​Fish farmers’ floating life on hydropower lake in central Vietnam  

The young kids can easily fall into the river  

Farmers tend to their fish grown on the Song Tranh 2 Hydropower Reservoir in Bac Tra My District, located in the central province of Quang Nam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Over a dozen of households have settled down with their fish cages at a hydroelectricity reservoir in central Vietnam for years despite risks of drowning among their children and ravages by typhoons.

The Song Tranh (Tranh River) 2 Hydropower Reservoir, located in Bac Tra My District, Quang Nam Province, is dotted with 14 wooden houses surrounded by scores of fish cages.

The entire families initially put down roots on the lake surface to get out of poverty.

From above, the encircling huts, each with a fluttering national flag on the roof, cast shadow on the clear lake surface.

Nguyen Ngoc Canh, 50, is believed to be the earliest settler in the neighborhood.

He took his whole family from the north-central province of Thanh Hoa to Bac Tra My District 23 years ago.

Canh shared his family, who had previously eked out a meager living as a rice farmer, was one of the pioneers to raise fish and live on the reservoir after the district administration adopted a policy to encourage the practice five years ago.

“At first I came here alone, while my wife and kids lived in our old house on land. Later on, I took them along so that we could be together,” he added.

Canh’s relatively sturdy wooden hut on the lake is fully equipped with furniture, television and other items.

The middle-aged man revealed the district assisted him in obtaining a bank loan of over VND100 million (US$ 4,322) to embark on the erection of his house and cages.

Canh initially invested in four cages in which he kept dieu hong (Oreochromis), catfish and ro phi (Tilapia).

He then switched to higher-efficiency breeds such as ca chinh (eel fish) and frogs, and increased the number of his cages to 20.

His family earn more than VND100 million each year and can afford their three children a proper education.

“My children and I were scared of living afloat at first, but gradually got used to it. Now we don’t want to live on land,” Nguyen Thi Xoan, Canh’s wife, said.

The fish farm run by Canh’s fellowman and neighbor, 45-year-old Tran Van Mao, also flourishes.

Fish typically thrive in the middle of the lake where the water is pure, he explained.

Mao has his hands full tending to the enclosures every day, while his wife runs a store at the market that sells fish to clients from across the district.

Their earnings from the cages totaled more than VND200 million ($8,644) in 2016.

Mao had paid off his bank loan and splashed out more money on expanding his business.

Likewise, Huynh Viet Dung, 38, the youngest in the fish farming village, sold his house on land and took his wife and children to the lake three years ago.

Most of the residents hailed from central provinces, while the rest were members of Ca Dong ethnic minority groups, native to the district and some neighboring localities.

Family members gather for a meal on the reservoir. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Family members gather for a meal on the reservoir. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Adversities, risks

All the daily activities and traveling at the fish caging village take place by boat.

They take their children to school on sampans every day.

Back from school, the kids stand onshore, waiting for their parents to ride sampans to carry them home.

Better-off families use electricity from generators, while children from needy households do their homework in the dim kerosene light in the evening.

Their worst fear is that their unattended children might fall into the water and drown.

“There were several times when the minors tripped over and tumbled into the water. Luckily adults saved them just in time,” Dung disclosed.      

The villagers also dread the rainy, storm-packed seasons, when the currents rage and the water levels rise by dozens of meters, sending the huts to elevate as well.     

They stayed awake all night long on nights that saw gusts and torrential rains coupled with cyclones to keep a watch on their fish enclosures to prevent huge waves from tearing the nets and freeing the fish. 

Canh revealed several suffered hefty losses during last year’s rainy season as fish got out of the cages ripped apart by cyclones.

“Houses shake violently during the cyclones on the lakes, which can be really ferocious,” he said.

“Many got too scared to sleep at night if their raft and house give way unless they put their life vests on,” he added.

The area is also prone to earthquakes, with the strongest quake that has ever struck Bac Tra My since 1957 happening in November 2012, measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale.

The quake, which lasted for several seconds, got them to rush out of their houses in panic after they heard loud blasts and felt the ground shaking, walls cracking, and household items falling.

“But we are used to these inclement weather conditions,” he said smilingly.

The occupants from the close-knit neighborhood said the village comes alive during the days when they harvest and sell their fish to traders.

After the sale, they prepare and offer a sumptuous meal to water deities in the hope of auspicious weather and hold a cozy get-together.

Their greatest concern is now their output, with traders imposing low prices or refusing to buy the fish due to rough terrain and limited transport.

They would suffer heavy losses due to additional costs, particularly feed for the aquatic animals if no traders come to buy them.

According to Phan Thanh Phuong, deputy head of the Bac Tra My District Office of Agriculture and Rural Development, district leaders observed successful models of raising fish on the hydropower reservoir from other localities in early 2012, before piloting them on one household on the Song Tranh 2 reservoir.

The model was later expanded, with district authorities offering these needy households no-interest loans of up to VND120 million ($5,187) each, fish for breeding purposes and technical assistance.  

The lake is currently home to 14 farming households with 180 cages which produce approximately 1,200 metric tons of mature fish annually.

“Thanks to their diligence and efforts in seeking economically-effective breeds, several have paid off their loans, expanded their business and made a decent living,” Phuong said.

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