Garbage collector Pham Thi Lan’s two-year-old son has been accompanying her on her night shift on Hanoi streets. On her meager salary, a baby-sitter is ruled out.
At home, her ailing 70-year-old mother takes care of her 16-year-old elder son who is mentally challenged and has dropped out of his literacy class.
“Let’s go Thoc,” the 31-year-old woman called out to her son and began walking to a garbage collection point on Kim Ma Street in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District at 3 p.m. on Dec. 25.
After she chained a bicycle to an electric pole, Lan, who works for Environmental Group 8 of Hanoi Urban Environment Company Limited, took a bike for kids and gave it to her son.
One he was ready, Lan began her shift with son in tow, pushing a wheeled garbage bin around to collect trash along Kim Ma Street. Her shift lasts from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. the next morning, during which she covers more than eight kilometers.
Pham Thi Lan pushes a wheeled garbage bin to a collection point on Kim Ma Street, with her two-year-old son riding a bicycle next to her, Dec. 25, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen
“For the past few months, my salary has decreased because of the Covid outbreak, but I still have to pay rent and living expenses. I have no other choice but to bring my son to work even though it can get very cold at night,” she said, adding she puts on a hat and a woollen scarf to keep him warm.
When it rains heavily, she has to leave her child in the hut of a parking lot near where she works and asks a security guard to watch him.
The mother and son began collecting garbage in Van Phuc Village in Ba Dinh District first. The roads here are narrow and winding with many bylanes.
Thoc rode his bicycle ahead while his mother pushed the garbage wheelbarrow behind. At the collection point, the boy stopped, left the bike on the ground and sat quietly, waiting for his mother.
“The son is very well behaved and doesn’t cry. He doesn’t speak much, but he remembers the locations of all the collection points,” said a resident who came out of her house to dump trash.
Since the amount of garbage needed to be collected is huge, the mother and son have to make 7-8 trips of around 50 minutes each.
Less than a meter and a half tall and weighing 44 kg, Lan is frail and struggles to handle the garbage bin that is almost twice her height.
After pushing the bin to the parking lot, she sat down to catch her breath, watching her son playing on the sidewalk.
“The first time he followed me to work, he had to walk all the way. He would ask for a break after his tiny legs got tired. Fortunately, a family in the neighborhood gifted him an old bike,” the mother said, with a small laugh.
Thoc sits on the side of the road waiting, as his mother works collecting garbage, Dec. 25, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen
Break-ups and broke
Lan broke up with a man 15 years ago. Now she is a single mother working as a garbage collector for a monthly salary of VND6 million (around $262).
Her eldest son, 16, suffers from memory loss. He finished an illiteracy class and then quit. In 2019, she met another person and gave birth to Thuc, but this person also left.
In order to have money to support her children, she took on many jobs, from selling refreshments to working as a seasonal worker for a garment factory before landing the current job as a garbage collector. It was hard work, but at least the income is stable, she said.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, leader of Environmental Group 8, said that Lan’s family situation was unfortunate. Her father passed away and her mother, who is over 70 and in poor health, takes care of her eldest son in a rented house in Hoang Mai District. Since the grandmother also needs to earn a living, she is unable to take care of her second grandson.
To augment her income, Lan also picks up plastic bottles and cartons for sale, earning about VND50,000 a day. On some mornings, she works as a maid and gets paid VND100,000 for each three-hour shift.
Van said that when she first started working, no one in the team thought that Lan could take on the garbage collector’s job, given her small physique. But she completes the assigned work well.
Knowing that Lan has to take her two –year-old son to work every day, her colleagues let her collect garbage on village roads and alleys so she has time to keep an eye on Thoc.
“The boy is obedient. Everyone in our group is heartbroken seeing the boy cycling next to his mother every night during cold winter nights.”
Lan and her son look for abandoned toys in a garbage bag, Dec. 25, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen
At dusk, while collecting garbage and scrap, she called her son when she spotted a bag of discarded toys.
Thoc was thrilled. “Mom, I found an elephant, a car and a doll,” he said. The toys in the bag were mostly broken and some were deformed, but in the boy’s eyes, they were all new.
“Though they are abandoned things, my son values them like gold”, she said, sighing as her son laughed, holding a toy.
Around 7 p.m., while waiting for the dump truck to collect the gathered garbage, the mother and son shared a packet of instant noodles before she began cleaning the sidewalk.
After work, she took her son back to rented room, bathed him, made dinner and ent to sleep at 4 a.m.
Seeing Lan taking her son to work during the pandemic, many people advised her to find a place to care for him. But she has no relatives around and no money to afford a day care service.
Lan said she was trying to save up enough money so that her child will not have to follow her to work after the upcoming Lunar New Year.
A few days ago, people shared on social networks a 16-second clip of Thoc riding a bicycle with his mother while she was collecting garbage in the middle of a winter night. The clip touched the hearts of many people and received hundreds of thousands of likes.
A Facebooker named Khanh Vy commented: “When he sees his mother stop the garbage bin, he also stops the bike with his foot and turns his head around to watch his mother. I hope that best things will come to the mother and son.”
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