First published July 2015 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
When I first started riding my motorbike in the Vietnamese countryside, I was struck by the natural beauty of Vietnam. However, even in remote or sparsely populated regions, I always came across large areas that were inexplicably strewn with trash. The litter consisted mostly of plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic pots, beer cans and leftover food items. The trash was not piled up, awaiting collection; it was spread around, dispersed evenly over large areas: under casuarina trees on swathes of deserted beach; over rocks rising out of mountain streams; on the pine needle-carpeted forest floors of the Central Highlands. These were not informal rural dumpsites; clearly no one was going to come and take it away. I couldn’t work it out. Until, one day, I took a road trip on a Vietnamese national holiday. Now, all of the previously isolated, empty beauty spots, were teeming with people from nearby towns and cities. Hundreds of picnickers were sitting under trees, on riverbanks, on beaches; thoroughly enjoying the great open spaces and natural beauty of the countryside. But very few people bothered to clean up after themselves: the picnic detritus was simply left on the sand, rocks, and in the water. Thousands of scenic locations all over the country are now utterly ruined by trash. It’s sad, disappointing, infuriating, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In fact, it’s getting worse.
How and Why Picnic Trash is Ruining the Vietnamese Countryside
In the past, when I have asked my Vietnamese friends why they think the problem persists, they have often replied, “Chưa có ý thức”, which literally means there’s ‘no awareness or consciousness yet’. However, there are official government signs and billboards dotted throughout the Vietnamese countryside, clearly stating ‘Keep Vietnam green and clean: throw your trash in litter bins’. There are also advertising campaigns on T.V and in newspapers addressing littering, and many school and university projects deal with the issue of litter in Vietnam. Chưa có ý thức is no longer a legitimate excuse or explanation for littering the Vietnamese countryside.
Some Western expats I’ve talked to about the problem, suggest that there simply aren’t enough trash cans and dumpsters in scenic spots in Vietnam: People would gladly throw garbage in bins if they were provided, but as they are not, the most convenient option is to leave it behind. I agree that this is certainly the most ‘convenient’ option. But these days there are plenty of litter bins in rural Vietnam, and even if there aren’t – which is often the case in more isolated beauty spots – is it really that ‘inconvenient’ to put your trash in a plastic bag and carry it with you until you find a dumpster? Unfortunately, litter bins are often ignored by picnickers in Vietnam: I’ve seen people nonchalantly throwing beer cans down mountainsides and into lakes when there’s a litter bin just a few feet away.
It seems particularly sad to me that the catalyst for litter in Vietnam’s beauty spots should be picnicking. I have never seen a nation enjoy picnics in the countryside as much as the Vietnamese do. It’s a wonderful tradition and one that highlights the bond between Vietnamese people and their land. This is a bond that goes back centuries – there are poems and stories about it – and most Vietnamese are proud of the physical beauty of their country. What better way to express this than a picnic in the landscape?
On weekends and national holidays, scenic spots – especially those in the shade or by water – buzz with large groups of friends and families, sitting in circles around makeshift barbecues. There’s food, alcohol, laughter, games, guitars and song. If you’re a foreigner you will almost certainly be asked to join in; offered copious amounts of food and beer or rice wine, and politely interrogated about your love/family life, your job/salary, and your impressions of Vietnam/the Vietnamese.
Picnicking in Vietnam is an outpouring of joy: a celebration of freedom – from work, from the city, from the banalities of day to day life; a Dionysian abandonment to food, conversation, music and just plain fun. Occasionally, when too much alcohol is consumed, things can get out of hand. But, in general, Vietnamese picnics are joyous occasions. The question is, of course, why does this love of picnics in the countryside and pride in the landscape not translate into respect for the landscape? Why do so many people leave their trash behind?
I think the reasons behind the litter problem in Vietnam, especially with regard to picnickers, are not so much about awareness and provision of garbage cans – although these certainly have a large role to play – as they are a matter of psychology. Like most of my friends when I was growing up, I littered until sometime in my early teens. Looking back, the reasons are quite clear. On the one hand it was pure laziness: I couldn’t be bothered to walk five minutes to the nearest bin, and the whole attitude of nonchalance and indifference was part of being ‘cool’. On the other hand, I just didn’t think that correct trash disposal was my responsibility: when I was a kid it was my parents’ job to clean up after me; when I was a teenager it was somebody else’s responsibility: the local council, the government – someone, anyone, but me. Like most people, I’d rather the streets where I lived were clean and not strewn with trash, I just didn’t think I had a part to play in implementing this.
Likewise, on countless occasions in Vietnam, when I have witnessed someone littering and then asked them – sometimes politely, sometimes angrily – to pick up their trash and put it in the bin, invariably the person acquiesces, apologizes, and proceeds to talk about the problem of litter in Vietnam. Never has someone reacted angrily or said ‘no’. So why didn’t they throw their trash in the bin in the first place? I think the answer is the same as it was for me when I was a teenager: partly it’s laziness, and partly it’s people thinking the responsibility lies with someone else.
Trash collection in Vietnam’s urban areas is pretty darn good. There are two daily collections on the street where I live in Saigon. Add to that the ‘trash snatchers’ – people who rummage through household garbage before the collection, looking for anything that can be recycled or sold – and you have a very efficient waste collection system. The problem is that when urbanites step into the countryside – for picnics on public holidays, for example – they assume that a similar system is in place; someone else will pick up their litter on their behalf. But there is no trash collection in the highland forests, mountain streams, or on the beaches: the rubbish that picnickers leave is never collected; it stays there for a very, very long time.
Some Vietnamese people I talk to suggest that, for Vietnam’s nouveau riche, it’s a matter of pride: cleaning up trash after themselves is simply beneath them. Also, the countryside represents the past; the old, the poor, and the backward. Cities, on the other hand, represent Vietnam’s glittering, wealthy future. A couple of years ago I was watching an episode of the T.V show, Mad Men. There is a scene where the main family is having a picnic in a park. They are fairly wealthy suburbanites living the American dream in 1960s New York. They dress fashionably and act respectfully (at least in public), and they display all the trappings of success: they are a modern, nouveau riche family. When they finish their picnic, the wife shakes out the picnic blanket, sending all the trash and food over the grass. She folds the blanket – leaving the trash where it fell – and the family gets in their car and leaves. It immediately made me think of picnickers in Vietnam. Exactly what point is being made in this scene is an interesting topic of discussion (as you’ll see by reading the comments below the video clip). This is booming, post-war America; many people are getting rich and moving to the cities, embracing materialism and modernity. There are many socio-economic and environmental similarities between 1960s America and present-day Vietnam; perhaps attitudes to trash is one of them.
Mad Men: Don Draper and his family take a picnic and leave their trash behind
Vietnam has no shortage of scenic spots, many of which are ideal for picnics. New roads are constantly being opened, easing access to more and more remote, beautiful parts of the country. But this means easier access to more potential picnic spots and, if the current trend doesn’t change soon, that means more trash covering the countryside. Vietnam is a relatively small country with a large population: if things continue as they are, there will be very few beauty spots left that aren’t covered in picnic trash. In late 2014, I spent two months travelling the length and breadth of Vietnam by motorbike. I hate to say it but, although the areas of natural beauty were many, the areas of pristine countryside – clear rivers not clogged with plastic bags, beaches not strewn with trash, forests not full of beer cans – were few.
Even Ha Giang, the northernmost province, long considered the final frontier for travel and tourism in Vietnam, is starting to suffer from litter. A region famous – even legendary – for its extraordinary natural beauty, is about to join the ‘picnic trail’ and find itself strewn with picnic trash. After years of riding through Vietnam I have come to see it as inevitable that, once a new road is completed in a scenic area, it’s just a matter of time before picnickers leave their lasting mark. I have travelled on new roads on the south coast, the Central Highlands, and the northern mountains not long after they have been completed: invariably, when I return the next year, they are marred by litter. This depressingly familiar pattern shows no sign of changing.
New roads: remote and beautiful areas, such as Ha Giang, are more easily accessible than ever
Ironically, at the moment it seems the only way to protect Vietnam’s natural beauty spots is to build on them. Once a hotel, resort, or luxury apartment is built on a scenic plot of land it is kept clean, and potential litterers – picnickers – are kept away. This is very sad for a number of reasons, not least because it means that scenic spots will only be open to the few who can afford luxury hotels and condos. Phu Quoc is an obvious example: Dai Beach, in the northwest of the island, was a long stretch of empty white sand, shaded by casuarina trees. It was relatively clean – save for some flotsam and fishermen’s trash – until the island’s airport and roads were upgraded, and access became far easier. After that, Dai Beach became a favourite picnic spot on national holidays and started to fill with trash. Last year, a major resort/casino development called Vinpearl, was completed on a large section of Dai Beach: now this is the only part of the beach that is truly clean; only accessible if you can afford $200 a night for a room.
Build to protect? Construction on Dai Beach, Phu Quoc Island
More education – raising awareness – is obviously a good idea, but it seems to have had little impact so far. More trash cans in scenic spots would help, but there are plenty already in place and they are often ignored. Danang, perhaps Vietnam’s most forward-thinking city, tried a ‘littering hotline’, where people could call to report littering and receive a cash reward for their efforts. But the motivation for this is money rather than social conscience. It would be nice to think that dealing with personal trash responsibly is its own reward: next time you go for a picnic in the countryside you will not be surrounded by trash; next time you visit Ha Giang you will not have to wade through plastic bags and beer cans to reach a viewpoint.
Obviously there are much bigger, more serious environmental issues in Vietnam. But picnic trash in the countryside seems to me to be one of the most immediate and visible problems. It is also one that can be directly affected – or even solved – by our own individual actions, and without too much effort. This problem can’t be blamed on big corporations, or politics, or globalization. This problem is in our own hands; it’s our responsibility to clean up after ourselves: Let’s keep Vietnam looking its resplendent best: Let’s put our trash in garbage cans. Hãy giữ gìn Việt Nam xanh sạch đẹp: Hãy bỏ rác vào thùng.
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