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Dwelling Places of Migrant Workers

I started taking photos the summer after my first year in college. Before that, I paid little attention to what happened outside my hub in this city.

The camera gave me an excuse to step out of my comfort zone, experience the world and get to know myself better. For my graduation project, I chose to pursue the topic of migrant workers, which has been well covered for the past years. Yet curious about the life of the people whose backgrounds differ greatly from mine, I persisted on seeing for myself. I focused on groups that spontaneously migrate and are currently living in residential areas in Hanoi. 

Faced with high expenses in the city, people originally from Ba Vi province choose to live together on this one boat with a low rent of 10,000 VND a day per person that includes clean water. 27 years is a period long enough for a person to move on to a new stage in life. Within that time, Hanoi has transformed radically, with new buildings and infrastructures incessantly sprouting up. Yet the boat that dates back to 1992 remains unchanged, continuously providing shelter for generations of workers migrating from Ba Vi to the capital city to make ends meet. Married couples move to Hanoi with a view to supporting their children back home, and many children drop out of school to come here and help contribute to their family income. 

From 50 to 70 people share the living space on the two-level boat, tied to an iron staircase on the Red River bank by a rope. Cheap rent means low living quality; on the edge of downtown Hanoi surrounded by luminous streets, they have been living without electricity for decades. In the evening, few outsiders can tell from the flickering light source of battery-powered bulbs that there are people living on that boat. 

3 in the morning, when the city is deep in sleep, the migrant workers start their day. After getting fruits from Long Bien wholesale market, they will wander around street corners in Hanoi until the fruits are sold out at the end of the day. 

At first I was anxious about stepping into strangers’ private spaces on my own, but when I started greeting them and expressing my intention, they all opened up to me and gradually got used to my presence. 

I kept my visit regular in one timeframe – from when they returned from work to when they went to sleep, and recorded daily activities. Taking advantage of the late afternoon sunlight, the women prepare meagre dinners together. And when the sun fully sets, life on the boat begins. The street hawkers choose private areas for themselves; some gather for a card game, some call their family members, others watch dramas from their phones. Though at dusk, the smell of food, the laughter and the creaking of footsteps on the wooden floor turn the space into a little lively market. Drapes and mats spread alongside each other fill up the boat, dividing each person’s private space by unseen borders. They content with co-living and the unspoken empathy from those that are “on the same boat,” both literally and figuratively.

Boarding houses built by local residents are another choice for migrant workers who want to live on land with low cost. For the past years, the area below Long Bien bridge up to Phuc Xa ward, Ba Dinh district has been populated with workers from adjacent provinces, most of whom work as porters or small retailers in Long Bien or Dong Xuan market. Unfinished constructions are rented out at a cheap price; each room with two to five occupants range from 800,000 VND to 2,000,000 VND a month. 

In a tight space that can accommodate only a bed and a few necessities, each family figures their own way to give their temporary residence a homely feel, be it placing a flat board upon some bricks to make a bed or taping a wedding photo on an unplastered wall. Without a window, the only thing that connects the room with the world is the entrance door. Looking from outside, I felt as if being in front of a TV screen, where every living activities were contained inside a frame, each frame having their own space, characters, and stories.

Uncompleted concrete rooms and the wooden boat anchored near the Red River bank have been the shelter for millions of migrant workers that now account for the majority of Hanoi population. Though spontaneously built up with impermanent properties, these spaces have existed for decades, along with the increasingly rapid growth of low-income worker communities from adjacent provinces. As time goes by, perhaps such spaces have become a home, not only a dwelling place but also an anchor for their lengthened stay in this city. 

When working on this series, I had no deliberate intention to create any social impact. By portraying their living space, I wish to contribute my own view on lived experiences of migrant workers and offer a vignette of the capital in its struggle with unchecked migration flows. 

Nguyen Thanh Hue is a graduate from the Academy of Journalism and Communication majoring in Photojournalism. Her focus is documentary photography and human-centered issues, specifically private living spaces.  

Connect with Hue via Facebook and Instagram.

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Dwelling Places of Migrant Workers

A close-up of the living spaces of migrant workers in Hanoi.

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