In eight years Bich and her family migrated twice from the Mekong Delta to improve their livelihood but ended up returning to their hometown due to Covid-19.
At 5 a.m. on September 30, Nguyen Thi Bich, 27, took her motorbike out of the apartment she rented with her parents in Thu Thua District in the southern Long An Province.
She had packed all her belongings loaded them on her motorcycle, got on it with her sons, eight and two, began the 180-km back to her hometown. She was eighth months pregnant.
Bich is from Vinh Truong, a small islet in the middle of the Hau River in An Giang Province. Her family has always been impoverished. Her father used to raise ducks and her mother used to sell sweet potatoes for a living.
Bich and her four children in An Giang, October 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam
A few years later she married a local man and the couple moved to Binh Duong Province hoping to find steady jobs that could change their lives. She went to work at a textile firm, and he became a bricklayer in Long An.
Last year, unable to take care of the two children and pay the family’s monthly bills, she and her husband decided to return home from Binh Duong.
In An Giang, they borrowed some money from his mother and acquaintances, and used old corrugated boards to build a tiny house on a piece of land given to her by her uncle.
Bich became pregnant with her fourth child early this year.
Hoping to earn some more money to prepare for the birth of the child, she took a bus to Long An with her two sons, leaving another son at home with his father. She stayed in an acquaintance’s house and sold lottery tickets.
Bich bought a motorbike for VND3.5 million ($152) and paid daily installments. The motorbike made selling lottery tickets easier and helped her buy cucumbers and gourds to resell to neighbors for some extra cash.
It took her around two months to pay for the motorbike, and not long afterward, in May, the fourth Covid outbreak hit.
For four months Bich, her two children and parents and the infant inside her lived on rice, canned fish and soy sauce provided by kind-hearted people.
She was afraid her child would be born in misery, and decided to risk going back to her hometown by motorbike with her children.
Neighbors in Long An, though also poor, gave her VND400,000 for their journey home. Bich and the two children had no idea the trip would take much longer than they thought.
On the first day of their journey, they were stuck at a Covid checkpoint in Long An’s Tan Thanh District because An Giang Province did not allow locals back in amid the raging outbreak.
Bich’s and hundreds of other families were temporarily placed in an isolation area. Seeing the pregnant woman with two young children, others gave them some of their milk and bread every day.
After 10 days she was taken to An Phu District in An Giang for another three days of quarantine before being allowed to go home.
Exactly two days after her return the tiny house on the Hau River welcomed a new member.
One early morning in November the commune people’s committee chairman came to the house to record population data as the pandemic had forced people to leave cities and return to their hometowns.
Nguyen Thanh Viet, the chairman, said Vinh Tuong is a poor commune with only the quiet AL – Ehsam mosque belonging to the Cham people and tiny houses made of wood and metal roofs and a few construction material dealers, and there are no other businesses.
From growing paddy, a family of four cannot even earn VND4 million a month, and so around 2,700 people had left the commune for Long An, Ho Chi Minh City and other eastern provinces in the past few years, he said.
Following the Covid outbreak, nearly 500 of them returned home with shattered dreams, he added.
Hau in her collapsed hut in An Giang, October 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam
Not far from Bich’s house, in a ramshackle hut, live Bui Thi Hau, her husband and two sons. Hau had first come to the place from the central Thanh Hoa Province with hopes and dreams. Like Bich’s family, she too was impoverished.
In 2018, after years of doing whatever jobs she could in the poor commune, she moved to Binh Duong Province with her husband and sons to live with her sister-in-law. After working as a seamstress for nearly a year, she got pregnant and gave birth to a girl.
Earlier this year, Hau’s husband planned to bring their family back to An Giang, so he returned to the province and repaired their hut, hoping to find another livelihood to support his family after months of being jobless due to the pandemic.
But the fourth Covid outbreak appeared, preventing him from returning to Binh Duong to pick them up.
His wife and children had been stuck for five months and, like so many people around the country then, survived on food given by kind-hearted locals.
Finally, in late September, a car driver, who felt sympathy after seeing the woman and three children struggle to survive the outbreak, took them and dropped them off near Long An Province, as he could not pass Covid checkpoints to travel further. They walked several kilometers to a Covid checkpoint.
The mother and children were stuck at the checkpoint with hundreds of others. Hau got some old carton boxes for her children to lie on. They were taken to An Giang after a few days and put in a quarantine facility.
Meanwhile, the hut her husband had repaired collapsed during a storm and he had put up a tent to protect their belongings. So after the quarantine Hau and the children had no home to return to, and had to stay at a relative’s house nearby.
Local authorities gave the family rice, soy sauce and instant noodles, and Hau’s husband went fishing every day to try and improve their meals.
The Mekong River divides into the Tien and Hau after flowing from Cambodia into Vietnam, where it has sustained lives for generations in the Mekong Delta.
Over eons the alluvium it brought even created an islet in the Hau River, Vinh Truong islet.
The islet is now surrounded by a dike to prevent flooding so that three crops could be grown annually.
In recent years, the alluvium of the Hau River is no longer enough to feed a family of four or five, and people leaving the commune to look for a better life elsewhere is therefore only a matter of time.
Data from the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Can Tho shows that some 1.3 million people have migrated from the Mekong Delta in the last 10 years.
An Giang accounts for almost a third.
During the fourth and most virulent Covid outbreak, around 400,000 people had returned “reluctantly” to the delta from places like HCMC and Long An Province by mid-October. Along with Ca Mau, An Giang had the highest number of returnees at around 60,000.
One afternoon in late November Hau sat in her house and recalled what happened during the journey back home.
She is the youngest of her parents’ four children, and hails from a mountainous district in Thanh Hoa Province, 1,500 km from Vinh Truong Commune.
Since arriving in the south at 14, she has only returned home once in the last 14 years. All she has now are her three children and a future filled with uncertainty.
She feels like she is trapped in “the web of life,” and used to have no idea if she should return to Thanh Hoa or An Giang amid the Covid tsunami.
“I have not paid my VND2 million monthly rent. They just called me and asked me. I do not want them to think I am trying to avoid paying, but honestly I do not know from where I can get the money to pay”.