Men defy death and gravity high above Saigon’s streets

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Men defy death and gravity high above Saigon’s streets

Cleaning skyscraper windows is not a job for the faint-hearted.

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The commercial window-cleaning industry in Ho Chi Minh City emerged with the rise of the skyscraper. Window cleaners have a more dangerous job than most people but only earn from $13 to $22 per day working at these dizzying heights.

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The year-end is the busiest time for window cleaners. On Ho Chi Minh City's high-rise buildings and skyscrapers, the risks are higher as they have to work in more difficult conditions – high above the ground, on scaffolding or suspended platforms.

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To Van Huynh, 27, who moved to Ho Chi Minh City from the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong, is an 8-year veteran window cleaner. “It is a job for which little or no education is necessary, but it is absolutely not for the faint-hearted. Window cleaners are not afraid of great heights working with a great deal of concentration. We are not a bunch of unskilled workers,” said Huynh.

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The technique used to wash a high-rise window is the same as any window other: after the glass is wetted down with a sponge or a wand, the water is wiped away with a squeegee. Cleaners use safety belts buckled at the waist and fitted with straps that are attached to a pair of anchor bolts fixed at the top of the building.

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“It might look dangerous, but the safety belt can hold up to 1.7 tons. Although the potential dangers can be terrifying, the safety gear means the chance of death is low,” said Huynh.

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“A newbie starts out with low-rise buildings. As he becomes more experienced, he will get to do larger and higher commercial buildings. It took me a year to find the guts to clean high-rise windows. Despite working at great heights for quite a while, sometimes when I look down, I feel dizzy,” said 25-year-old Truong Van Thanh.

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For others, they don’t look down, not because they are afraid, but because they simply don’t have time to look down and watch people on the streets. As with any job, they get caught up in their work.

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Wind is their worst enemy. The most dangerous part of the job is the wind. Even when it is not a windy day, keeping a suspended platform stable in the air is not an easy task. And if it is windy, it is very nerve-wracking as there is no way to fight the wind with manpower, said Huynh.

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During the off-peak season, a window cleaner works eight hours per day. The job is more difficult than it sounds. “It is tiring sitting high above the ground for several hours. Sometimes halfway through the job, I have to hold off visits to the bathroom,” said Phan Van Ut.

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Ut said cleaning windows on skyscrapers with ledges and frames is usually more time-consuming than fully glass-covered buildings.

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Window cleaners said they are aware of the potential dangers involved. “We bet our life on the job,” said Huynh

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Lunch breaks bring brief respite from the job, which requires workers to have the reflexes of a circus performer high above the city's streets.

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The year-end is the busiest time so they work longer hours to earn a few extra bucks. “For the rest of the year, our monthly income ranges from VND5 million to VND9 million ($220 – $390),” said 30-year-old To Van Duc.

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> Vietnam's tallest skyscraper to tower over Hanoi

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