Even building site workers have to take coffee breaks. Jon Aspin catches up with lifelong construction worker, Hung, as he heads out for a coffee and a smoke. Photo by Francis Xavier. Translation by Vu Ha Kim Vy
If you live in one of the thousands of high-rise and semi high-rise apartment complexes in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a good chance you’re the beneficiary of this man’s handiwork. In fact, the very foundation on which you now sit, may well have been laid by him.
Over the last 30 years, 50-year-old Hung has lost count of how many of these types of construction jobs he’s worked on, he only knows it been a lot. Struggling to get access to these high security sites, we find Hung during his break at the coffee shop. It’s around the corner from one of the many large-scale apartment projects currently on the go in District 2, and he’s working on it.
His job exactly? He’s on the team responsible for setting the concrete slabs that make up the bulk of these buildings, not just the foundation. These are what lies behind such things as elevator shafts and rendered hallways. His specific task: creating the reinforced steel ‘cages’ that form the spine of these massive, and dangerous building blocks. “It’s easy work”, he says in Vietnamese to our translator. “It was only hard at the beginning when I didn’t know what to do. Now I know.”
Working for the Man
For VND180,000 a day and few benefits, Hung works eight hours per day, seven days a week, until someone tells him the job is done. Then he goes home to where some of his family still live in Dong Thap, in the Mekong Delta. There he waits until someone tells him he’s needed again.
While on a job he rents a house in District 8, and rides his motorbike into work every day for a 7am start. Normally a construction project will last a year.
Since Hung was 18, he has more or less been doing the same work, first in the Delta, and since the age of 26 in Ho Chi Minh City. Starting as an assistant, his only training was on the job. He’s seen this city transform.
“It used to have very small roads with a lot of high grass,” he says. “Now there are big roads, with a lot of people, higher buildings. Nicer. And a lot of foreigners.”
He says something indecipherable, touches my arm, and laughs. “I can’t say whether I like it or not,” he says, “I come here to work, that is all.”
Brothers in Arms
Work has helped Hung through some tough patches. In 1981, at the age of 16, he lost both his parents. Then in 2002 his wife died — his eyes narrow as he recalls this event.
“My work colleagues are like my brothers,” he says, puffing on his cigarette, “we get along very well.” In his free time, when he gets some, he sees his family. He has six children, all married with children of their own. All work in Ho Chi Minh City. On these numbers alone it hasn’t been an unproductive life.
How does a construction worker from the Mekong learn to love Saigon? After all, he seems happy with his lot. His demeanour is steady and his speech is deliberate, but he smiles easily.
“I’m not allowed to love Saigon,” he says, “I don’t have enough money to buy a house here.” But for someone who came from the relative poverty of farm life, this is a step up.
What about retirement? Does he have any plans for this? At this question he is incredulous.
“When I still have my health, I will keep working. I still feel young and strong.”
With that he goes back to work.