The roach hunter

The unusual job of catching cockroaches to sell as fish bait…

“I don’t talk about my job in polite company. Most people gag or stare at me in disbelief when I do,” says Nguyen Thi Kim Anh, on her unusual job. As bizarre as it sounds, Kim Anh has been catching and selling cockroaches for the past 15 years, and although she’s not the only one in Saigon doing it, at 50, she’s the oldest.

Every night, Kim Anh collects the roaches in the thousands, keeping them alive in sealed cans before selling them as fish bait. A batch of 1,000 can fetch from VND90,000 to VND110,000 and in a month, with weather permitting, she can earn twice as much as an office worker.

“It sounds unthinkable but for the last 15 years, everything in my life has revolved around the roaches, both good and bad. They gave me the means to bring my kids to school and fix my house. But they also make people stare at me in disgust. And of course, there’s always the risk of contracting nasty diseases from them,” she says.

Every night Kim Anh scavenges the sewers, gutters and wet markets in District 11, using durian skin, a cloth soaked in sugarcane juice and a fishing pole as tools to lure the bugs. At sewer openings, she sticks her pole in, waits a couple of minutes and then pulls out a swarm of them. Each sewer nets Kim Anh roughly a hundred roaches. On a good night, she only needs about 20 to 30 of these dips to meet her quota.  “It took me awhile to cook up the perfect bait for roaches. Before that, I tried honey, which is too expensive, and melted sugar, which is too sticky and difficult to remove roaches from.”

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In the beginning, when she was new to her hunting areas, residents would call the police on her. “A woman skulking around in the dark, in the dirtiest places of the streets and markets every night. I probably look like a thief, or a robber of some kind,” says Kim Anh. After a while though, people started to get used to her and most tends to stay out of her way.

At the end of her workday, around 5am, she lays durian skins in strategic areas around the wet markets. The smell, while disgusting to many, attracts the crawlers without fail. Each trap will add an additional hundred or so to Kim Anh’s total. “I used to throw up because of the smell. Imagine working with these creepy-crawlies, holding them with your hands, keeping them in your house, in the thousands, sleeping close to them, maybe in the same room while you wait for customers to come with orders.”

Few people outside the fishing community know that cockroaches are effective fish bait. For example, the shark catfish (a species native to the Mekong River that can grow up to a meter in length and can be sold at premium prices at restaurants all over the city) prefer roaches to other kinds of bait. During peak fishing season, demand usually exceeds what she can supply on her own so she enlists help from her children and husband to meet the increased orders.

“For years my neighbors have had to put up with me and the stink. I really should thank them every day. Regardless of what people think, this is an honest job that does a lot of good for the city. It provides the fishing industry with a ready supply of cheap baits and exterminates roaches at the same time.

Images by Ngoc Tran.

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