If your house has a trashcan, you’ve seen the recycling ladies. Some ride pushbikes and others push carts, some buy your scrap and others dig through trash bags for it. They’re a part of life here, emblematic of a deep sustainable instinct in the Vietnamese people, dangerously close to a quaint wisdom-of-the-people sentimental tale — for those who don’t live it.
In Thao Dien, a recycling circuit is run by a group of pushbike ladies from Thanh Hoa Province, deep in North-Central Vietnam, where better opportunities are scarce. Can Lua, 35, who has worked in construction since he came here “three or five” years ago, made VND600,000 per season in Thanh Hoa, farming rice, chicken and livestock. In a year, there are two harvest seasons.
We meet them in the shade of some palm trees, nearing lunchtime. They’d stopped down an alley, inspecting the trash bag wall opposite some towering villa gates when we set upon them. Smiling, they invite us to sit down.
Cai, 45, was the first in the group to come down from Thanh Hoa, 13 years ago. She worked in construction for the first 10 years before her back started giving her pain. For the past three years she’s worked in recycling, and her back feels much better. She’s pulling in about the same amount, VND5 million or VND6 million per month, in uneven, lucky chunks.
She wears a non la she found covered in writing, which she picked up because she “likes English”. When photographer Alex offers to sign it she declines, saying she already has enough French and English. “You should write some Japanese,” she says in translation, smiling.
On their way home they stop at the scrapyard, untying their hauls from their bicycles’ rain guards. They weigh them — first on a scale they carry with them and then on the scrapper’s own — taking home VND310,000 (at VND2,800/kg) between the three who are collecting together, and it’s not even noon yet. This is what qualifies as a lucky day.
They invite us down some back alleys towards the north of the Thao Dien peninsula, where they live in a block of connected one-rooms with their Thanh Hoa compatriots, paying VND1.5 million a month for uneven electricity and two hours of water a day. The whole cul-de-sac is out to receive us. Sitting in a circle with the women, two rambunctious children zooming around us, they tell us a bit more.
The Shadow Economy
In this little, fenced-off lane, the detritus of life surrounds us. There are motorbikes and clothes on drying racks, reclaimed posters and anonymous metal objects, open doors everywhere.
Though they send most of the nice pickups back to Thanh Hoa, they keep a few for themselves. Most of the shacks have televisions picked up from people who’ve upgraded to flat-screens, like the one nine-year-old Thu watches pop singers on as she sits at home with her two-year-old brother. Right now, he’s prowling around with a spoon.
They all agree that people are never mean, and even going solo isn’t a big thing, unless they run into a heavy item. Most are kind, like the rich Vietnamese people who give them clothing, or the rich westerners who give electronics or things they’re leaving behind in a move.
Chuong, 37, came here 16 years ago. She and her husband Huong have two children back in Thanh Hoa, where schooling is cheaper. She thinks that the “pinkish, tall, handsome-looking white guys” (aka British) are most generous. One gave her a laptop once. She didn’t know how to use it, and ended up selling it for weight.
The big items go to a “Jack of all trades” — a higher-level scrapper with land to store things on. He’s also from Thanh Hoa, but he has money. When pressed, they admit they know little about him, except that he’s from Thanh Hoa, so they can trust him. They don’t know any Saigonese, and only want to work with people from Thanh Hoa. They feel like “strangers in a strange land”.
Chuong says in translation, “I don’t expect to get any better [job], with no certificates and insurance.” She would also have to pay more in taxes.
Cai is also content with her work life, which includes cleaning houses a couple days a week for VND35,000 to 40,000 an hour. She has four grown children, all in construction, all living in the same sprawling development. She manages to bank about VND1 million a month for a rainy day, but she doesn’t want to use it towards a new career. “Training costs money,” she says, and we leave it at that.
Just then, a motorbike putt-putts its way through the arch that separates this alley from the next, carrying about 50 fabric sacks that once held concrete. People smile and shout hellos at him as he smiles ear-to-ear, every bit the conquering hero. When we ask how much he can expect to get from the haul, Cai smiles sadly and says, “Only VND5,000.”
A Success Story
Kim Vo, 24, came to Ho Chi Minh City in 2006 from rural Long An Province, where she’d spent the 10 years before that working as a recycler in her after-school time. Kim is now the director of an import-export company that exports cashews, and owns a restaurant in Cambodia. In her past, she was the host of a travel show on Vietnamese TV. She hasn’t forgotten her long education — she also exports the “worthless” cashew husks for use as biofuel.
“I always think about [recycling],” Kim says. “It’s in my blood already.”
She started scrapping when she was seven. “In my hometown we have an ice cream man,” Kim says with a laugh. “We live in the jungle, he makes homemade ice cream. [So we hear him coming,] ring-ring, and he says, ‘If you have recycling you give me, you have ice cream.’
“I was very naughty. So my mom bought me shoes to wear, and I cut the shoes so that I could have ice cream… At that time I saw people want shoes or bags or something so I started to collect, but not in exchange for ice cream, since I started to get bored with ice cream. I wanted money.”
Soon she realised she could scrap metal from the riverbank, as a lot of others were doing. There were no roads to the Cambodian tip of Long An where she grew up, but boats would come through with speakers — “‘I want to buy this…’” When the water level fell, Kim would kick up mud in hopes of finding bomb fragments, bullet casings, nails, anything with metal. “I used my feet,” she says.
A Dangerous Living
It was an area with a “lot of fighting” in its past, and UXOs (unexploded ordnances) were everywhere. The boats wouldn’t take them intact, so the metal would have to be harvested before they were worth anything. Kim knew two brothers who brought home a UXO and tried to cut it down for scrap. The munition went off, killing one and scarring the other.
Kim had her own close call. She found a bomb and took it home to show her father, who took it to the central committee. They weighed it and found it was too heavy — heavy with an inner charge.
But she did take bullets, cutting into them, fishing out the gunpowder. And one day in chemistry, while watching an interesting experiment, she had a mischievous idea. “Together and together,” she says, miming the ingredients, “and like that — it would explode!”
She stole one of the combustible ingredients from class and made her way to a basement locker room, where she wrapped it in cigarette foil with some gunpowder, and left it in a suitcase as she ran back to class. But the day was too hot — and soon an explosion shook the school.
“Yes,” Kim says, “I was a naughty girl, very naughty.”
When the Thanh Hoa ladies tell me that nine-year-old Thu will start helping with the recycling as soon as her baby brother is old enough to be left alone, I’m surprised. To me, this labour is something you’d only do if you need to, if you have no other choice. As Kim says, “The life of recycling is not nice. Because you pick up something that someone else threw away.”
But Thu is a bright, energetic girl, living in a city with the most opportunity this side of Southeast Asia. Maybe her parents don’t see that she has a choice, one that might make her happier.
In Kim’s town, they didn’t see that either. She says, “Everyone in my hometown, they see me come here and speak English and go in the western style, and they’re surprised.” When she comes home for visits, they still call her ‘recycle girl’. I ask if it bothers her.
“No,” she says. “They just call me that because it’s easy to remember.”
She herself remembers that point in her life fondly, with humour and pride. And, while she doesn’t want to go through it again, she still collects beer cans after parties on her Binh Thanh rooftop, getting a thrill from the VND20,000 she turns them into.
Working herself into a fervour through this 20-minute retelling of her life story, she remembers the enthusiasm that brought her from there to here. “I always want to recycle,” she tells me, “always, always, always!”