HANOI: On the edge of the city centre where the sound of frantic honking starts to fade, is the island in the middle of the Red River known to locals as the seedy underbelly of Hanoi.
Used needles and dirty blankets litter the ground at the section where the old rusty Long Bien Bridge runs over the island.
But further in, by the river bank, the place is home to a community of settlers who live on floating houses that are precariously fastened together with oil drums and rope.
“We used to call these people Xom Lieu, which means risky people,” said Mr Thanh Nguyen, a former urban planner at a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works on issues to do with urban development.
One by one, the illegal settlers came from the countryside in search of a better life. With no money and no permits, they erected shelters using scrap material, forming a neighbourhood that the government has chosen to turn a blind eye to.
“It's a very challenging problem - people come and they build their temporary homes and end up staying for years, and they just keep spreading the urban sprawl,” said Thanh. The island - which is home to more than 100 settlers - is only one of many illegal settlements along the Red River as it skirts the city’s perimeter.
SETTLING HERE A ‘LAST RESORT’
An illegal settlement on the outskirts of the city. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
The settlers are part of the inexorable trend of rapid urbanisation that is the result of Vietnam’s economic development. As more ruralites flock to the cities in search of opportunities, Vietnam’s urban population - according to official statistics - grew an average of 3.4 per cent a year from 2001 to 2009.
But the illegal settlers are not on any official census. From an urban management point of view, they are a nuisance to handle, especially at the rate at which they have been arriving.
Crammed into enclaves that sit outside of mainstream society, the result is sometimes vulnerable and desperate inhabitants who resort to crime or drugs to survive in the big city.
Mr Nguyen Dang Duoc, the "chief of the village", was the first person to settle on the Red River island 30 years ago. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
The sprawl of illegal settlements reflects the failure of city officials to provide affordable housing for the newcomers - it is easier for the authorities to simply let these migrants find their way own way, say observers.
One such person is Mr Nguyen Dang Duoc. A war veteran who was left homeless after he went missing in the war and was declared dead, he bade his village farewell 30 years ago and set up camp illegally on Hanoi’s Red River.
“I thought about moving here to settle down as a last resort,” he said. “I was so unfamiliar with the new life. Every day I collected junk and scrap metal to sell for a living.”
The island has been inhabited for decades, and there is a thriving community that resembles a countryside village, even though this is in the heart of the city. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
He had hoped that coming to the big city would open up job opportunities that his hometown could not provide. But he soon realised that the skills in demand were completely different from the only thing he knew - manual labour like farming. So, he resorted to taking up odd jobs like collecting trash for cash.
This is a familiar story for most of the island’s other illegal inhabitants.
“Everywhere in the world in the countryside, people think maybe there is a chance to make more money in the city ... but it’s not as easy as they think,” said Ms Perine Corgie, president of School on the Boat, an NGO that helps people on the island integrate into society.
Made of flimsy material, the floating houses face wear and tear very easily. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Most of the settlers do not have official documents such as permanent residency cards or even birth certificates. It means they are not recognised as residents of Hanoi - making it difficult for companies to employ them, and for parents to register their children at schools.
On top of this, no administrative body has taken the steps to help them, according to the settlers. They are not even provided with basic utilities such as running water, electricity or gas.
Their only access to clean water is from wells that were dug by NGOs, and they get electricity from solar panels also donated by NGOs.
HOUSES BLOWN AWAY IN STORMS
Laundry drying by the river bank. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
On the afternoon that Channel NewsAsia visits the island, 28-year-old Tran Thi Phuc is squatting on the ground sizzling some meat on a grill made of wire mesh and a tin can. The mother of two moved to the island to live with her husband’s family when they got married.
Midway through flipping the skewers on the barbeque, she springs up and, like a seasoned rope walker, dashes across a narrow plank that links her home to dry land to tend to her crying baby.
With a house that floats just a few inches above the water - a design that is hardly child-secure - her children’s safety is something that Ms Phuc always worries about.
“A few days ago some houses were turned upside down in a storm. The storms here can get very scary,” said Ms Phuc.
During the rainy season, the water level can rise drastically and rapidly, making it unsafe for people living on floating houses.
The living area of Phuc’s home. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
Despite this, they do the best they can. The exterior of Ms Phuc’s home is a rusty zinc roof and thin plywood walls plastered with old movie posters and worn-out tarpaulin. But the inside is another matter.
Entering, we are greeted by their pet dog who is sitting beside his bowl of rice speckled with unidentified meat. Ms Phuc sits on an alphabet mat on the living room floor, cradling her infant.
It is a cosy space, with huge windows that overlook banana plantations and the river. On the walls are pictures of her family, predominantly of her eight-year-old son. In one frame he wears a bow-tie, and in another he is dressed in a graduation gown. Her home reflects the hopes and dreams of any mother.
Waste is discharged into the river, which is also their source for water used for bathing and washing dishes. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
CHILDREN DENIED EDUCATION
Unskilled and uneducated, most people on the island work odd jobs to support their families. Ms Phuc earns just VND 2 million (S$120) a month working as a cleaner in the city.
“We do whatever we can be hired for,” she said. Her husband works as a driver transporting cargo.
The only way out of the cycle of poverty is to ensure that their children get a proper education. But public schools will not accept them without supporting documents such as birth certificates, or a proper home address.
Phuc with her 4 month-old baby. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
In recent years, the settlers have been getting help from NGOs to apply for birth certificates and then enroll their children in schools. But once they get in, they face other problems.
Said Ms Corgie: “Most of these kids ... are not used to sitting down in the classroom and listening to the teacher. Many of them resort to stealing - it is hard to avoid when you are in serious need.”
They can get kicked out of school for bad behaviour, or some simply choose to drop out to work to support their families. Left vulnerable, they can easily become victims of sexual abuse or drug addiction.
“They are surrounded by discrimination everyday so we try to be here to show them that it’s not normal, that there are people who care,” said Ms Corgie.
RED RIVER DELTA TO BE REDEVELOPED
The Red River island is in the prime district of the city, and may be affected by redevelopment plans in the future. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
In 2008, the government of Hanoi awarded a contract to three foreign consultant firms to draw up a masterplan for the city. The plan included major redevelopment along the Red River, with some real estate reports stating that a 42-km dyke would be built to lay the way for new developments.
The settlers’ island lies within the proposed development sites, which means they could lose their homes – along with, according to reports, 39,000 other households along the river that would have to be relocated.
In initial plans that surfaced online, these relocation efforts were slated to be completed by 2016. But the area remains largely occupied by slums, and residents on the island have not been notified that they will be evicted any time soon. NGOs that we spoke to did not know what has happened to the plans either.
A small boat house on the island with the Long Bien Bridge in the background. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
Said Mr Thanh: “From a social management point of view, you cannot just evict people from their homes without providing social housing, but that costs a lot of money and the government has no funds to do that.”
For now and the foreseeable future, the settlers remain in a limbo of sorts. Returning to their hometowns is not an option.
Said Mr Duoc, the village chief: “We will not have any rights (in our hometown) because after several decades, all of our civil registration is outdated. Frankly speaking, it is impossible to go back!”