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With its 3444km of coastline, Vietnam lends itself very well to thriving fishing industry. After ships have unloaded their precious daily cargo, owners urgently need to make sure that their vessels are in good shape for the next journey. They only have a window of a few days to get their ship into order, and that is where net menders come in. In towns like Cái Đôi Vàm in Cà Mau Province, the sight of menders sitting in long lines hard at work is a common one.
The work never stops. Fishers check their nets every day, and the smallest tear must be fixed immediately before they break further and allow fish to escape. To earn good money, the worker must have eagle eyes to spot even the tiniest holes, and precise, steady hands to mend them. It’s not high-paying, but it has brought many families out of poverty. They work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m, with a 30-minute lunch break. Unlike sailing, this is a not-too-strenuous indoor job that people can even do in their spare time. There are no schools or classes for it; the art is passed down from expert to expert. With a brief look, a seasoned mender will know exactly what thread to choose and where to start. Observers may be astonished at the speed of menders’ hands flitting across the nets, but it only takes a few days to get the hang of things. People can take anywhere from 3 to 9 months, even a year, to truly master mending. Experienced menders don’t have the time to teach new ones, so they mostly learn by copying.
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After separate pieces are made, the menders link them into a larger net. It’s a delicate balancing act to maintain slack, flexibility, and softness so that captured fish can calmly swim inside the net without struggling to get out. The installation of floats and weights is also extremely important because it decides the buoyancy, heaviness, and tension of the net, and the rings must stay in the same direction so that line wouldn’t get stuck when the net is pulled up.
Net mending is heavily tied to the rise and fall of fishing. Whether they brave the sea or steadfastly fix the nets every day, everyone in a fishing village contributes to, and hopes for, ships’ return to the harbor, weighed down by fish and shrimp.