VnExpress: Survivors recall do or die experiences after karaoke parlor fire

Smoke goes up from inside An Phu karaoke parlor in Binh Duong Province at around noon on September 7, 2022, 16 hours after a fire broke out at the bar and killed 32 people. Credit: VnExpress.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by VnExpress (Vietnam), was published on September 14, 2022.

“Either jump or die,” Phuc told himself on turning around to see a blaze sweeping through the glass window of the restroom he was standing inside.

From the ventilator window of the restroom, he tried to locate the metal roof of the house next door and jumped down.

That decision saved his life.

Phuc is one of the 30 survivors of a deadly fire that took place last week at the An Phu karaoke parlor in the southern province of Binh Duong.

Thirty-two others perished.

Caught in the deadliest fire to occur in Vietnam in the past 20 years, survivors have lived to the tale of confronting imminent death – an unforgettable experience.

Nguyen Trong Phuc started his night shift at the karaoke parlor at 6 p.m. on Sep. 6.

The 18-year-old was new to the place, having worked at the parlor in Thuan An Town, around 50 km from Ho Chi Minh City, for less than a month.

“My parents divorced when I was a kid. I grew up with my maternal grandmother and still live with her. I had an accident several months ago and broke my arm. She had to take care of me. Now I must work and earn money to make it up for her.”

An Phu was one of the most popular venues for partying in Thuan An. It covered a floor area of more than 1,500 square meters on three stories. The rooftop of 500 square meters had been modified to provide accommodation for female employees.

The walls in each of the parlor’s 30 karaoke rooms were designed with three layers: soundproof foam mattress, plywood and decorative plastic panels.

Male employees like Phuc were in charge of allocating guests first into the 10 rooms on the third floor, then the 13 rooms on the second, and finally, seven rooms on the ground floor.

On the evening of Sep. 6, Phuc received the first group of customers soon after he started his shift. The next customers arrived in groups of four to seven each. Together, they filled up half the rooms on the third floor.

“Most of them were already quite drunk when they got there,” Phuc recalled.

Apart from allocating customers, male employees at An Phuc are tasked with receiving orders for drinks and food and cleaning up the karaoke rooms later.

“Only female employees stay in the rooms to serve the customers. Their number is equivalent to the number of customers,” Phuc said.

That night, everything was “normal,” with all customers singing and dancing passionately and some rooms ordering a second box of beer. There was no customer on the second and ground floors.

The normalcy was broken rudely with the sound of someone screaming, Phuc said.

“Smoke! There’s fire in the room,” two customers screamed as they rushed out of room No. 303 and ran downstairs.

At that moment, Phuc thought it was probably an electrical short, so he went in with the intention of switching the room for those customers. But the smoke spread out quickly and started to seep out from the gap on the door of that room.

Phuc and another male employee got in to inspect the situation, but “we were hit in the face by the smoke even though the fire could not been seen.” By then, black smoke was also rising along the two stairs leading to the third floor.

He yelled into his walkie-talkie: “Anyone there? There’s fire up here!”

There was no response, just screams and chaotic sounds.

At that moment, on the ground floor, Ngoc, the cashier, saw a tall, thin, topless man rushing down the stairs with his shirt hung on his shoulder.

“Fire. Fire. Too much smoke!” he screamed.

Panicking, Ngoc grabbed the fire extinguisher at the foot of her table, pressed it into the hand of another employee.

She continued to run to the corner of the hall to get more fire extinguishers and take them upstairs, but she could only reach the stairs. Smoke was all over the place. She had to turn back.

She then saw some people running down from the third floor and fled the bar immediately.

She also saw guards trying to get to the second and third floors but to no avail. She heard the manager urging people to call 114 — the firefighters’ hotline.

At that time, the second floor was engulfed in flames, completely cutting off the third floor from the rest of the building.

Phuc and another male employee knocked on the doors of rooms on the third floor and tried to scream as loud as possible to inform them of the fire but they kept singing.

The power was cut shortly after, leaving the entire parlor dark and filled with smoke.

“Usually, when the power goes off, female employees serving customers would reassure them, saying ‘the power will come back after a while’,” Phuc said, guessing that might be the reason the customers did not get out.

Phuc tried to reach the stairs and go down, but the smoke suffocated him.

He went into a room on the third floor that had no customers inside, got into the restroom, and shut the door to escape the smoke. He washed his face to compose himself and then rushed out, only to see that the flames had grown even stronger and was about to spread to the restroom.

He made a quick decision: take a risk and jump down.

Standing on the toilet, he climbed through the ventilator window and jumped down from a height of around 10 m. He fell onto the metal roof of the house next to the parlor and broke his right leg.

Nguyen Trong Phuc is treated with a broken leg at An Phu Hospital in Binh Duong Province, after jumping from the third floor of a karaoke parlor where he worked to escape a fire, September 7, 2022. Credit: VnExpress/Dinh Van.
Nguyen Trong Phuc is treated with a broken leg at An Phu Hospital in Binh Duong Province, after jumping from the third floor of a karaoke parlor where he worked to escape a fire, September 7, 2022. Credit: VnExpress/Dinh Van.

As Phuc tried his best to save himself, on the rooftop, female employee Truong Kim Nhi, 27, and two of her colleagues “heard people downstairs screaming about the fire.”

The three women planned to run downstairs, but the fire, heat, and smoke coming up from below did not allow them to do so.

They rushed to the balcony of the rooftop. Telling each other that they have to jump down now or get burned to death, they climbed through the balcony.

Looking down, Nhi, a single mom, was so scared that she wanted to get back yet she quickly changed her mind as by then, she could already feel the heat of the floor beneath her feet.

The three women jumped down on to the same metal roof as Phuc.

The leap left Nhi stunned. She tried to use the remaining strength she had with the support of local people to climb down from the roof. Two ankle bones were broken, but she was alive.

As she heard a fire siren howling in the distance, Nhi looked up at the waves of fire blazing from the third-floor window and wondered how many of her friends had managed to escape.

‘All a bit scared’

At 8:40 p.m., fire-fighter trucks of the Thuan An police department were dispatched to the scene. All the firefighters in the province were also mobilized and they brought with them several vehicles to rescue people and put the flames out.

In his decade-long career as a firefighter, Senior Lieutenant Le Quang Tuan, 34, had never dealt with a fire at a karaoke parlor before.

“As soon as I heard the news, I thought about the fire at a Hanoi karaoke parlor that claimed the lives of three firefighters [on August 1]. This one had the same number of floors. We were all a bit scared,” Tuan said, adding that most fire incidents in Binh Duong have to do with factories and companies, with wide floor areas but casualties were rare.

At the site, the flames were raging and licking all over the building, like a lighthouse in a sea of darkness. Black columns of smog and fumes spread around the premises, threatening anyone who dared to get too close.

“The front of the store has been covered with LED lights and wallpapers. There were no balconies on the sides of the building. The parlor itself was narrow and led deep inside, with multiple enclosed rooms. The moment I arrived, I knew this was going to be trouble,” Tuan said.

Lieutenant Colonel Bui Trong Hieu, deputy head of the Binh Duong firefighting police department, split the forces into specialized teams and approached the site. The foremost priority was rescuing the ones trapped on the roof.

“It was as if they were in a cage made of fumes,” Hieu recalled. He saw hands reaching out of the metal bars and heads bobbing up and down as swirls of black smokes enveloped them. The women inside were screaming and catching their breaths at the same time. Many of them were still in their pajamas.

Hieu and Tuan got into a truck and tried to use ladder to get to the victims. As they got closer, they began to make out the faces amidst the smokes – faces painted with black soot and desperation.

“Please save us! I can’t breathe anymore!” one screamed.

“Everyone remain calm! Whoever’s at the front will get out first, and no pushing! Everyone will be rescued!” Tuan shouted out. He proceeded to tear down several bars, making enough room for one person to slide in. 

Hieu turned himself into a human scaffold for those inside to get out. 12 people were rescued, many of them suffering from severe burns and asphyxiation. They were taken to the An Phu Hospital just 500 m away.

When the screams began to die out and the flames at the parlor’s signpost were put out, Hieu hoped everyone inside had managed to get out. 

It was 9 p.m.

“I wish everything had ended there.”

‘Parlor of death’

“There are still 5-6 people trapped on the second floor!” a male employee shouted at the firefighters. Hieu realized that they could not accurately determine how many people were still left inside.

A rooftop check revealed that it could not be used to gain access to lower floors due to the flames and heat. The teams had to change course and try to get inside from the ground and the sides of the building.

As the first team to head in, staff sergeant Nguyen Huu Tinh, 26, led his group towards the third floor. The last one on the line was in charge of putting out surrounding flames with a fire hose, and also wetting the clothes of the team to reduce the heat.

The moment they stepped onto the second floor, Tinh could see embers flashing on the walls of the hallway. The fumes got into their noses and their eyes. Everyone had to crawl on the floor as closely as possible, unable to see ahead of them. It only got worse once they reached the third floor; the water almost instantly vaporized once they made contact with the walls.

“It was like a boiler room,” Tinh said.

Through his protective glasses, Tinh strained his eyes to look for any light coming from three flashlights the team brought with them. The only sounds he heard were of their own footsteps and water bouncing off objects in the hallway. The heat was unbearable, yet Tinh felt chills running down his spine.

Tinh pushed away a door leading into the first karaoke room he found. Stumbling in the darkness, he tried to make sense of the void around him so he could lead the entire team behind him. His hand laid on something soft.

It was a man in short jeans with a naked torso. He was in fetal position. He was dead.

“Despite wearing gloves, I could still feel the immense heat coming from his body,” Tinh said. He gathered his strength and lifted the body up with his team, trying to find their way back to the ground floor. It was the first victim they found in room 301.

By this time, over 100 firefighters had been dispatched to the fire site. The residual heat on the third floor was still too great however, making rescue efforts very difficult. Scouts could only go in for around 15 minutes before having to run out to replace oxygen tanks.

Hieu said the karaoke parlor was designed as an enclosed space, so there was no way for the smoke and heat to escape. Efforts to breach the walls and the roof to put out the fire inside also proved very difficult, as there were soundproof sponges and other objects in the way.

Twelve hours after the fire had broken out, smoke was still coming off the roof and holes in the walls. Firefighters spent the entire night trying to put out the flames. Ambulances went in and out constantly and the number of casualties kept going up by the hour.

As of September 7 afternoon, all karaoke rooms had basically been scouted. The scouting team led by Tuan was tasked with breaking doors down.

“I hoped we wouldn’t find anybody.”

There was something blocking the door to the restroom. Three firefighters had to push at the same time to even budge it. A slight crack opened, and an indescribable smell came pouring out. Soot and burned fat.

“That smell haunts me even now,” Tuan said.

The team soon realized what was blocking the door: eight bodies stacked on top of one another.

“It was too painful. That image will follow me for the rest of my life,” Tuan said, adding that the restroom was where most of the bodies were found.

The search for victims lasted 23 hours and a total of 32 bodies were found. It was the most tragic fire in Vietnam in the last 20 years after a fire at the ITC building in Ho Chi Minh City claimed the lives of 60 people in October 2002.

In all his 22 years as a firefighter, Hieu had never seen such a devastating incident.

“Just 400 square meters caught fire, yet 32 lives were lost… It was truly a parlor of death.”

Where the bodies were found in Binh Duong’s karaoke parlor fire. Credit: VnExpress/Khanh Hoang

Five years after Paris accord, extreme weather the new normal

 Climate change challenges have assumed deadly serious proportions in Vietnam, demanding that the country steps up contributions to meeting global temperature goals.

“The existing extreme weather phenomena in Vietnam will likely become the new normal in the future,” said Associate Professor Ngo Duc Thanh, Co-Director of the Space and Aeronautics Department, University of Science and Technology of Hanoi.

He was speaking at a round table discussion on “Overcoming climate change challenges in Vietnam, 5 years after the Paris Agreement” held Wednesday in Hanoi. The event was organized by the Embassy of France and GreenID, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement being signed on December 12.

The Paris Agreement, trying to strengthen the global response to climate change, reaffirmed the goal of limiting global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.

Thanh said his assessment was based on his calculations showing that climate change has been really happening in Vietnam.

Between 1961 and 2007, the temperatures rose in most weather stations in Vietnam and rainfall decreased in the north while increasing in the south. The rainfall pattern has been behind increased flooding as well as drought that the country has been suffering in recent years.

The latest data shows that Hanoi’s average daily temperatures in the 1961-2020 period has climbed around 2 degrees Celsius. Thanh said that beside climate change, rapid urbanization was most likely an important factor in this big increase.

“The weather today is much hotter than the time when our grandparents did not have (or need) air-conditioners,” he said.


The Southeast Asia region as a whole is expected to reach the point of a 2 degrees Celsius increase in temperature by 2047, based on a high emissions scenario, according to the 2018 report of the Southeast Asia Regional Climate Downscaling/Coordinated Regional Climate Downscaling Experiment Southeast Asia. Thanh was one of the report’s authors.

“It means that countries have to make a great effort in emissions reduction to achieve the target of keeping the temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” Thanh said.

French ambassador Nicolas Warnery said that internationally, 2020 is expected to be one of the warmest years in history. He said that even though greenhouse gas emissions dropped following the Covid-19 pandemic, it did not reflect a structural change. Based on current trends in greenhouse gas emissions and climate action, a 1.5 degrees temperature rise is expected before 2050, and 4 degrees could be reached before 2100.

Energy emissions going up

Nguy Thi Khanh, Executive Director, Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID), noted that among various sources in Vietnam, including agriculture, land use, land-use change, and forestry and industrial processes, the production and consumption of energy accounts for a majority of CO2 emissions.

Correspondingly, energy generated over 171 million tons of CO2 in 2014, 60 percent of the total, the estimation in 2020 is 347 million tons (66 percent), and for 2030 is 678 million tons (73 percent), according to the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution of Vietnam report.

“Energy plays a very important role in emission reduction,” she said.

Khanh said it was important that Vietnam makes major changes in its approach to achieve its emission goals. Vietnam should not build new coal power plants, it should focus on expanding renewable energy sources, build a clear policy roadmap for synchronous renewable energy reserves to guarantee investors’ confidence, and devise an economic transformation strategy. Transparent policies will also help Vietnam to attract green credit internationally, she said.

Vietnam will face numerous challenges with renewable energy plans needing more land (which may lead to conflicts of interest in land use), ensuring energy security as well as people’s livelihoods, and setting up appropriate transmission networks for renewable energy. The country will also need adequately skilled human resources for developing renewable energy sources, she said.

Some positive signals

Khanh said there have been some positive signals in the energy market and indications of policy change in Vietnam.

In the global market, renewable energy has developed to “the point of no return”. Renewable energy projects are booming in many places, coal power plants are on a downtrend, and LNG is on the uptrend. She cited the 2019 report of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to show that capacity and investment for renewable energy continued to increase more rapidly than that of fossil fuels and nuclear power; over 50 percent of capacity of additional renewable energy in 2019 had lower costs compared with new coal plants. Solar and wind energy are increasingly more competitive than fossil fuels on a commercial scale, she noted.

Vietnam cannot escape this trend, but the issue is “how quick and how sustainable renewable energy development is in Vietnam,” she said.

Khanh also said she believes Vietnam has the dynamics needed for shifting from traditional energy sources to new ones. The demand for electricity is growing while primary energy sources are running out; there is abundant potential for renewable energy including solar, wind, biomass energy and other, newer sources.

In Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces in central Vietnam, many solar and wind energy plans are being implemented. Advanced technologies and lower costs are allowing Vietnam to make renewable energy a serious sector, something that looked impossible even five years ago.

On the policy front, Khanh said that in the Politburo’s Resolution No 55 on “Orientations of the Vietnam’s National Energy Development Strategy to 2030 and outlook to 2045,” which was made public in February 2020, it is stated that Vietnam has a policy supporting preferential purchase prices for solar, wind and biomass power. In other words, the country makes clear its priority for developing renewable energy and reducing fossil fuel at appropriate levels.

“This is the first time Vietnam has raised the issue in a high-level document,” Khanh said.

In addition, in the National VIII Power Plan, the proportion of renewable energy is scheduled to increase while the ratio of coal power plants will decrease from 43 percent to 27 percent of total power generation by 2030.

Making a broader view on policy aspect, Pham Van Tan, Deputy Director General, Department of Meteorology, Hydrology and Climate Change, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Vietnam, said Vietnam’s National Assembly passed amendments to the Law on Environment Protection on November 17, that includes a chapter of climate change and implementation responsibility for Paris Agreement.

It said the emission plan is compulsory for everyone from 2021. Vietnam will also set up a domestic carbon market for businesses.

Tan said Vietnam is the first among developing countries to have an implementation plan for the Paris Agreement in 2016, not long after signing the deal. On November 11, Vietnam was one of 20 countries that submitted the updated version of the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution. He said Vietnam announced a legal commitment, meaning that it will have to implement it.

Ambassador Warnery said it is essential that countries act collectively by raising their climate ambition before the 26th UN climate change conference next year with new “nationally determined contributions” objectives based on low-emission development strategies.

So far, only a few countries in the world have done so, and Vietnam is one of them, he said. It has increased its ambition in greenhouse gas emissions reduction from 8 percent to 9 percent by 2030 without international aid, and from 25 to 27 percent with aid.

Within this optimistic context, the market has huge expectations of politicians, Khanh of GreenID said, adding, the “pressure on policymakers is enormous.”

This story published by VNExpress has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Global warming’s the fight of our lives. We’re losing it

With the biggest culprits failing to act on climate disaster, the human race does not have much long left.

For three years now, I’ve been following the news on heat waves and hot spells happening all over the world, including Vietnam. The pattern is pretty obvious: record-breaking high temperatures, followed by more record breakers.

I am sure many of us are asking the same question. When will the heat waves and hot spells, or global warming in general, stop? Is there a maximum threshold? A breaking point? We don’t know.

Here’s what we do know. Humanity won’t last long at this rate.

The first time I encountered this topic up close was the heat wave in northern Vietnam in 2017. It was a heat wave unlike any other before it: 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in most northern areas including Hanoi. I remember thinking: this is it, this is the peak. There is no way it can get hotter.

Boy, was I wrong.

Last July, a similar heat wave struck Vietnam for about five days. Right from my balcony, I recorded a felt temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. It was like the ground had split open and hell had broken loose.

And this year, the heat caused more than physical discomfort. Hanoi and other northern provinces could no longer enjoy the Lunar New Year festival like they used to. No light drizzles and chilly breezes of early springtime. Instead, the sun greeted us all with downpours of molten gold, spilling the streets and coating towns in amber. It was not actually that poetic – it was hot as hell.

Then came this April, when Vietnam saw yet another record-breaking high temperature of 43 degrees Celsius in the central province of Ha Tinh. Since then, I don’t want to use the phrase “record-breaking.” What’s the point?

Earlier this month, I participated in a conference with colleagues from 12 countries most affected by climate disaster.

Unsurprisingly, one of the main topics was the sweltering heat the world was experiencing. India, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, even the frigid mountains of Nepal, not one has been spared from the licks of the flames of global warming.

Someone needs to come up with a long-term plan to address this ongoing problem, immediately. Like right now.

It might be too late anyway for humans to limit the earth’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, at least according to a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The level of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere is already way beyond that, the report said.

Two things need to be done to stop the mercury from rising. One, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut down completely, and the remaining gases in the atmosphere need to be get rid of. Two, a forest that spans the entire planet is needed to absorb the excess carbon dioxide in the air over the next 40 years. Both need to be done at the same time, as we humans, as well as other creatures, still need to consume energy through eating and drinking and breathing, which produces greenhouse gases.

It seems like a lost cause.

A farmer water his dry field in Soc Trang Province in southern Vietnam, April 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long

We have to do something, and we have to do it together.

But some countries haven’t got the memo.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the country would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, saying the accord would “undermine [the U.S.] economy” and put the U.S. at a “permanent disadvantage.”

China, meanwhile, has promised to cut down on its greenhouse gas emissions, but does so by shifting it to other countries. Both superpowers are two of the most prolific greenhouse gas emitters in the world. And who is paying the price for their irresponsibility?

Poor and developing countries are. Honduras, Myanmar, Haiti, Nicaragua, Vietnam and many more are getting the shorter end of the stick, as concluded by numerous climate change reports over the past decade.

17 percent of Saigon could be completely submerged by the end of this century, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said last year. Venice will completely vanish underwater within the same time frame if global warming is not stalled, according to a 2017 study by the Quaternary International.

The apocalyptic list goes on and on.

Amidst this, developed countries are still inclined to shift their responsibilities to the most vulnerable victims of climate change by providing energy project loans and infrastructural investments. It is this inequality and unfairness, this denial and refusal to cooperate, that will doom us all. No one will win this game. What lies ahead is a scorched Earth, floods of Biblical proportions and a planet devoid of life as we know it.

But let’s talk about us. What do we do when it gets hot? We look for cooler places. We turn on fans and air conditioners. We need electricity to do so. We get electricity from coal power plants. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

Now imagine tens of millions of people doing the same thing. Every day, day after day. See where we’re heading?

I’m not saying this to shame anyone. I am saying we are digging our own graves. The industrialized progress we have made may have brought us perks like air conditioners and ice-cream, but it has come with deforestation, pollution and mass urbanization. For every degree Celsius going up outside, city folks experience it two degrees hotter, thanks to an absence of trees and an abundance of skyscrapers.

The very least we can do now, especially in major cities like Hanoi and Saigon, is plant more trees and make more ponds and lakes, repositories of water. We have to stop licensing construction projects that encroach rivers and lakes and serve to increase population density. This won’t do, but it’s a start.

The fight against climate disaster is the fight of our lives. If we don’t join it with radical seriousness, we are done.

*Nguyen Ngoc Huy is an expert on climate change at the Vietnam National University, Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

This story, first published by VN Express,  has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

‘Wasting’ our lives, we’ll let our country go to waste

A drainage canal is not a garbage landfill.

Why state the obvious?

Because, on the ground, they seem synonymous. Every day, their stench assails our nostrils.

Yet, we persistently treat our surroundings as a free-for-all garbage repository.

How many of our rivers and other water bodies have died or are dying?

In April 2018, a drainage canal in Hanoi’s Yen Hoa area was partially restored after a pile of garbage was fished out.

This included different types of untreated household waste and carcasses. After many years, the stench had become unbearable, but it was only after the media raised a stink that the authorities deployed sanitation workers to clean it.

But the dead and dying water systems in the capital city and elsewhere are not just the authorities’ responsibility. Anyone can see that a year after Hanoi’s campaign to prevent its rivers and streams from being choked to death by garbage- mainly To Lich, Nhue, and Đay rivers – such efforts are just a drop in the ocean. Every Hanoian is complicit in polluting the city’s environment, and the same can be said of localities nationwide.

Which also means that every Hanoian and every citizen of this country is responsible for cleaning up our rivers, our soil and the air we breathe.

A Hanoian who has lived all 38 years of her life along the Kim Nguu River, a distributary of the To Lich River, said that despite the daily effort of workers from Hanoi Sewerage and Drainage Limited Company (HSDC) to dredge out the garbage, many neighbours do not hesitate to dump their household waste in it.

The pollution is so severe that the river has stopped flowing and reeks of rubbish.

We can no longer afford to accept inane, comforting messages that say small actions make a big difference. We need big actions that make a huge difference.

Compare such crass indifference with the concern shown by someone like Gondai Shoichi, a Japanese national who is organising a volunteer group to collect garbage at different places in Hanoi including Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Hoan Kiem (Return Sword) Lake, Thong Nhat Park and Thu Le Zoo. Gondai told Viet Nam News that the pollution of rivers and lakes in Hanoi was similar to that of Japan in the 1950s. He ticked off a few important points: garbage should be separated at source; environmental education should start very early; environmental regulations should be very strictly followed.

We need to go much further.

Beyond obedience to laws, every action that protects our environment should become second nature. This is the biggest lesson we need to learn from our Japanese brethren.

Wako Takatoshi, a Japanese expert in drainage and sewerage who has been working as a policy advisor on urban environment with Vietnam’s Construction Ministry for the last three years, said that removing garbage from rivers and lakes in Hanoi, as was done with the Yen Hoa canal, was very important, but by itself, it was not a sustainable measure.

The responsibility of individuals and agencies for maintaining different parts of rivers, canals and other water bodies has to be clear cut, and people’s awareness raised to a point that their habits change, he said.

Wako also offered a key psychological insight: “People can easily litter in a place that is dirty, but they tend not to do so when a place is very clean.”


According to the Hanoi Urban Environmental Hygiene Company in 2018, the capital city generates more than 6,200 tonnes of garbage each day. Only 70 per cent of this is collected and treated. The remaining 30 per cent is dumped into the environment, including our water systems.

Hoang Thao, who founded the Noi khong voi tui nylon (Say No to nylon bags) group, said many people dump garbage thinking they are being clean and doing their part for the environment.

“For example, they put nylon bags or plastic bottles into a waste basket and think that they are doing it right, but they are not. It takes dozens of years for the former and hundreds of years for the latter to decompose completely,” she said.


Wako, Gondai and Thao were participants at a workshop on “Clean Water for Healthy Living” organised last Sunday by the Japan-Vietnam JDS Specialist Network (JSN) and the US-based FHHER Social Impact Fund.

The workshop was organised at a coffee shop on Lieu Giai Street, with participants being advised to bring their own mugs in case the shop had no environmentally-friendly receptacles to offer.

Personally, the get-together, second in the JSN’s Coffee Talk Series, was an eye-opener that went beyond learning about safe water. Experts and environmental activists shared shocking information: Humans have created enough plastic to cover the eight largest country in the world – Argentina; Vietnam ranks fourth among top 20 countries in mismanaging plastic waste; globally, up to 91 per cent of the plastic isn’t recycled.

Every day, their stench assails our nostrils. Yet, we persistently treat our surroundings as a free-for-all garbage repository.

Ironies abound in the way “experts” attend workshops on environmental protection, despite the lavish lifestyles many of them lead, the means of travel they use, the amount of plastic used at such meets and so on.


As a nation, institution or individual, the biggest change starts with a single step.

One such step is the “#7 Day Challenge” launched on April 10, 2018 by the United Nations in Vietnam in collaboration with the Embassy of Sweden and the Live & Learn environmental education organisation.

The challenge encouraged people to practice ways of eating, moving and living without damaging the environment. It commemorated Earth Day which was ambitiously themed “End Plastic Pollution” in 2018.

Participants raised awareness by posting photos and stories of taking buses and bicycles to work, not using nylon bags or plastic cutlery, turning off all unnecessary bulbs.

Our leaders, like the Environment Minister, the President and the Prime Minister, can give this campaign a powerful push by accepting the challenge.

I hope to see this happen, but the question remains: Is this enough?


We, as people, experts and politicians, are very fond of intoning the need for “drastic” measures, but fail to recognise that what is needed is a drastic, sustained change in our attitude and lifestyle, a change that cannot be postponed or passed on to others. The change starts with each one of us.

Nothing else will work.

More than a year after a hefty increase in fines for littering violations, there has been no appreciable improvement in the situation, not a dent in the magnitude of change that is needed.

We can no longer afford to accept inane, comforting messages that say small actions make a big difference. We need big actions that make a huge difference.

This commentary by Hồng Minh was originally published by Viet Nam news on April 13, 2018.

Vietnam is one of Asia’s five worst polluters of ocean with plastic waste, according to international organisations. This commentary by Hồng Minh was published together with an anecdote about a dying canal in Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, due to littering. The writer investigated the pollution of the city’s water system as well as other parts of the country. The writer also met and talked to experts and activists dealing with the problem and had some suggestions on how to help prevent and reduce waste, especially plastic waste. The piece was then widely shared among sanitation and plastic waste experts as well as environmental groups. The problem of illegal littering and untreated plastic waste has become so alarming that the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, launched a national campaign on June 9 to prevent plastic waste with the target to rid Vietnam of single use plastic products by the year 2025. Viet Nam News has been running a series of articles, news, opinions regarding the problem in the country as well as measures to reduce the consequences.