Khoanh blows out the oil lamp as usual, ready to end the day at 7 p.m.
In the distance, neighbors’ television sets could still be heard as his two grandsons, Hao, 12, and An, 9, prepare to turn in.
But instead of jumping on the bed to snuggle under pillows and blankets, they crawled underneath it.
It was Khoanh’s idea that they should sleep there after a metal panel tossed by the wind nearly sliced him open two years ago.
The house does not have electricity, and so sleeping on the cold floor is a perk even on hot summer days, Hao says.
They are part of a family of six living in Trung Hung Commune in the Mekong Delta’s Can Tho. The others are the boys’ great grandmother, Tu, 81, and Kim Van Buu, 25, their uncle.
Their house, made of metal plates patched together, drips every time it rains, and so sleeping under the bed is preferable.
Khoanh, 51, says: “They said we could connect with the electric grid if I could pay VND3 million ($130). I couldn’t.”
An’s favorite memories are of noon when the sweltering heat would keep his grandfather at home, and he would hug An as they slept.
An’s mother, the eldest daughter of Khoanh and his wife, left her son when he was barely a month old on a hammock in the front yard. There is a burn mark on his stomach, the result of a fight between his parents and his father pouring boiling water on the baby.
To raise the child, Khoanh and his wife had to sell vegetables, raise ducks and do other odd jobs. They earned VND30,000-50,000 a day, barely enough to get An milk. When the money ran out, they would resort to rice water with sugar. Once in a while when An fell sick, Khoanh would work overnight to earn money to pay the hospital.
Hao was three when his mother left, and he remembers his mother’s face vaguely.
“She’s a little short with black hair,” is his description.
For Hao and An, their grandparents are the parent figures they never had. Every time Khoanh returns home after work, complaining about his back killing him, Hao would come to him and give him a massage.
He would say: “Please don’t die, Grandpa. Live well so you can take care of me. When I grow up, I will take care of you in return.”
All Khoanh wishes in life is to be able to work and remain healthy enough to raise his grandsons and send them to school.
He still owes the owner of a flock of ducks he often takes care of VND2.5 million after borrowing it to take his grandsons to hospital and buy food.
Khoanh says: “What I’m most worried about is my two grandsons having no future. I’m not afraid of anything else.”
The family’s daily routine begins with rice eaten with salt in the morning.
He cooks the rice for the day in the morning, and splits it into portions for breakfast and lunch. They do not eat dinner.
When the rice runs low, Khoanh would go around the neighborhood to borrow some, or just cook some porridge to eat.
“There are some families here with enough rice to feed their pigs. We don’t even get that sometimes.”
And when the rice runs out entirely, there is Khoanh’s specialty: banana porridge, made from unripe bananas.
There have been times when they had to eat the banana porridge for three months straight, he says.
Virtually the family’s entire income is spent on food and the oil lamps.
Last year Khoanh took his grandsons to a primary school just a few hundred meters from their house, but the school asked for fees of VND800,000 each. He did not have the money. All three are illiterate.
An loves going to the school to play, but he is often bullied by some of the students for being poor. He wants to learn how to read and write so that he could read for his grandfather and work for a company in future.
Vo Van Tan, union secretary of their commune, said Khoanh’s family has been getting a monthly stipend for several years due to its precarious financial situation. Without farmlands or regular jobs for any of its members the household’s income is fickle, he said.
The house they live in was provided by authorities decades back, and it has deteriorated over the years, he said.
“The two boys were left behind by their mothers without personal documents. Every year, authorities try to convince the family to file for documents so that the two children could go to school for free, but they are too poor to pay any fees. So far the two children have not received any education.”
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