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On Hanoi's Red River, fruitsellers forgo comfort for cash

Jenny VAUGHAN, Tran Thi Minh Ha
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Vietnamese migrant workers living on Hanoi's Red River rise before dawn to buy fruit wholesale before heading to a market

Card games and karaoke help migrant workers pass the time on the cramped houseboats of Hanoi's Red River, swapping their privacy to eke out a living selling fruit for a few dollars a day.

Temporary residents of these open-air boats have left the countryside in search of higher wages in the city.

Life on a floating guesthouse can be tough. There is no electricity and no running water for the 40 US cents a night rent.

Everyone sleeps on thin mats, exposed to the elements inside the open-sided boats, while privacy is non-existent with mosquito nets the only partitions between cramped living quarters.

But the migrant workers can earn up to $8 a day selling bananas, mangoes, dragon fruit and lemons on the back of bikes or in the market stalls of Vietnam's bustling capital.

That's four times what Nguyen Thi Hong earned at a rural garment factory.

"I couldn't earn enough money to raise my kids," she said, explaining that her three children are back home with their father in Ba Vi, 60 kilometres (35 miles) from Hanoi.

"So I moved here."

Every year, more than 260,000 migrants stream into Hanoi and the southern megacity of Ho Chi Minh City to study or work. Many take up temporary jobs in construction or as housekeepers, nannies and traders.

Wages in Vietnam's cities are at least double those of the countryside in a nation where the World Bank says the average annual income is around $2,600.

Migrant workers struggle to access "decent work and government services" and are vulnerable to sexual or labour abuse, said Nguyen Quoc Nam of the International Organization for Migration in Hanoi.

But for many of the workers living on the Red River, the flexibility and camaraderie that comes with selling fruit brings fragments of comfort.

"It's a big home where we share our troubles with each other. If I'm in a pinch I can easily borrow money," said 54-year-old market seller Han Van Hoa, who's been coming to the boat for about 10 years with his wife.

Like the rest of his temporary neighbours, he rises before dawn to buy his fruit wholesale before heading to a Hanoi market.

While the city has transformed from a quiet communist backwater to a fast-growing commercial centre, Han Van Hoa says people like him have remained rooted to the bottom of the social pyramid.

"Hanoi has developed," he said. "But we haven't."