Stalked by constant danger, Hon Goi residents go deep sea diving to make a living
Nguyen Hoang Anh, who has been deep sea diving for a living for more than 20 years, scours the seabed for clams, oysters, sea cucumbers and other underwater treasures
They cannot imagine themselves doing anything else, but no resident of Hon Goi Island will tell you anything romantic about the call of the deep that keeps them deep sea diving day after day.
Instead, they will tell you, simply, that it is just a job that helps them scrounge a living. Yes, they might have their dreams of striking it rich, but they are well aware that their job is fraught with risks and that they are playing with their lives every day.
It is easy to recognize a diver on Hon Goi Island. Most of them have a pronounced limp, a consequence of deep sea diving searching for natural pearl oysters, fish and shipwreck treasures.
According to statistics compiled by Hon Goi Hamlet, 80 of the total 100 households on the small southern islet near Phu Quoc Island in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang depend on sea diving for their livelihood. The divers say the proportion is even higher.
The seabed around the island is rough and is a good habitat for clams. According to island elders, divers migrated to the place in the 1980s to search for the bivalve's shells and sell them to those making lacquer paintings and furniture as well as fishing for sea cucumbers and other oysters.
"The rush for pearls was heated in the 1990s when the story got around that a diver had found a big pearl and sold it to buy several offshore fishing boats between 1992 and 1993," said Vo Minh Quang, a retired diver.
"Several shipwrecks were also found during the 1990s with ancient pottery and other valuable items, attracting people to settle in Hon Goi to live off deep sea diving," he said.
Quang said the divers used to dive to between 5-7 meters until the 1990s when they bought compressed oxygen tanks and pipes hundreds of meters long to dive deeper to depths of 90 meters.
"The first thing men here do after getting up in the morning is to dive," said Le Van Duc, a local diver.
Pham Ba Phuoc migrated to Hon Goi 20 years ago and learnt diving to search for pearls and clams. He now stays in a temple that records the name of people who died or were paralyzed in diving accidents.
"Since I got here, about 18 divers have died and two suffer from quadriplegia (four limb paralysis)," said Phuoc, who is illiterate and has to ask local children help him update the list in the temple. "And the number of divers suffering minor injuries like muscle cramp (paralysis) in one leg is uncountable."
Sea divers face the occupational hazards of high pressure and decompression sickness with effects varying from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death.
Without modern equipment, Hon Goi divers often head to the sea on a small boat with a high pressure oxygen tank onboard and hundreds of meters of tube. Sometimes, they just use an air pumping machine to pump air into the tube. The pipe connects to the tank or machine on one end and the diver just holds the other end in his mouth to breathe under water.
They submerge and emerge without a depth meter and varying speeds can easily lead to the lethal decompression sickness. The impacts of the symptoms do not come immediately for the diver to recognize and modify their emerging speed.
Three years ago, 26-year-old Ha Van Tai came home from a diving trip, feeling a light abdominal pain. He took a nap and woke up feeling cramps all over his body. He was taken back to the sea for a recompression process to treat decompression sickness but it was too late.
His mother said he was taken to Ho Chi Minh City but doctors were only able to save him from a "vegetable life" but unable to treat his serious paralysis.
In the nearby house, Ta Quoc Sinh is suffering in a vegetative state.
"His younger brother Hung took him back to the sea but it was too late. Hung also suffered from paralysis in one leg when taking Sinh under water," his mother Le Thi Co said, pleading for anybody to tell her if they found a "good doctor" able to treat her children.
Hon Goi divers often take their friends back to the deep sea where there is higher pressure than in the atmosphere as a simple recompression process to treat decompression sickness that could attack them at any time.
The general modus operandi is that the sick diver is taken back to the same depth as the previous dive, where he recovers gradually and then comes up slowly to avoid another decompression impact.
According to diver Tran Van Lo, a diver has "several ways to die".
"Apart from pressure problem, they may die getting tangled in underwater fishnets or losing their breathing tube due to poor maneuvering or the pipe getting entangled or severed by the propeller of a passing ship," he said.
In a recent accident, a diver diving off Phu Quoc District's Bai Bon Beach was paralyzed and his brother died when a strong wave struck their boat and accidentally shifted the engine gear to drive the boat away.
Many Hon Goi divers often talk about the "death waters", referring to seabed currents and what they describe as a poisonous, moving, and light yellow murky water.
Nguyen Hoang Anh said he used to find valuable oysters and items in such seabed currents. However, he later moved to shallower waters after an accident. He felt cramps all over his body once after diving some 30 meters under the sea but recovered after his two friends brought him back to the depths in time.
"I think I was just lucky. Many of my friends have died and I am too scared to remember their deaths, which sometimes came all in a sudden," he said.
Moving to shallower waters is safer, but also earns less money. A diver earns about VND150,000 (US$7.1) a day with the usual catch clams and sea cucumbers. Shallow waters do not offer the same bounty, hence the earnings dip.
Several years ago, Anh used to dive with Loi Anh in deep sea waters. During one dive, they managed to catch two giant crabs.
"After getting back on the boat, he said he would give his daughter the two crabs as a gift from the sea and suddenly collapsed and died," Anh said, adding that his friend had not died to decompression disease but to the "poisonous" water.
Tran Van Dong, a diver of Phu Quoc District's Ganh Hao Commune, said he would never be able to get out his mind the death of his friend Nhut several years ago.
"Nhut was one of the best divers. He used to earn big money diving in the deep sea. However, he decided to quit and migrate inland after his close friend died diving," he said. "In his last trip to the island to move his family to their new home inland, he decided to take his last dive. It was really his last dive, and he died in the deep sea."
Nguyen Hoang Anh, who has more than 20 years experience of diving, said no diver can feel safe because he is experienced. The seabed is dangerous and something unexpected can always happen that could turn out to be fatal, he said.
"The only safe way for a diver is to quit his job."
Since quitting may not be an option, some divers hope that their children will find better, safer ways of living. No one wants his children to take up this job.
Dang Van Trai proudly says his son is studying business administration at a university in Can Tho, also in the Mekong Delta.
"When he graduates, he can find a good job at some tourism company here and would not have to dive in the sea every day to make a living like his father."