Tran Hong Phuc held a knife in one hand and a trowel in the other as he scratched old paint off a tomb.
He gave his work a quick final wipe, and moved on to another tomb.
The 6-year-old has spends most of his days like this. So do his siblings, aged 12 and 14.
His little sister is only two -- too young to work -- but when she gets a little older, she'll join in.
The kids are second-generation residents of Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest cemetery -- Binh Hung Hoa in Tan Phu District.
For years, the sprawling home to over 100,000 graves has offered the poor and desperate one of the few places to squat and make a living.
But it's hardly easy work.
Phuc hasn't been to school yet and his mother, Tran Thi Hong, struggles to cover tuition for her 14-year-old.
She is currently seeking a spot in a subsidized class, like the one her 12-year-old kid attends.
When not studying or working, the kids catch dragonflies, play with stray cats and dogs, or pick guavas, trung ca (Jamaican cherries) and custard apples off the trees that sprout between the graves.
Hong, 29, said she was born in the cemetery; her mother and grandmother lived there since 1980.
“All my children were born at hospital and came here when they were just a few days old,” she said.
She and Tran Thi Nghia, the children's grandmother, have raised the kids by protecting and cleaning tombs.
Every day, they say, the trade becomes harder. Many tombs no longer have a relative to look after them.
A plan to develop a new residential zone featuring shopping malls, hi-end housing and public parks in the area, has prompted others to exhume and rebury their ancestral remains elsewhere.
Work got so slow that Hong recently took a job working at a steel plant to make extra money.
“The city doesn't allow us to live here, because it’s the cemetery,” Hong said from one of the tents her family put up near the funeral home.
“But we have no other choice.”
A boy studies in his family's shack at Binh Hung Hoa cemetery in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nhu Lich
The family seemed unwilling to mention a patriarch and visiting reporters found none in sight.
But there were several men in the life of their neighbor Kieu Thi Anh Lien, 41.
Lien said she moved back to her mother’s house in Binh Phuoc Province, around 100 kilometers from the city, to escape her abusive husband.
She brought along all three of her sons with her and left them at home while she worked trivial jobs in the area.
One day, she learned the kids’ uncle (who was mentally ill and could not speak) had repeatedly held them upside down above a well.
“I was too scared I had to bring them away again.”
They went to HCMC and could find nowhere to go other than the cemetery, where Lien’s sister watched over tombs for money.
They wandered through the graves during the day and slept at the funeral home at night.
“One day some officials came to check on us. I told them the truth about my situation, and they could not bear to send us away,” Lien said.
A woman named Tu Phan, a long-time tomb watcher at the cemetery, gave them her tent and helped get her children into subsidized classes at a nearby orphanage.
They have survived like that for five years now.
Lien's oldest son, 16-year-old Kieu Minh D., attends the sixth grade at a district education center. The 12 and 6-year-old take classes at the Thien An orphanage.
Lien wakes up every day at around 3am to prepare meals and wash clothes for the children, using water from a nearby pond, before going to work at a factory.
A light bulb that hangs in front of their tent was struck by lighting and she has continued to work in the dark ever since.
She says it's better that way, anyhow. “The children can sleep for school,” she said.
“I wish we have a house (elsewhere)," he said. "It’s polluted here and my brothers are too young they can learn bad things, like drug use.”
-- Kieu Minh D., 16, of his younger brothers who live at Binh Hung Hoa cemetery in Ho Chi Minh City
D. was recently awarded VND80,000 (nearly US$4) for her submission to a poetry contest at school.
He spent his winnings on milk for his younger sibling.
The teenage boy said he kept crying during his first weeks in the cemetery.
“I begged my mother to move because this place was so creepy. One night it rained and we dared not sleep for fear that our tent might collapse or something bad might happen,” he said.
He also cried out of self-pity in class.
“But I’ve thought again, that my mother has tried and suffered so much for us.”
The brother is now more worried about the future of his siblings.
“I wish we had a house (elsewhere)," he said. "It’s polluted here and my brothers are so young they can learn bad things, like drug use.”
When Thanh Nien reporters visited on the Mid-Autumn festival night (September 8) they found no cakes or lanterns.
Just a big full moon.