Worms save the day after rice fields fail him

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Tran Van Lam pulls out a cigarette as he waits with two basins of tubifex for his fellows to pick him up. Photo courtesy of Saigon Tiep Thi

Bunches of red worms squiggle in two muddy plastic basins tied to his neck as Tran Van Lam wades to the foot of a bridge.

On the other side of the river, nightlife is beginning in Ho Chi Minh City with restaurant boats and skyscrapers turning on their colorful lights.

Lam waits for his companions to row over, standing in the water, pulling out a cigarette from his faded T-shirt, and lighting up.

"My wife always tries to keep me at home," the sun-darkened man from the Mekong Delta Province of Hau Giang said, shivering in the slight chill.

"But staying means no money since there are no jobs there."

Lam has been catching tubifex, the reddish worms that inhabit lakes, rivers, and sewers in HCMC, for two years now to sell to aquarium owners as fish feed, a trend that began three years ago.

Lam and his wife left their rice fields many years ago to try their luck in the industrial province of Binh Duong near HCMC, but the low-paying jobs they found meant it was not worth disturbing their children's schooling.

So they returned home and thought they would focus on farming.

But growing rice on their 5,000-square-meter land "was of no help," especially with the climate becoming increasingly erratic.

Lam said in ideal weather they could earn VND14 million (US$665) from two crops in a year, not enough to take care of two fifth graders and a third about to go to kindergarten.

With crops being bad every now and then, it means "starvation," he said.

So, leaving his wife behind to take care of the children, he came to HCMC, where his brother Sang was already catching the worms, to make some extra money.

He would start only after lunch when the water becomes a bit warmer, yet kept catching a cold in the early days. Besides, being new to the job, he did not know where to look and often ended up without catching any worm.

He is now an expert, however, and can tell where, when, and in what kind of water he can make a big catch.

He catches the worms with a net tied around his waist. He needs to keep moving to net worms. He has a torchlight on his forehead for use during dark nights.

The 44-year-old shares a rented room and a boat with Sang and some other migrants from the delta.

Besides the cold, hunger is a constant companion for the worm catchers since they cannot take any food along.

"Being in the water, my body usually goes numb. Sometimes I do not feel a thing but go back and discover a foot was torn by a nail or debris."

The work is harsh, but the men manage.

Tobacco is key to keeping them going. A pack of cigarettes, usually the strongest and cheapest kind, waterproofed in layers of plastic, is their protection from the cold, sleepiness, and a general depression that creeps in as they stand in the water and look at the fancy buildings.

As ornamental fish breeding grows in the city, their worms fetch more money now. A small can of worms, which used to be VND6,000, has now gone up to VND10,000.

Of course, every day is not a good day. Sometimes a large boat would go past and the waves would wash the worms out of the basins and back into water. But on a lucky day he makes VND250,000. If he works hard, he can send VND3 million a month home.

"It is a hard job for sure, but it helps, while growing paddy is a hard nut to crack.

"The good thing is the worms are right there, you just need to put in the labor and do not depend on anyone."

His wife and children are eagerly waiting for him to come home, he said.

"I have had a cold for several days now, but I need to work as I promised the children I would be home this weekend."

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