Tragic fishing village welcomes wandering outsiders

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Children wait for a boat to take them home after school. Their home is a houseboat village anchored a few hundred meters from downtown Long Xuyen, the capital town of An Giang Province.

Hue was fishing in Cambodia when he was shot in 1993 by followers of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, which had been ousted with Vietnam's help.

Hue and his wife decided to leave that war torn nation, taking their six children back to Vietnam where they finally found a home in a small crowded canal just outside downtown Long Xuyen, capital town of the Mekong Delta's An Giang province on the Cambodian border.

Hue said his heart was warmed by the open arms with which the poor fishing village welcomed him.

The village began in the 1990s after fishermen tired of sailing the seas for years at a time decided to settle down there. But settling down means simply anchoring their boats and trying to make the vessels look more like houses and homes.

Nearly 500 boat families are now stretched along several kilometers of a canal a few hundred meters from the capital's busy downtown district.

But the village is almost invisible to most city residents, and even local authorities.

Phan Thanh Hien, a resident of the canal town, showed off the permanent residency book he acquired after moving there.

He's happy with the stability the book provides it makes it easier to obtain work and buy and sell property although his book is still marked with the two letters "HG" for ho ghe, or "boat household," making him privy to fewer privileges than other home owners.

"That doesn't matter," he said. "What matters is that I'm no longer considered a wanderer."

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Hien said that most people in the canal used to live nomadic lives.

"Thus, they are simple, open and tolerant," he said.

When their children grow up and get married, people in the canal town find boats that are no longer used to make homes for the new families.

Hue's five children now have their own homes on boats along the canal as well. He said he paid VND900,000 (US$43) to buy a boat for his first child.

Some families attach their houseboats with ropes.

The canal also has passenger boats that are called "bus boats" and restaurant and shop boats.

Owners of big boats on the canal save the bow area for potted plants and a kids' play area, while smaller ones can only seat a gas cooker beside the sleeping area.

Hien's boat is among the small ones and he had to borrow his neighbors' boats to host two tables for his child's wedding party.

"That's because my family his poor," he said. "Other families could rent ferries for a larger and more proper party."

Each ferry costs between VND700,000-1 million (US$33.60-48) per day and each can seat five to seven tables of ten people each.

Most guests arrive at such parties on their own boats.

Some residents of the canal town said they are not unhappy with their life on the canal, but many others said they still hope that local authorities would one day find them home and jobs on land.

Hopes for a homestead

Many children in the canal town are illiterate.

Mien Van Muc, 42, and his wife Mien Thi Luong, 46, moved to the canal two years ago after years of fishing in Cambodia because he wanted to send his two children to school in Vietnam.

But without a permanent residency book, the two children are not allowed in school.

Muc collects scrap metal for resale during the day and sells balloons at the Long Xuyen night market in the evening.

The only fun the parents can give their children is swimming every day, but even that can be a problem.

"There're problems every year," said Le Van Lanh, a local on the canal. "After every monsoon and flood, some children just disappear."

Lanh mentioned a 7-year-old who drowned after he got cramps while swimming. He also mentioned an 18-month-old who fell into the canal and couldn't swim.

His 4-year-old grandchild was luckier as the family managed to fish him out of the water after he fell in on several occasions.

Adults have also died early deaths in the canal.

Most people in the town know the tragedy of the family of a man only identified as S.V.H. He came home to his boat drunk after a wedding party and he slipped and died. His son slipped sometime later and also died, before his brother had a stroke while picking vegetables in the canal.

Several boats have also sunk during rainstorms.

And more boats from the upper Mekong in Cambodia are still arriving. Most of them are tired of the wandering life and are expecting something better in Long Xuyen.

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