Keeping a metropolis the size and nature of HCM City operating is no easy task. Some of the jobs required to do this are decidedly less glamorous than others, but no less important in the big scheme of things. AsiaLIFE talked to some of the people who take on the tough jobs to get their story, and find out what keeps them going day after day. Photos by Fred Wissink.

Grave-Digger-in-SaigonBODY MOVER

Finding new digs for the dead

Most of us would never dream of touching a decomposed body, but Nguyen Van Bach, cemetery caretaker and body mover, has been doing it for 48 of his 78 years. He estimates he’s moved thousands of bodies during this time.

There are two common reasons for moving a body: so it can be cremated and placed in a church or pagoda, or to comply with the principles of feng shui. In the ancient Chinese tradition, the location of an ancestor’s grave can have a huge impact on the future success of the family. If the family’s business isn’t doing well, a feng shui master will be consulted for the most auspicious date and time, and they will move the ancestor’s body.

Typically the process takes about three hours. Using a sledgehammer, Bach breaks through the concrete or stone tomb. He removes the coffin from the ground, and, using gloved hands, transfers the contents. Based on what he finds and on the family’s wishes, the remains may be cremated.

One of his worst days at work had him moving the seven-day-buried body of a woman who had died while travelling to HCM City. Since she was alone, the hospital buried her. After a week her family found her, and it was Bach’s job to dig up her remains so they could be taken home.

Like many of us, Bach began doing the job for money. He admits it was difficult in the beginning.

“Before I would work, I had to drink beer or [rice] wine so I wasn’t afraid and to get rid of the smell.”

After about a year, though, he realised how much it helped the families and began to enjoy it. According to him, “If you don’t love the job it can make you vomit from the smell.” He stopped being afraid, but still drinks wine to deal with the smell.

by Grace Lewis  

Sewer-worker-in-SaigonSEWER WORKER

Proud of his job down the pipes

Nguyen Thanh An, 24, spends most of his work day beneath HCM City. His office: the pipes that run under Phung Khac Khoan Street in District 3.

His eight-hour shift down the cramped sewer system is punctuated with much-needed 10 to 15 minute breaks. While his workmates puff on cigarettes, non-smoker An says he savours the fresh air.

“It can be hard to breathe down there.”

An says an army of rats share the pipes, too. They don’t scare him, though. Rather it’s the complete and utter darkness that has him worried.

“It’s pitch black down there,” he says, “you can’t see anyone or hear anything that’s going on above.”

It’s An’s job to repair the pipes that date back to French colonial rule. First, they must be cleaned of any muck that’s accumulated—and there’s plenty, he laughs. Then, he lays thin steel rods into a grid formation before pouring fresh concrete to mend any holes.

An enjoys his work. He even underwent three years of training at a construction college to qualify for the supervisor position he holds.

He could do without the awful stink that permeates the sewers and clings to his body and clothes, but for the most part he likes what he does.

Often passersby look at him and his workmates with pity, he says. He hates this.

“They feel sorry for me because I look dirty, because I have to work so hard.”

An wants them to know that without him and his team in place to reinforce the pipes before the rainy season begins, the streets of Saigon would flood far more easily.

There’s nothing glamorous about his choice of career, but as far as An is concerned it’s an important one.

by Beth Young

Street-sweeper-SaigonSTREET CLEANER

Collecting what we leave behind
It’s about 8 pm on a Wednesday night and Tran Thi Thuy is pushing her ubiquitous orange skip bin along Ton Duc Thang in District 1. The 48-year-old has been keeping the streets of HCM City clean for three decades now.

Her job is to sweep the streets and collect garbage in the skip, which will in turn be emptied into garbage trucks. She works the second of the two daily shifts, between 3 pm and 11 pm. Her husband, a xe om driver, drops her at work from their home in District 5. They have two daughters.

She admits her job is hard, but an important one. “It is a significant job because it helps keep the streets cleaner,” she says.

In the early days the job took its toll, not least because of the hard physical labour involved. She says the stink and the looks of passersby also affected her. “They hold their noses and stare at us. It made me feel so uncomfortable and ashamed. But that was at the beginning, now I’m used to it.”

Thuy says the unconventional nature of the job can be exhausting. The street cleaners work in all weather conditions. One of the things that keeps her going is the large year-end bonus of about 20 million VND.

It is the kind of job that can test even the sternest of wills. The streets you clean tonight will be strewn with litter again tomorrow. Thuy says, “One thing that disturbs me a lot is that the leaves keep falling down even when I just finish sweeping, I feel so tired and dispirited.”

She does not take these things lying down, though. If she sees people littering in the streets she will take them to task even though they may be offended. “I feel hurt and it seems like a wound to my honour.”

by Brett Davis

bricklayer-in-saigonBRICKLAYER

Laying bricks is his business

It is sweltering inside the half-built brick home that 22-year-old Ta Quang Vinh is supervising the construction of.

Nong qua,” he exclaims fanning himself furiously.

He says that the unrelenting heat makes his job as a bricklayer difficult. Otherwise, it’s a line of work that he enjoys thoroughly.

Of his nine-strong crew, seven are family members. While this makes for much fun at times, Vinh says he often has to pull them into line.

For two weeks they’ve been based down an alley off Le Loi in District 1. In another week he says the very basic two-storey rectangular structure will be finished. The crew can complete up to 40 of these simple houses per year.

Vinh rattles off other stats, too. He can carry up to 20 bricks at a time and can shoulder a 50-kilogram bag of cement by himself. And the tallest building he’s worked on was seven storeys.

He remembers being petrified.

“I held on to the scaffold really tight. I was too scared to let go.”

After three years in the business, working his way up from a labourer to the on-site boss, not much scares him now. His work attire is a testament to that.

His battered feet are encased in a pair of worn flip-flops. And he’s much too tough to wear protective gloves or a helmet.

At first, Vinh is adamant that these precautions are unnecessary. But then he points out one of his workmates. Not long ago a piece of heavy scaffold fell on his head. Vinh shakes it off. “He only had to get four stitches,” he shrugs.

Vinh is the first to admit that his job is hard. In the future he hopes to concentrate more on the business side of things. But for now he takes pride in building what he calls “beautiful” homes.

by Beth Young

river-boat-mechanic-in-saigonRIVERBOAT MECHANIC

Swimming in engine grease and murky water

Even a joke about swimming in the Saigon River is enough to prompt an involuntary shudder. The murky brown water, thick with vegetation and other flotsam, contains toxic waste water from nearby factories and shocking levels of faecal bacteria. This is the water that Le Van Cuong dives into on a regular basis.

As a riverboat mechanic, it’s Cuong’s job to make sure his vessel runs as it ought to. During his 10-hour days out on the water, he does a lot of engine maintenance and mechanical adjustments. But he is also in charge of dealing with any debris that gets tangled in the boat’s propeller—and, with the amount of floating trash in some of Vietnam’s waterways, that can happen rather frequently.

The more modern boats have propellers that can change direction, allowing Cuong, 45, to unwind the tangle by flipping a switch on the console. Most vessels, however, don’t have this handy feature. When weeds, plastic and other debris get stuck, it means he’s got to take a dip.

Treading water, Cuong will cut away the snarl with a knife, or pull it away with his bare hands, his face inches from the blades of the propeller. “It’s safe, though,” he says, “because the engine is off.”

Leaning against the railing of the pier on Ton Duc Thang in District 1, Cuong watches a boat coming in to dock, his brown face shaded by a baseball cap. He has worked hard to get where he is. As a young man, he pulled long shifts on the docks, tethering boats to the pier. Later, he learned to pilot various types of boats until he was able to study boat mechanics.

After all his years on the river, Cuong seems at home here. Asked about the worst part of his job, he can’t think of anything. Even submerging himself in the fetid water? “Well,” he says, “you just learn to accept that.”

by Frances McInnis