Putting out to sea without boats

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A fisherman walks the tightrope to reach his hut above the sea off Tra Vinh Province

It is a hut attached to a pole in the middle the sea, and the fishermen who call it home can only reach it by walking up a vertical tightrope.

It is off the southern province of Tra Vinh, and the men's job is to keep an eye on nets hanging down into the water and pull them up when boats come to collect the catch.

The nets hang down from ropes tied between two poles that are anchored to the bottom of the sea, thus the name "hang day" (line at the bottom) for the business, which is popular in the Mekong Delta.

In the province's Duyen Hai District is one "hang day" more than 20 kilometers from shore.

It spreads over two square kilometers, and has around 12 nets hanging between the poles.

The fishermen describe their huts as the thatched version of the One-pillar Pagoda in Hanoi.

Each is around six square meters in size and 15 meters above the water, and has a wooden floor for three men to sleep on.

It has pillows and blankets, a wood stove, pans and bowls, and an oil lamp for use at night. Food and drink are sent regularly by boats, but the men's only entertainment is from a pocket radio.

They only set foot on land for a few days in a month when the tide is low.

Hai, a "day" fisherman, said they have to stay offshore for at least 10 days straight each time.

A group of three men is in charge of one line of the poles, meaning 12 nets, and their job is to pull up the nets, hand over the catch to the boats, clean the nets, and then look for a good time to put the nets back.

"But the job is well-paying. Each person earns VND700,000 a day or VND14 million (US$672) a month," he said.

But the money is not huge considering the risks, he explained.

Occasionally a man going down to check the nets never comes back up after getting stuck in the nets or ropes under the water. The fishermen equip themselves with a knife in case of such accidents, but it is inadequate.

Others have also been killed after the hut collapsed in rough waters or after being hit by boats.


The "day" business includes another group of people who don't have to live out at sea but have a more difficult job erecting the poles after a location with plenty of fish.

They spend most of their time on boats. 

At the start of each season -- the delta's flood season in autumn -- they have sail offshore to check on fish shoals to choose the locations.

Each pole is buried 50-70 centimeters into the seabed, and mooring wires are used to make sure they remain in place.

The techniques are passed down in the family or occasionally taught by veterans to others.

Bui Van Cuong, a pole builder, said each boat of four people can only put up four poles a day at most, just two on a rough day.

"It takes around half a month to put up the whole system."

The poles and wires cost VND300 million ($14,400), so Cuong prefers to fix a broken pole instead of erecting a new one, though repairing is much harder.

"We have to follow the fish with the poles and the nets. We have to be active and always mobile."

Despite the difficulty and danger, the fishermen do not quit.

Teo Em spent several months in bed after his hut collapsed, but then asked to join one of the boats as "I miss the sea so much."

Many families in Dong Hai Commune, including Cuong's, have been doing the job for three generations.

He sailed out with his father at age 15, so did his two sons.

"Sometimes I think about the job and do feel discouraged. But it's like destiny and we just have to go on."

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