For millions of Hanoian residents, old shoes are nothing more than junk, to be deposited in the city’s foul-smelling tips, but for the less fortunate, they are a threadbare line to hope.
Three-year-old Lan Anh often accompanies her mother on the streets of Hanoi
Photo courtesy of VNA
Among the thousands of migrants workers looking for a better future in the capital city, some have found no other option but to scavenge the dumps for anything that can be cleaned or recycled.
After years of working as a scavenger, Tran Thi Ha from northern Nam Dinh Province said she would find shoes with broken soles or worn leather, that were otherwise, still useable.
“We told each other to keep the shoes because it’s such a pity to throw them away,” Ha, one of the veteran shoes recyclers who has seven years of experience, said. “After a while we thought about recycling the shoes and selling them on the street.”
Ha and her followers started using a small hamlet near Nguyen Khanh Toan Canal, turning shoe recycling into a cottage industry for its 20 households.
They begin their day at 4a.m.; on the hunt for discarded shoes.
“It’s hardest when winter comes, I sweat a lot because of all the (bicycle) pedaling but it’s still really cold,” Ha told Vietnam News Agency.
Ha and the other scavengers find themselves in pitched battles over the shoes every day.
“Sometimes, because I was busy fighting for the shoes with others, I would grab some that are filled with moldy rice,” Ha said.
Once the collecting is done, the males in the families wake up and start sorting the bounty that their wives and daughters bring home.
The shoes are divided into different groups; broken soles, worn-out leather and shoes missing stitching or laces dominate the categories.
Tran Van Toan, a resident from the northern Nam Dinh and one of the veterans in the business, said the sorted items are then washed and dried.
Processing is money time for the collectors. Useable pieces, such as string and soles are set aside for later use and shoes with minor defects are buffed up for sale.
“We are really lucky when we find old pairs with just a few missing stitches,” Toan said. “We only need to wash the shoes and sell them.”
The recycled shoes are then sold on the street at night by the households’ female members.
“We have spent a lot of effort on the shoes but we sell them for low prices from VND30,000 to more than VND100,000 a pair (US$1.68 -$5.60),” Ha said. “After a month of hard work, my husband and I can save up to VND2 million ($112)”.
The air around the cramped, run down home of the 30 shoe recyclers here is thick with the smell of old shoes, leather and glue. Their living space, packed with old shoes of all sizes and colors, what they sadly deem to be their most valuable possessions.
But shoe recyclers living near the canal also face the frequent threat of floods. Toan said he remembers the severe floods in Hanoi in October last year when their houses were slammed by rancid water.
“We were devastated like the farmers who lost their crops,” Toan said, recalling how the raging waters had swept away or spoiled most of their product.
The children in the “shoe recycling hamlet” have also found themselves growing up beside the smell and touch of other people’s castoffs.
Some, like Lan Anh, Ha’s daughter, accompany their mothers in the frantic early morning searches and stay up late on the street at sales times.
“We really love our kid, when we came to the city, she insisted on following us,” Ha said. “We only wish she won’t have to follow our footsteps in doing this type of work.”