The Shadows Floating Along The Mekong

In Cambodia, Vietnamese immigrants face many challenges, such as policy changes, depleted fish resources, and mistreatment by authorities. A Vietnamese Cambodian couple, Hen and Tham, were forced to abandon their home on Tonle Sap Lake and move to Vietnam, rendering them stateless. With nearly 8,000 Vietnamese households residing in the region, Hen and Tham’s experience reflects the plight of many Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia.

Ten o’clock one night during the dry season of 2016, Nguyen Van Hen (34) was fishing using a small gas-powered boat on the banks of the Tonle Sap in Pean Bang, Kampong Thom, Cambodia.  Even though he wore a small headlamp, Hen limited his use of light. He fumbled in the dark to evade the patrols. He was not doing anything illegal, but he knew encounters with the patrol could only mean trouble.

“In their hands, with no money for bribes, we do not get released easily.”

Suddenly, a beam of light shone directly at him. A big plastic boat with armed police officers headed towards him. Afraid of being caught without bail, he jumped off his boat, swam into the forest, hid behind the bushes, then climbed up a tree. 

The next morning, when a fishing boat passed by, Hen asked them for a ride and made his way back home. Meanwhile, Le Thi Tham, Hen’s wife, received a phone call from the villagers informing her, “Your husband is being chased by the police patrol.” 

Her sister, hearing the news, ran to the police’s house and, upon return, confirmed, “They towed Hen’s boat back, but he’s nowhere to be found.” 

Tham panicked and went to look for her husband, but amongst the vast body of water, she didn’t know where to start.

That was the last straw that pushed them to move to Vietnam.

Hen and Tham’s family were like many other families residing on the Tonle Sap. They only knew their grandparents and ancestors were Vietnamese, but had no idea when their first ancestors stepped foot in Cambodia. 

Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia is considered the largest source of freshwater fish in Southeast Asia, with an open surface spanning 14,000 square kilometres during the flood season. There are nearly 8000 households of Vietnamese origin living here.[1]

There were mass involuntary migration waves in 1970 and 1975 when ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were forced to move to Vietnam. By the early 80s, when the Khmer Rouge army was temporarily pushed back and a new order was established under the administration of the People’s Republic of Cambodia, many of the previously displaced Vietnamese families returned to Cambodia.[2]

“Why did you go back to Cambodia?” I asked.

“To be close to the grandparents (souls)” or “to take care of the ancestral graves” were the common threads. At that time, if you were to compare the living conditions of the two areas, Tonle Sap had many distinct advantages compared to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. 

The fishes in Tonle Sap were so abundant it was said: “Dip your feet in the water and fish will nibble on you, sometimes until you bleed.” Whereas the Mekong delta, dark and dense with trees, was described with the saying: “Mosquitoes hum like a flute, leeches crawl like noodles.” In addition to that, the frequent poverty-causing floods and the conscriptions forcing people to the frontlines at the borders were also important factors which made some people decide to go upstream the Mekong, back to the Tonle Sap in Cambodia. 

In August 2017, a sub-decree passed allowing the Cambodian government to cancel documents such as identity cards, passports, and household registration books (with detailed information about each family member), stripping thousands of migrants of their citizenship. About 70,000 people of Vietnamese origin were among those whose papers had been revoked.

Individuals whose documents have been revoked must apply for a residence permit. A two-year licence costs 250,000 riel ($62.50).[3] Policy changes over the years have been putting fishers, like Hen and Tham, in an unsafe legal situation, lacking any legal protection. They were often harassed for bribes when moving or working on the lake. As Hen recounted,

“The authorities are looking for trouble all day to extort money. I have no papers. I cannot report this to anyone.”

Meanwhile, the resources in the Tonle Sap were depleting rapidly due to illegal fishing, climate change, and the impact of many hydropower projects in China, Laos, and Cambodia. In March 2016,  the water receded in Crantu commune, Sroc Dung district (Pursat province), exposing a large area where hundreds of buffaloes and cows were brought to graze.[4] This put floating village residents in a difficult situation, especially the Vietnamese community, who do not have the legal documents that enable them to go ashore and find alternative jobs. In particular, the Vietnamese, as a minority group, have always been the target of criticism stemming from ethnic discrimination and nationalism.[5]

Facing the scarcity of fish—the main source of livelihood on the Tonle Sap—with no chance to change occupation, no paperwork, no welfare support, etc., these Vietnamese immigrants, in turn, moved to Vietnam, their second home, where they believed they would not be discriminated against and have to deal with bribe extortion. Most importantly, there they hoped to be granted new paperwork to turn their lives over. 

Beyond the Border

In April 2016, leaving their main assets such as house and motorboats to pay off debts, Hen and Tham family and her sister’s family—altogether nine people—travelled to Vietnam. With a rice cooker and some fried dried fish, riding on the back of a transport truck, they departed from Kampong Luong (Cambodia) at 2 am and arrived in Tan Chau (Vietnam) at 4 pm the next evening.

500,000 riel ($120) is the amount the two families had to pay, including transportation costs and services for crossing the border without papers. When they arrived at her older brother’s house, Tham and Hen only had 18,000 riel ($4.3) left in their pocket.

In the early days, Tham’s family lived with the support of the neighbours, the Vietnamese returnees from Cambodia who had moved there before them. They shared everything, from cigarettes, rice, food, and household utensils. Tham said,

“Each person came over and chipped in a little bit.”

Their house was built on the land of the commune. In the last months of the year, the water flooded up to the middle of the house. The floorboards had to be shifted up gradually, and people had to stoop to enter the house. 

Hen and Tham started their life in the new place by fishing. The couple took out a loan, cleaned their fishing net, bought a boat, bought an engine from someone, and each day earned 300,000 to 400,000 dong ($13-$17), which was enough to eat. However, they realised that it was quite costly to use fishing nets. Meanwhile, their debts kept piling up to a point where they could not make payments.

Eventually, Hen changed his job. He started pruning trees in the rubber forests, making roughly 200,000 to 300,000 dong ($8.4-$12.7) per day.

Their livelihood weighed on Hen’s shoulders. His wife could not help since their children were small and often sick. Then they borrowed 800,000 dong ($34) to buy an old motorbike in instalments. It took them almost two months to pay it off. The motorbike was run down, but it saved the whole family. Relying on the motorbike, Hen started cutting down trees, planting cassava, installing machinery, construction work, etc.

Ta Do hamlet is located at the edge of Dau Tieng Lake (Tay Ninh), surrounded by lush green rubber plantations 7 km from the town’s People’s Committee Center and 23 km from the district’s centre. Aside from fishing, there were not many options to make a living from. Most of the adults and children in this community made money by selling lottery tickets, work that did not require too much skill or effort. 

At this point, they’d just moved into a new house. The new house was 36m2, one of the 183 adjacent houses in the Dong Ken 2 resettlement area, 1.5km from their old residence. The resettlement area was built from charity and the provincial budget.[6] 

The “wall houses,” as it was called, with many overseas Vietnamese returnees from the Tonle Sap Lake, can be said to be a transformative step. Since birth, their fate had been associated with a nomadic life of floating on the river. On windy days, the waves on the Tonle Sap were described as “as high as a house.” A walled house, even without documents for proof of ownership, was still a great joy for Hen and Tham. A solid start. 

New Waves

But life was precarious. Odd jobs often saw them short-changed. They wanted a more stable job in a factory, where they could receive a monthly salary. Therefore, they decided to leave their two older children in the care of their younger sister, locked up their house, and brought their youngest child with them to Thanh Bac, Tan Bien, Tay Ninh, 45 km away, to rent a place and start work in a rubber factory. 

This decision put them at risk of having their house in the resettlement area reallocated to other people due to non-occupancy. So every fortnight, 20 days, or before an inspection team was due to arrive, they had to travel back to the place and open their door as if taking roll-call. 

Crossing the red dirt roads of rubber plantations, the cassava and sugarcane fields, dried and withered after the harvest season, we gradually moved towards the border of Chang Riec, where Hen and Tham were renting. In a row of 10 rental units, half were occupied by Vietnamese Cambodian returnees once resettled in Dong Ken 2 and Ta Do hamlets. Most companies only accept workers with national identification cards, so in previous years people borrowed each other’s ID cards to apply for work in the factories. In recent years, companies have scrutinised the paperwork more closely. Due to the fear of getting arrested for using fake documents, people stopped borrowing each other’s IDs. Tham said,

“The companies near our house refused to hire us. [They] only [hire us] in remote places where they need a workforce. They’re more willing to overlook our lack of papers.”

Nobody amongst the hundreds of Vietnamese oversea returnees in Ta Do and Dong Ken 2 hamlets had any sort of paper. 

“They told us to wait, so what else can we do?” Tham said.    

Using the Confirmation Application (for migrants returning from Cambodia) stamped with the red seal of the village authorities as a form of guarantee, Hen and Tham were accepted into a factory in Thanh Bac. In the beginning, without money for rent, three families with a total of eight people rented a 23m2 house for 2 million dong a month ($85). The house sometimes sheltered 13 people because “we couldn’t make the rent otherwise.” 

Their youngest child, Manh Tien, three-year-old then, followed his mother every day into the factory. Bringing a hammock with her, she tied it next to where she worked and let her child play with her phone until he felt tired and fell asleep. 

I asked, “How did you endure the strong rubber smell?”

Tham said, “We have to bear with it.” 

A group of stateless children sitting around. The figures are censored in silhouette.A sketch of children sitting around. Text reads "No one can afford to send them to school. The parents, working in long alternating shifts, cannot find time to bring their children to school."
Photo and artwork by Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai. Slide to view.

After one year, they gained some stability, and each family could afford to rent their own room and bring their children to live with them. Only then could their two older children live with their parents, helping them care for the youngest. This also led their second child, their daughter Lan Thanh, to stop school in grade 2. Manh Dat, their eldest son, stopped school in grade 4. 

Manh Dat is nearly 15 years old this year. He’s been working in the factory with his parents for the last 11 months. Every day he works with nearly 30 tons of rubber. Each block of rubber weighs 15 kg, meaning he’s shifted nearly 2000 blocks–an adult’s work. 

Hen and Tham’s family work in shifts. Day shift one day, then night shift the next. Each shift lasts 12 hours. Three of them make 700,000 to 800,000 dong ($30-$34) per day. 

Pointing to a new red motorbike next to her, Tham said, “I’ve been working for three years to buy this motorbike in instalments. I paid 100 million dong. I have 50 million left to pay.”

They look forward to getting out of debt and returning to their wall house. They want to find a new job where they can let their two younger children go to school so that their children can grow up literate. 

The small neighbourhood with 10 families lies next to the main road. Each day, trucks and containers transporting sugarcane, cassava, and farm produce from the Chang Riec border gate pass in long lines, kicking up dust clouds. The adults in the factory worry about their kids at home. No one can afford to send them to school. Some places do not accept them due to a lack of paper. Some other places accept, but the parents, working in long alternating shifts, cannot find time to bring their children to school.

A photo of an exterior corridor, with several figures of children censored in silhouette.A sketch of children in hammock. Text reads "A speck of dust in the turmoil of the economic recession, with nowhere they can drift to."
Photo and artwork by Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai. Slide to view.

Two weeks after we met, with a few days left until the Lunar New Year, Tham called me.

“They fired me. They also didn’t pay the year’s bonus as promised.” 

She bitterly recounted in detail, talking and crying. Tham may not know she is just a speck of dust swept in the turmoils of this economic recession. These days, hundreds of thousands of workers find themselves in tears due to mass layoffs or hour reductions.

The difference is, after the storm, they have a place to go back to. People like Tham, where else can they drift to? 

A photo of a child sleeping in a hammock. The figure is censored in silhouette.A sketch of a child sleeping in a hammock. Text reads "Without a piece of legal paper, the stateless have nothing of value to their name."
Photo and artwork by Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai. Slide to view.

If you wander along the border area between Tay Ninh and Cambodia, you will encounter many small neighbourhoods with 10 to 30 Vietnamese Cambodian returnee families. They wander from one place to another to find work, staying a few months to a few years before moving again. Some migratory trips are quite cumbersome, with old people and children in the mix. But they have nothing of value to their name. 

“Without even a piece of legal paper,” a person describes themself. 

A photo of a field, with censored silhouetted figures of children raking it.A sketch of a group of children raking in the field. Text reads "Do you have any dreams for the future? I like to eat cake."
Photo and artwork by Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai. Slide to view.

There are many children like Manh Dat, 8 years old, 12 years old, 15 years old… toiling in the sun day by day, raking cassava flour to dry, or straining themselves next to the latex presses, in an atmosphere thick with the putrid smell of raw rubber in a processing plant. 

When I asked Tai, a 15-year-old boy, small and short, drying cassava in a sun-bleached yard, “Do you have any dreams for the future?” 

He stood there for some time, not responding. I asked again, “What do you like?” 

He smiled. “I like to eat cake.”

Note: The names of the characters have been changed.

Send Your Message to Hen and Tham!

This story was produced in collaboration with BEBESEA as part of our Story Fellowship programme. Throughout April and May 2023, we release one story every Wednesday. Make sure to stay tuned!

  1. Hoang Anh. “Vietnamese on the banks of the Tonle Sap”.
  2. Ramses Amer (2013). “Domestic Political Change and Ethnic Minorities – A Case Study of the Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia”, Asia-Pacific Social Science Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 87-101.
  3. Kong Meta. (2018). Gov’t: move to revoke improper documents nearing conclusion.
  4. Tien Trinh. (2016). The giant lake dried to levels unseen in the last 40 years.
  5. Lyma Nguyen & Christoph Sperfeldt (2012). “A Boat Without Anchors – FINAL report”, pp. 13-20.
  6. M. Phuong (2018). Transferring 183 “merciful homes” to 1,000 Vietnamese Cambodian returnees.
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