Nguyen Thanh Tien is a well-known rice mouse catcher in Soc Trang Province, located in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
He is famous there for his vocal skills that help him mimic the sounds of mice of different genders and ages.
He is highly respected for this talent and for his contribution to pest control in Soc Trang.
Under the cover of darkness, Tien moves around the water-filled rice fields on his tiny boat to hunt for rice mice, a delicacy in the delta region.
Made from bamboo and welded steel pins, his spear is a must-have tool for night hunts.
The only source of light is a portable light fastened around his head.
One day, he led the correspondents from Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper to his hunting ground -- a rice field in front of his house.
“Why are you out so early master? Already catching mice?” asked a few neighbors.
Mimicking mouse voices
Tien is widely known in the area as the master of mouse catching in Ho Dac Kien Ward, Chau Thanh District, Soc Trang Province.
Local residents are well aware of his career from the very first day and how he acquired his skills.
When they used the term ‘early,' they were referring to the premature timing for mouse catching in regard to crop harvesting.
Normally, mouse catchers are active in the post-harvest clearance of rice fields when mice have concentrated back in their caves along the canals.
This increases productivity.
“Every year, we have a holiday break from December, and then we resume in March. During the high water season, the mice will be concentrated in the field banks as water comes rushing in,” said Tien.
“That should be such a good catch. This year I am out earlier than normal, as long as it’s quiet and cool in the evening.”
According to him, his hunt would stop at midnight, followed by washing up and selling his catch, which is usually over ten kilograms of mice.
“If I got too many, I wouldn’t be able to deal with all of them just by myself,” he added.
He is famous for offering clean and healthy mice, and he became a trusted supplier of mice in the area.
As he rested in his boat, he quickly swept his eyes across the area, with his headlight as the sole source of illumination.
His left hand was holding an oar, while his right hand kept a weapon. The boat was moving silently, surrounded by the natural sounds of insects, crickets, and frogs.
The peace was occasionally disrupted by the sounds of birds swooshing into the air, or a wiggling fish from a distance.
As he approached a bush, the man quickly made squeaky mouselike sounds, tapping his spear gently on the bank.
To an unsuspecting listener, it sounds like a group of mice huddling together.
To him, the simple way of mimicking the rodent’s language could lure the mother mice out from their caves as he was acting as the child mice.
Once he caught the mother mouse, Tien would continue to mimic the sound of a male mouse.
From his explanation, the sound of the child mouse would alert the mother, and the sound of the male mouse would indicate to the father mouse that a potential male rival could be around to harass his partner.
“He would just jump out trying to protect his mate,” said Tien.
|During the peak season of mouse catching, Nguyen Thanh Tien can trap over ten kilograms of mice and earn as much as VND1 million (US$42.62) a day. Photo: Khac Tam / Tuoi Tre
Learning the tricks
At the age of 42, Tien has over 20 years of experience in catching mice.
“In 2002, I was making merely VND15,000 [$0.64] a day as I was not a high achiever in school in the past, and my wife had just given birth to our first child,” Tien said.
“A relative of mine told me to follow him on his mouse catching trips so that I could make a better living.
"That relative Duong Van Sang, currently 63 years old, has 30 years of experience on the job.
"At the time he first dabbled his feet in mouse catching, mice were becoming a sought-after dish in the area, so he was catering to a growing market.
“As an apprentice, Tien first had to learn how to maneuver his boat slowly and silently.
“The goal was to be close enough to a frog to ensure a hit of the spear without disturbing the creature, and also any dogs nearby would not bark in surprise.”
Once he had mastered the art of silent movement, he went on to learn how to look around in the dark.
He had to avoid focusing his light on one spot because that would alert the prey.
The key goal was to identify the prey immediately simply by flashing the light at it.
“Once the prey was locked in, he would steer so close to it in quietness. We have to look quickly and act quickly. The hand-eye coordination would soon be perfect with lots of practice,” Sang said.
“Once the target was within sight, as you flash your light on it, you have to hit it, or else it would just escape.”
Sang did not expect that his student could manage to even copy the sounds of the mouse only after two months into the job.
“That means this job was meant for him. I can’t even do the same. Nobody in the whole of the Mekong Delta has ever been able to do what he can,” said Sang.
In his first attempts, Tien had a lot of misses. The dim light prevented him from telling whether it was a frog on a leaf or a stork hiding in the bushes.
So he decided to take a look around the banks to gain a better understanding of his prey.
He soon learned which cave was home to lots of rats and which cave was sparsely populated.
Looking at the bite shape on the nearby leaves, he could tell whether they were rice mice or sewer rats.
After listening to the mice squeaks for quite some time, he learned to mimic their sounds. Onlookers were skeptical of his skill, and some even wanted to make a bet.
The owner of an orange farm dared Tien to lure two mice on a coconut tree down into a trap. The bet was one crate of beer bottles.
In response, Tien maneuvered his mouth muscles and began squeaking. Despite the other man tapping the coconut tree to scare them away, the two mice still came down and Tien readily got them.
The orange farm owner was full of respect for the mouse catcher and asked him to catch all of the mice that were doing so much damage to his farm.
As Tien entered this orange garden, Tien picked out over ten kilograms of mice. The farm owner was happy and nobody has ever doubted his skill since.
Also, they would simply be amazed to hear the different types of mouse voices available.
Thanks to this skill, Tien can make enough money to fund the education of his first child in Ho Chi Minh City, who has graduated from an electrical refrigeration school and already landed a job.
His other child – a seventh-grader – has maintained good performance at school for many years.
“Whatever you choose, education is the best choice. I was never a good student so I had to stay focused so that I could take care of my family,” he said.
His elder son said that Tien never took him once on any mouse catching trip.
Perhaps the father was afraid that his son would end up in the fields rather than focusing on his studies.
“Our master is really good. He had a chip on his teeth, so he had been eating fresh areca berries before his hunt so that he could produce proper sounds,” said Nguyen Van Duong, a neighbor.
“You need to close your mouth tightly, straighten your lips, and make a sound. That is easy to say, but it may take quite a long time to be able to produce a proper sound.”
Duong is a 33-year-old father of two schoolchildren. Due to his financial difficulties, Duong has applied to be Tien’s apprentice.
“I simply hope to learn how to control the boat, watch the rats, and use the spear swiftly. For the mouse voice, that’s impossible,” said Duong.
Nguyen Van My, deputy chairperson of the Chau Thanh District People’s Committee in Soc Trang Province, said that Tien is truly a mouse killer.
The farmers in Ho Dac Kien Ward suffer great losses to their crops due to the abundance of rodents.
“The annual damage from rodents’ attack is immense. The mouse sounds that Tien can perform are one of a kind,” said My.
“He has helped to protect the crops and increase the overall income of the people.
“He is a fine resident and a kind person, so everybody quite enjoys his company.”