In Ho Chi Minh City, construction workers find joy in ‘nomadic’ life

Despite being constantly on the move and staying in makeshift accommodations, construction workers in Ho Chi Minh City still move forward and are ready for whatever comes next.

Makeshift shanties erected at a construction site, secluded at a swamp next to the Saigon River, along Ven Ho Trung Tam Street in Thu Duc City, are where Nguyen Van Kiet, a 29-year-old construction worker, and more than a dozen co-workers have called home for the past several weeks.

The site is filled with noise and dust, and piles of construction materials are strewn across the area.

With walls temporarily built from corrugated iron and floors from planks of wood, the shanties, which double as the workers’ living and sleeping space, will be removed as construction nears completion.

These makeshift accommodations lack the basics like a kitchen and toilet.

Construction is ongoing at a building site in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Cong Trieu / Tuoi Tre

On the day a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper correspondent visited the under-construction site, more than 50 workers rode off on their motorbikes, while the remaining 50 workers trudged back to the ramshackle sheds after a long working day.

Kiet, who hails from An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta, hummed a Vietnamese tune about the life of masons with his phone before taking a night’s rest.

“We masons build people’s houses, but just keep relocating and don’t have a place of our own,” his co-workers cracked a joke based on the lyrics.

Kiet used to work at a footwear factory, but the monthly salary of VND6 million (US$259) was barely enough for him to support his wife and young child.

Six months ago, he ended up in Ho Chi Minh City, where he began work in construction but until now has still struggled to adjust to the new ‘nomadic’ life.

“I couldn’t sleep sound for half a year now,” Kiet said.

As the contractors do not provide the workers with room or board and many of them are with their wives and young children, they cook their own meals and live in unsanitary conditions.

The women also help around with less physically demanding chores on the site.

The makeshift shanty, built from leaves and corrugated iron at a building site in Thu Duc City, Ho Chi Minh City, is where Nguyen Quang Hieu, Nguyen Van Kiet and their team live and work. Photo: Cong Trieu / Tuoi Tre

Construction workers typically try to get as much work done as they can in the morning so they can avoid more strenuous work if the heat gets more intense later in the day.

Though staying on the site spares the workers room rent and allows them extra payment from the contractors, many find the conditions quite tough.

Tram Ngoc, from Tra Vinh Province, also located in the Mekong Delta, said extreme weather conditions can also have an effect on construction workers; scorching heat can add to their exhaustion, while windy conditions can also prove difficult.

His bedding and clothing items as well as makeshift ‘bed’ placed atop bricks all got soaked during an unseasonal downpour last week, leaving him struggling to stay dry under the porch of a household nearby the whole night.

“The heat is unpleasant but still bearable. What I dread most is unseasonal downpours that catch us off guard at midnight,” Ngoc said, adding construction materials drenched in rainwater may become unusable for the following day.

“I can’t take on the physically taxing work the next day if I go without sleep during the night."

Theft is another of his concerns.

Ngoc, who has been on the job for more than 10 years, racked his brain trying to remember how many times he had his phones pinched.

“Thieves sneak in when we are sound asleep on breezy nights," he said.

"Most masons have lost at least one or two phones."

Ngoc added five such gadgets at a building site he was working at were stolen at one time, while he once had a phone he had just bought for more than VND3 million ($130) nicked.

“I’ve saved every hard-earned penny," he said.

"It really hurt.”  

Finding joy

Kiet’s ‘housemates’ are Nguyen Quang Hieu, 24, also from An Giang Province, and his 18-year-old wife, Le Thi Thao Nhi.

Hieu and his younger brother took up the construction job from their parents, who have been on the move between work sites in Ho Chi Minh City and its neighbors, Dong Nai and Binh Duong Provinces, over the past 20 years.

The young couple are hard at work to save up for themselves and take care of their baby of less than three months old.

“Our baby is doing fine," Nhi said.

"I usually put on extra covers to keep my child from the sun or winds."

After a long working day, what Hieu and others are most eager for is fishing at the swamps nearby, which gives the young men something to do in their spare time and some fish to eat.

Hieu’s wife also goes to the riverbanks overgrown with wild morning glory to pick some for meals.

Despite physically exhausting work and tough living conditions, Hieu and his team always try to find a reason to smile.

Nguyen Quang Hieu, a young construction worker, poses with his wife and their baby inside the shanty at a building site in Thu Duc City, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Cong Trieu / Tuoi Tre

Hieu would follow his parents to building sites during his childhood, always moving to other places after construction finished.

The boy, due to such mobility and insufficient livelihood, could not make it to school.

Though unable to write, Hieu can read and loves doing karaoke, which he said helps himself and his co-workers unwind and have some fun during their casual gatherings on the weekend.

The man joked that what he likes most is no one complains about them making noise.

The man recently bought a loudspeaker for VND15 million ($648) by installments.

“I try to refrain from hanging around in order not to spend money," Hieu shared, pointing to the brand-new device placed in the distance.   

"This speaker is quite expensive, but helps alleviate our exhaustion and keep our spirit high.”

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