It was midnight but Bui Vien Street in the central business district 1 in HCM City was still bustling as if it belonged to another world. The street was full of visitors. Shops were still open as if it was daylight. They were shimmering with multi-colored LED lights. Pedestrians and tourists were dancing in high spirits to loud music.

Amid the crowd on the bustling street, flames flared up from time to time, giving a start to many people. They were coming from street children, who were blowing fire to entertain travelers and earn money.

Standing in the middle of the street, a girl introduced herself as Nguyen Tran Bao Thy, born in 2010. She repeatedly covered her mouth with her hand after performing fire blowing that startled many tourists. 

Thy said she just learned how to blow fire a few months ago. She often leaves kerosene in her mouth. After each blow, she needs to cover her mouth with her hands or absorb the excessive oil with her shirttail. Sometimes, Thy covers her mouth with painful burns.

"I am a newcomer here and I took the job after my friends showed me how to hold kerosene in my mouth to blow fire. I am not really professional, but I always try to do my best, and then walk around the town begging for money. If people feel sorry for me, they will give me money," she said.

Risks ignored

“Sometimes I keep the oil in my mouth for so long and I accidentally swallow it. At first, this made my stomach painful and uncomfortable, but I got used to it. I'm most afraid of burning my tongue while blowing fire. Every time when I get burned, my tongue blisters, and I have difficulty eating and drinking for several days," she said.

Thy comes to Bui Vien Street every night and works until dawn, when travelers have left. Sometimes, Thy and her friends sleep under bridges, or on benches in the park.

The job brings revenue of VND300,000-400,000 each night. However, as Thy doesn’t have a tool set and has to perform fire blowing with borrowed tools, she has to share the revenue with lenders. So she pockets VND200,000 a night only.

A spot not far from Thy’s position was a ‘stage’ for Nguyen Tan Dung, born in 2007, and Pham Ngoc Gia Bao, born in 2010. They are Thy’s guides who taught her and brought her to the working space.

Dung and Bao liken themselves to baby dragons, explaining that they can use their mouths to blow fire like the dragons seen in fantasy films. Dung is older than Thy and Bao, so he is more experienced.

He can control the blowing force to make the fire last longer or burn with bigger flames. Every time Dung does his work, people around him look astonished.

Bao also can create fire well after two years of working. However, he admitted he doesn’t like the job, because, like Thy, he sometimes suffers from burns. However, he has no other choice than continuing, because he needs to help his mother earn money and feed his siblings, while his father is in prison.

Finishing the dangerous performance, Bao walked around and begged for money. However, not many people dropped small change into the old can he was holding.

Bao is fully aware of the risks and he understands that this is life-threatening work. 

“Policemen don’t allow us because they don’t want us to risk our lives and they fear an explosion and fire may occur. However, if I don’t do this, I cannot take any other job to earn my living,” Bao said.

Bao’s story reminded Thy of her parents. She once had a happy time when she could live with parents and go to school. However, when she entered the seventh grade, she had to stay off school. 

Some months ago, she left her grandmother, who is 80 years old because her mother left for Cambodia to find a job. Since then, Thy has had no information about her mother. Later, her father abandoned Thy and left.

Dung said his parents got divorced, and lived with his grandmother, but his grandmother died several years ago and Dung became an orphan.

Ha Nguyen