Midnight, as the city fell asleep, Ho Hoang Khanh, 61, started his “working day.” Tying a box to his bicycle, Khanh left his house on Hong Bang Street, biking from alley to alley, and quiet market.
Beside a manhole he put some malt onto a cloth-covered bamboo stick and placed it inside. Having set up five sticks in total to attract cockroaches, Khanh sat and waited in silence.
Cockroaches stick to the malt. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
After 10-15 minutes, he slowly removed the sticks, adorned with a dozen red bodies subsequently placed into Khanh’s bucket and covered with cooking oil to prevent escape.
Khanh has regularly travelled across town on his nocturnal quest for the past 21 years.
In one go, Khanh could collect up to 1,000 cockroaches, sold to local anglers as bait. With the Mekong Delta fishing season commencing prior to the Lunar New Year holiday (in January or February), and supported by his wife, Khanh rakes in about 2,000 cockroaches a night, earning up to VND1 million ($43.2).
However, during the rainy season, which sees city drains flood, he is jobless.
“I usually hunt cockroaches using malt. Its smell attracts the critters while the texture is thick enough to trap them,” he said, adding he always keeps an eye out for mice that could easily snatch his sticky stash.
Khanh hunts red cockroaches at night and black ones during the day, although the price for these are lower. Perch, catfish, plaice, etc. like gorging on roaches, sold at VND200 ($0.008) a pop.
“It is not as easy as it seems. He has to work all night to catch cockroaches, making money is not that easy,” said Pham Ba Thanh, 66, Khanh’s neighbor.
Before working as a cockroach hunter, Khanh made fishing hooks for angling stores across town. During this time, he learnt from a friend how much Mekong Delta fishermen prized hard-to-come-by cockroaches and decided to switch profession.
“My wife sold lottery tickets while bringing up our four children. Catching cockroaches is less competitive and does not require a lot of money to start, so I took a risk,” Khanh recalled.
Things were difficult at first. Not knowing how to use bait to attract cockroaches, he used durian shells, which drew scores of mice. Later, he used sugar syrup, which failed to ensnare his prey.
No matter how they cleaned their hands, the smell of cockroaches were hard to evade. Selling each cockroach at VND100 ($0.004), Khanh quickly became discouraged and gave up on the new venture.
Returning to a life selling street food, it was not long before their cart was confiscated by police trying to keep the sidewalks clear.
“Just work hard, and things will be okay, we do not have to pay a lot to start this, we will spend what we earn,” Tran Thi Kim Anh told her partner, trying to encourage him to make another attempt on the cockroach front.
Khanh catches black cockroaches, normally found on the ground. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
After learning how to use malt as bait, Khanh caught more cockroaches. Now, as the fishing season approaches, anglers from southern provinces like Tien Giang and Ben Tre are the first to call on him. Khanh even delivers cockroaches via bus, safely placed inside paper boxes.
“There used to be a lot of people doing this job, but now, Khanh is the only one. Without him, anglers would not know where to find bait,” said Le Tuan Kiet, owner of a fishing store Khanh often supplies with cockroaches.
In the last few years, amid failing health, the reducing number of fish in Mekong Delta severely affected Khanh’s income.
“I will do it until I am too weak,” he affirmed, despite regular headaches and aching feet.
Khanh added that with his kids all grown, his financial burden is little, which means earning VND100,000 ($4.3) per day is enough.
“Sometimes, I feel sad because my job is not clean. I work in drains and with soil. But as long as I have a kind heart, I do not feel ashamed,” he maintained.