Diving for the dead

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Ngo Van Tam, 31, has been diving and recovering bodies of drowning victims in the Cua Lon River in Vietnam's southern province of Ca Mau for 15 years

A man who dives to recover the bodies of drowning victims in the Vietnamese province of Ca Mau takes no money for it and believes it is his duty.

Along Cua Lon, a 58-kilometer river in Nam Can District, many people earn a living by diving. Some dive to look for war remnants like bullets, cannons, and sunken ship parts to sell to as scrap, while others help salvage boats.

Few choose to recover bodies, let alone doing it for free.

Ngo Van Tam, 31, has, however, done this work since he was 16.

His uncle Ngo Van Quang was well-known for successfully retrieving hundreds of bodies from under the river.

It is said that Tam's wife divorced him recently because she was scared of his work. 

He chose not to speak about his family and instead started by talking about why he started doing this job.

At first he had been a "normal" diver who was scared of ghosts and did not dare touch dead people.

One day a person came to ask him to help recover a small boat. But when he arrived at the site people told him to search for a 13-year-old boy who had drowned with the boat.

Initially he refused the request, but when the boy's family kept crying and beseeching him, he could no longer say no and jumped into the river.

When he found the body and handed it over to the family, he was not scared so much as "satisfied" that he could help the victim "return" to his family.

But the fear persisted and there was always a feeling the corpses would "grab" him, Tam said.  

Now, after retrieving hundreds of bodies, it is a job he has to do, and would feel "guilty" if he did not do it.

That was why a couple of months ago he rushed home from Hon Chuoi Island, where he works as a diver doing other things, after getting a phone call for help.

Local divers sought his help in looking for the bodies of a nine-year-old and a two-year-old who drowned with their grandfather when their boat capsized. The divers had already spent a day and night searching in vain.

Tam finally located them stuck in a fishing net some 700 meters from the accident site.

"When I saw the children, they were hugging each other." This has been haunting him since, he said, wiping tears.

Many accidents happen on the river, so divers who recover bodies cannot be away for too long, he said.

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