Poor farmer dredges up a small fortune

Published: 21/09/2008 05:00



VietNamNet Bridge - In the Mekong River Delta, Tran Van Dung, a once destitute and uneducated farmer, has made a small fortune by inventing a dredge.

Creating dredges has helped Tran Van Dung and his wife Bieu ease their daily workload while earning billions in dong.

VietNamNet Bridge - In the Mekong River Delta, Tran Van Dung, a once destitute and uneducated farmer, has made a small fortune by inventing a dredge.

The day I met him, I could see the strain he had suffered. His face was lined and weathered, and his hands were missing two fingers, casualties of his experiments. He told me his story.

He is from Me Lang Hamlet in Ngu Lac Commune of Duyen Hai District in Tra Vinh Province, and was born into a family of nine. His parents could afford to give him only a primary school education.

After school, he went to work as a hired hand, learning carpentry and then motorbike repair.

In 1980, Dung married Nguyen Thi Bieu and worked as a carpenter while his wife cared for their children, living from hand to mouth like so many other young couples in their home town.

Ten years into the marriage, their situation had not improved. Their commune remained a part of the poverty assistance programme and received Government aid.

In the early 1990s, news about shrimp farms and their profitability reached Ngu Lac. All the farmers switched to the industry, hoping for change, but in 1993 the harvest wrecked the whole community when mass numbers of shrimp turned up dead.

Consequently, Dung was forced to sell his shrimp farm, and at half the purchased price. And even with his land gone, he still owed the bank VND8.5 million (nearly US$800), a fortune for him and his family.

Shortly after, Dung left town with his wife and children to avoid the money lenders that he could not pay. He and his family settled in Ca Mau, the southern most province of Viet Nam, and he began work as a porter. His wife and children worked as hired labourers at a dried fish factory.

With the move, life started to get better, but Dung still obsessed over his outstanding debt. “Save for a rainy day,” they taught their children. And they saved every penny they could.

Dung kept his dream of returning home a successful businessman, and gradually he saved enough to buy their first motorised boat to help realise the possibility.

Everyday, Dung, his wife and his children used the boat to gather and transport dried goods, fish, cuttlefish and other local delicacies from farmers to the neighbouring provinces Bac Lieu and Kien Giang.

Dung said that nothing would improve until he was able to pay off his debts and hold his head high as he walked through his home town.

Washed away

In 1997, just as Dung was preparing to return home and pay his debts, typhoon Linda swept through Ca Mau peninsula, killing nearly 600 people and leaving thousands without homes. Dung’s dream was shattered.

Once again, he had nothing, and still he felt the burden of debt. Desperate, he took his wife and kids home, back to Ngu Lac under the poverty assistance programme.

The day they had departed four years prior, Dung’s parents saw them off with tears in their eyes. He returned to find his mother’s grave still fresh and his father in a coffin awaiting burial.

At this point, in the midst of telling me his story, Dung stopped, stood and went to the assembly line to shut down the power. Bieu, his wife, explained, “Every time I relive the dark old days, he seems unwilling to discuss them.”

She continued, “We had to dig dirt two shifts a day to make ends meet. We made VND5,000 for every cubic metre of dirt we dug. All we prayed for was enough to put rice on our table. But we still lived in shame. Everyday after a hard day’s work, my husband and I had to hide in the bushes until our kids ran out to say that all the creditors had left. Then we could go home.

“The rainy season was the worst. The roof had so many leaks that we had to resign ourselves to shivering in the corner. But I felt that he loved us even more than himself.

“I still remember one afternoon, on the way to a shift, he stood motionless for an hour looking at the bull-head dredge.”

Bieu didn’t know that it would prove to be a fateful moment in their lives. “From then on,” she continued, “he was another person. At times, he was close, at others, distant. He seemed haunted by a ghost. He drew tirelessly on the ground, erased everything and then began again. Over time, I found out that he was sketching the first plans for his new dredge.”

Dung finally returned to the table to have some tea. “How did you come up with the idea to redesign the machine?” I asked.

Dung said he knew that the machine was fast and powerful, but it could only suck the mud after two men manually piled the dirt. “It irritated me, so I asked myself how I could make the machine pile the dirt itself. One machine with two men working at full capacity could only move 40cu.m a day. It wasn’t enough, I thought.”

Dung said he wanted to make the machine do all the work and raise productivity four or five times over. Lacking the needed funds for investment, he began saving by skipping meals with his family. He managed to set aside several thousand dong a day so that by the end of the week he could purchase a steel bar or a pinion. After a while, when he had collected enough materials, he got to work.

The frame of the machine was built with savings from his family’s meals, but upon seeing his determination, his father-in-law and younger sister lent him money to buy the engine.

Finally he had a working product.

“After I realised the saw-tooth was weak and hindered productivity, I fixed it. Then the first day my wife and I dredged 200cu.m, making our first million dong. After costs, we profited VND800,000.

“That evening, we all cried as we ate our meal. I knew then that never in my life, had I had such a delicious, memorable dinner.”

Tran Van Dung went on to improve his machine and set up a company called Thanh Liem Ltd. His machine was approved by the Tra Vinh Province’s Department of Science, Technology and the Environment.

Four years after his machines began selling out in Tra Vinh, he was finally, this year, awarded exclusive rights for the creation of his dredge.

To the bafflement of those around him, Dung could not even sign his name and was forced to place a fingerprint on the certificate in lieu of a signature. Since then he has become his daughter’s student and is learning to read and write. He needs the skills to sign contracts with clients, who have been coming from as far away as Laos, Cambodia and even Australia.

Once a struggling, illiterate farmer, Dung is now an inventor and businessman worth VND10 billion (more than $600,000). He can now walk down any street with his head held high.

(Source: VNS)

Update from: http://english.vietnamnet.vn//profiles/2008/08/799167/

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