Vietnamese brothers reunite 'cold, lonely' bodies with families as public service

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Nguyen Van Set during his day job, driving passengers on a boat that he also uses to salvage bodies anytime requested, for free. Photo courtesy of Lao Dong

The three brothers emerged every five minutes to take a deep breath and a swill of some rice wine to get some warmth into their bodies, as it was the end of winter and water was very cold.

The dive went on thus for two yours, only ending after the brothers found the body of the young man who'd drowned himself.

They left silently as the young man's family burst into tears, They did not return to collect their payment.

While many Vietnamese fishermen worship Hà Bá, the river deity, and believe that they will be punished for taking away bodies, the three brothers - Nguyen Van Chi, Nguyen Van Set and Nguyen Van Net - are willing to help anytime a body needs to be retrieved .

"My father told me there's nothing to be scared of as I was doing a good deed," Set said, cited in a Lao Dong report.

The brothers do not do it for the money. When they are paid, around $20 at the most, they use it to buy food to make offerings to the river god and to the dead person's soul just in case they committed any respectful act during the salvage.

When families are too poor to pay them, the brothers prepare the offerings with their own money.

Set said three generations of his family have been living on the Perfume River in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue for nearly a century now.

They lived on fishing and ferrying passengers, and the retreiving of dead bodies just happened

"It is not a job, rather a fate, as we don't charge money," Set said.

The government gave them a piece of land last year to move out of the river, but they are still available to retrieve bodies whenever requested.

Set said people used to come to his grandfather and father for help, and now to him and his siblings, who can dive more than three meters underwater.

He said had got used to the job since they were little, because their father would bring them along to help out, first by sailing the boat and pulling the body up, and then teaching them how to dive.

Set said he had a tough time getting used to the work.

"When I touched a body's arm for the first time, I was so scared and had goosebumps all over my body, and I thought about giving up right then.

"But my father said people are harmless when they're dead, and that they should be brought to their family instead of being alone and cold."

Set said he and his brothers have never rejected any plea for help for decades, no matter how hard or dangerous the job was.

He recalled one rescue in 1988 when many people fell into the An Cuu River after the Kho Ren bridge collapsed.

There had been an accident at one foot of the bridge and people, including students going home from school, jostled on the bridge to watch the police examine the site.

The bridge railing fell off, bringing dozens of people down.

"School bags and leaf hats were all over the river.

"We managed to bring up 40 bodies. They were lying on each other, clinging to each other. Such a tragic scene," Set said.

There was one body of a child that they could not find, and had to wait several days for it to float up.

In another mission in the middle of the night in August 2003, an overloaded passenger boat sank in the Perfume River, scattering glass debris on the river bottom, making the task more dangerous.

Set said he and his brothers decided to hold hands, so one could quickly signal others for help in case they were injured. They ended up receiving many cuts to their legs.

Another time, he saw a man jumping into the Perfume River to commit suicide, so he rushed his boat there, abandoned it and dived down for the man.

"Then some people ashore gave him some first aid and took him to hospital. I heard later that he's alive," Set said.

He said he and his brothers have been sought by people in nearby provinces as well, and they would agree to go as long as the families took care of their travel expenses and give them a place to sleep and something to eat.

The 54-year-old said he does not remember how many bodies they have picked up from rivers over the years.

"Actually I don't want to boast about what we've done, as I believe in the rule of karma, and we will be awarded somehow."

The brothers have spent VND5 million (US$235) to by  an oxygen supply machine that can feed two people at a time.

They have also trained their children to continue the family's legacy.

Set said "the good news" is that fewer people have drowned in the past two years and "we've had less work to do.

"It would be a great thing if this leisure can last for long."

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