, she skips over a flimsy gangplank and sells them for VND10,000.

On Sundays, she doesn't have to worry about the police. On other days, they have to be ready, at any time, to hustle the stand back onto their boat, the minute the police begin to arrive.

"I think no one would want to live that way and no one would enjoy leading a floating life on the boat for good," said Duong as he worked briskly on his coconuts. "This is our only meal ticket because we can't find any other work back in our hometown [in the Mekong Delta]."

A few years ago, the couple took out a huge loan to buy their boat. After bringing in a load of coconuts once a week, they make about VND100,000 a day. They still owe VND50 million in debt.

Despite their financial hardships, they are resolved to send both of their children to school.

A similar resolution was abandoned three years ago by the couple's neighbor, Nguyen Thi Phan, 45.

She says she took her 12-year-old daughter out of school to help her husk water coconuts because they could no longer afford to keep her in school.

Today, the mother and daughter process the thick, fibrous orbs under the hot, grey sky.

Phan cracks apart the fruits while her daughter pries apart the kernels and extracts the flesh.

An hour's work yields just one kilogram of flesh, which they sell for VND30,000.

"I only wish every day could be like Sunday, when the police don't conduct any sweeps and the authorities don't launch any surprise inspections," Phan said. "During weekdays, we try to make the most of mealtimes and shift changes, [from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. or 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.] to sell the coconut on the sidewalk."

Almost every family Thanh Nien Weekly spoke to on the small waterfront said they were trying to pay off debts amassed from buying or repairing their boats.

No one knew why the police began trying to prevent them from selling fruit on the discontinuous, waterfront sidewalk that rarely sees any pedestrian traffic.

Perhaps the city was hoping to use the wharf, which is outfitted with iron loops and gangplank slots, as a future water taxi stop. Another guessed they were trying to accommodate the increasing sand barge traffic.

Tran Quang Dung, deputy chief of the Tan Thuan Tay Ward police force, said it is the job of the local police to keep the sidewalks clear for pedestrian traffic.

"It's not a policy formulated by the local police force but the rules applied citywide," he stressed.

During a recent visit on Sunday, very few pedestrians attempted to walk along the sidewalk. A police pickup was parked, however, for several hours, on the sidewalk down the street from the wharf.

A statement issued by the Tan Thuan Tay Ward administration earlier this year alluded to a plan to resettle the boat people by 2015. The task is daunting, they noted, given the fact that they are unregistered migrants without any proof of residency.

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