Miles to climb before I sleep

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Le Ba Hoat, 88 years old, climbs up a coconut palm in Da Teh District, Lam Dong Province. He has been doing this for 14 years, and says he cannot stop because he does not want to be a burden on his children. Photos by Gia Binh

Le Ba Hoat uses a loop made of rope and ties them to his bare feet so that he can get a firm grip on the coconut palm trunk.

He has a large knife tied to one side of his waist, a set of ropes around 30 meters long on the other side that he uses to lower the nuts down, and a helmet that he uses while driving his rusty Honda Cub.

All set, he swings his arms around the trunk and clambers up, agility writ large in every movement.

This is not an unusual way to climb a coconut palm and harvest its fruit. This is the traditional way that has been used in all coconut growing countries for a long time.

What makes Hoat a very special man is that he is 88 years old, and still does this work for a living, so that he does not bother his children.

Unless he is sick, the father of five drives around Da Teh District in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, looking out for coconut groves with fruits that he can harvest after getting the go ahead from their owners. After harvesting the nuts, he sells them to shops and markets.

"Taking a rest would make me a burden to my children," says Hoat, who has been doing this every day, come rain or shine.

Hoat was born in Ha Tay, which used to be a province until merged into Hanoi several years ago, but he grew up as an adopted son in nearby Hung Yen Province.

He left for Da Teh in 1986 with his wife and their children.

He used to own more than eight hectares of land that he reclaimed himself and converted into paddy fields, but sold most of it for around VND40 million (US$1,900) to pay for medical bills for his wife, who succumbed to her sickness in 1990.

Each child of his has a small part of what remained.

"That might be the happiest thing in my life, that I have given them something," the octogenarian said, his smile wrinkling up his already wrinkled face.

The former farmer said he never imagined being a coconut palm climber, much less so at this age. 

He was looking for another source of income beside his paddy field when he noticed people were trading a lot of coconuts in the markets, and he decided to give it a try.

"I tried, and I stayed. The climbing was very difficult in the beginning, but you do a lot of it, and you get used to it."

His children said they had asked him to quit, but he was not willing.

 

Le Ba Hoat carries coconuts to his Honda Cub. He will sell them to local coffee shops and markets.

"I do want to quit, I do want to rest," Hoat said. "But then what will I feed myself with?"

The official retirement age of 60 for Vietnamese men means nothing to Hoat, as only employed people receive pensions.

Hoat said his children are all poor, working in the fields and doing other trivial jobs, and an extra mouth to feed is not what they need.

"I'm going to climb coconut trees for several more years, for as long as I can, and then we'll see."

He usually goes out at 7 a.m., with two iron baskets sitting pillion. He sells around 50 coconuts each day to cafeterias and markets, for VND150,000-250,000, finishing the day at around 4 p.m.

He lives with his eldest son, who is in charge of cooking rice. He buys food on the way home for both lunch and dinner. 

The old man works more when Tet, the country's biggest holiday that will fall January 31 this year, draws closer. Demand is high then for coconut juice, water and flesh to make different kinds of festival treats. In peak season, he will climb five to seven trees a day.

Hoat's work requires more than the skill to climb the palms and harvest the fruits. He notices many details about the coconut palms, including how old they are and how far they are from the water source, so that he can estimate when they will have fruits that he can harvest again.

Hoat said scratches, scorpion and ant bites have become a regular part of the job, but he is most scared of bee stings.

"One time I climbed to the top and there was a honeycomb. The bees felt disturbed so they charged out and targeted me.

"I could do nothing other than hold my breath, press by body to the tree and keep still, and the bees left after a while.

"My face was swollen up and I had to rest for many days to get well again."

His age is proving to be another hazard, as many coconut grove owners refuse to sell him their fruits, worried about his health. 

A neighbor pointed to her tall coconut palms, saying Hoat has been asking to climb them, but she has turned down his offers repeatedly.

"He told me to just leave it to him. But I'm very worried about his health," the woman said.

Nguyen Huu Thu, chairman of the district's Ha Dong Commune, said the authorities manage to give Hoat a monthly assistance of around VND150,000 that is given to old people, nothing else.

"The job is dangerous, and I've been advising him to find another job or let his children take care of him, but he says he's still strong and can do it." 

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