Take a drive around the shores of West Lake and you’ll notice two things. First, the rancid smell of dead fish has subsided. Second, there are still dozens of men casting their lines into the lake.
Often standing knee-deep in the water, or balancing on slapdash piers constructed from insecure pieces of rock and timber, they spend hours at a time using makeshift fishing gear to reel in the scaly denizens of the murky deep.
It looks like hard work, even boring; but as someone who has never even touched a fishing rod, perhaps I was missing the point. Were these guys doing it for fun, or was there a more economic motive?
From Dawn ‘til Dusk
Everyone knows about the elderly Vietnamese people who rise with the sun to perform their morning exercises. Tai chi, yoga or just a brisk power walk; all common sights around West Lake before most people have wiped the morning crust from their eyes.
But in the background, beyond the exercising masses on the shores and sticking up from the water’s edge like tiny pylons, dozens of men are searching for their first catch of the day.
Duong Manh Khang is 48, and has been fishing at West Lake since he was old enough to hold a rod.
“I always loved the lake so much,” he says. “When I first started fishing, I was too small to use a rod, so I just had a simple net.”
Khang’s eyes fall to the bamboo rod and tattered plastic reel in his hands.
“I’ve only ever used rods like this,” he says, “because they’re so cheap — it used to be hard work reeling in the line, but I’m used to it now.”
As we talk, several other nearby fishermen watch us with curiosity.
“We’re all friends around the lake, there’s no competition between us at all,” Khang says.
“We learn how to fish together and share techniques. And if you want to know the best places to stand, follow the old men — they always know best.”
Duty Before Pleasure
Even without touching them, it’s plain to see how rough Khang’s hands have become.
“I used to work in construction, but now I’m unemployed,” he says. “That’s why I come here to fish every day. I have too much free time.”
Despite being without a job, he doesn’t eat or sell the fish he catches; he releases them all back to the lake.
“I’m a Buddhist,” says Khang, as he looks over to the nearby Tay Ho Temple. “I go there often. I feel bad about hurting the fish, but coming here keeps me happy and healthy.”
Looking down at the water lapping against the embankment, the yellow-green colour and floating rubbish makes for a disheartening sight.
“The lake didn’t used to be like this. The colour was more blue,” Khang says. “But I still think the fish are OK for eating. People around here eat them every day, and they’re still alive!”
I ask Khang why he doesn’t try to make a full-time living out of fishing, only to be met with a sad look and a shake of the head.
“My parents are both over 80,” he explains. “I have to help feed them every day, and they’re nearly blind. I spend most of my time looking after them.”
So will Khang ever stop fishing?
“Only if the police stop me!”
Doan The Anh doesn’t like to stay in one place for too long.
“I get bored easily,” he says, fidgeting with his tackle. “So I change jobs a lot.”
He doesn’t fish for a living, but the passion for it runs in the family. The Anh’s kids are just four and nine years old, but they’ve both already started fishing with him on weekends.
“We usually sell what we catch to our neighbours,” he says. “But if we catch anything really big, we’ll keep it for dinner.”
The Anh used to be a financial consultant, but now works as a taxi driver.
“I’d love to be a commercial fisherman, and work on a boat,” he says. “That lifestyle is really attractive to me.”
At 34, he accepts fishing will never be more than a hobby for him now, as his young family depends on him to bring in a strong income.
“I enjoy it so much, I even invested in a real fishing rod,” says The Anh. “Most of the men around the lake don’t want to risk any expensive equipment being confiscated.”
Surprised to learn there are rules, I press The Anh for more details.
“Between the fishermen around the edges, it’s first come first served for the best spots,” he explains. “But people are usually friendly. There are enough enemies outside, we don’t need to fight each other.”
A Bleak Outlook
Enemies is a discreet way of referring to local officials and the company which owns the lake and has exclusive fishing rights.
“Fishing is not permitted, unless you’re friends with the right people,” The Anh tells me.
“We have to be careful, otherwise we will be fined, and our equipment will be taken away.”
The Anh doesn’t have much hope for the future of fishing at West Lake.
“As the city develops, the lake will get more polluted,” he says. “The recent mass fish deaths were just the beginning.”
He looks down towards the grimy water.
“There used to be clams, snails, and thousands of shrimp,” says The Anh. “But now, there’s only a few shrimp left. The clams and snails are nearly all gone, and most of the fish near the shore are too small to be worth anything.”
Khang and The Anh are just two faces in a sea of stories. It’s sad to think how many lives will be affected if West Lake doesn’t start receiving the investment and care it needs.