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IN HO CHI MINH CITY SINCE 2008

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS THE #NOPLASTICSTRAWCHALLENGE: ANOTHER CASE OF GREENWASHING ?

As Vietnam comes to terms with being one of the world’s worst plastic polluters, #iAMHCMC asks the question: Are campaigns like the #NoPlasticStrawChallenge an example of the public being environmentally hoodwinked?

No.

At least, that’s the opinion of long-term Australian expat Mark Bowyer, owner of The Old Compass Cafe in District 1, a venue that has taken up the challenge since opening.

“This movement is in its infancy”, he told #IAMHCMC, “but the seriousness of the plastic crisis is urgent. Anything that draws attention to the problem is good [but] the campaign shouldn’t limit itself to straws.”

Acting locally

In Ho Chi Minh City, the #NoPlasticStrawChallenge has been taken up by several groups. Local NGO ChangeVN is one, well known for its work on a “Save the Rhino” campaign last year. In 2018 it has been joined by a new organisation called Zero Waste Saigon. On April 22, Earth Day, the latter addressed a gathering at the US Consulate, where it promoted its environmental message.

As part of that address, it talked up locally-supplied, eco-friendly straw alternatives, which you can order in bulk via its website as well as a system of “zero waste medals”, which it will distribute to businesses who make a commitment to waste reduction practices. In exchange, these businesses will be promoted to the Zero Waste Saigon community, a growing collection of environmentally concerned residents.

The “But”

So, with social media commenters already asking the question and promotion of straw alternatives at fever pitch, is it fair to label the #NoPlasticStrawChallenge an example of “greenwashing”, the practice of spending more time promoting the perception of being green than actually being green in order to gain commercial advantage?

Fiona Li is another expat making alternatives available. She imports metal straws from China to supply the local food and beverage industry. At the moment, any order of more than 50 pieces will cost around 30,000VND per straw, while a bag of 500 locally produced plastic straws can cost as little as 7,000VND.

Li agrees that this is still a barrier to entry for locally owned businesses especially, something she says she is working on with several factories.

“I am doing this because I realized that this was something I could contribute”, she said. “Big companies will only react once they see a benefit for them, so I think [of] this as a step towards that.”

The Long Game

Others, including lifelong devotee of sustainable living, bamboo farmer and product designer James Wolf, have questioned the need to produce any kind of alternative to straws at all.

“Non-plastic straws are a greener alternative”, he said, “but it’s something that can be done without. Part of sustainable living is not partaking, not consuming, not purchasing or using what’s unnecessary.”

Julia Mesner Burdge, co-founder of Zero Waste Saigon, is unfazed by any criticism.

At the time of writing, the group had just announced a rule change to its Facebook page. Julia’s husband Michael, the other half of Zero Waste Saigon, posted a video explaining that they would now only approve posts about products for sale once a week, “to stop people feeling like they are being sold to all the time,” Michael says in the video, and “to help the culture of the group.”

“Communication is key”, Julia had told #IAMHCMC earlier, “and I’m focusing on those who will listen.”

“I’m not here to tell anyone what to do,” she continued. “The more we grow our effort, the more people will listen and be ready to act. It’s little, it is baby steps, but something is happening, I can see it.”

Reach out to Zero Waste Saigon at facebook.com/zerowastesaigon. ChangeVN will launch its 21-Day #No Plastic Challenge in mid-June. Find out more at its website, changevn.org.

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS GOODBYE TRAFFIC, HELLO TET!

 

Tet in Vietnam is the busiest time, and yet also the quietest week of the year in Saigon.

Vietnamese people love nothing better at Tet than to get together with their families. This sees a mass migration throughout the country every time the holiday comes round. Millions of Vietnamese travel back to their hometowns to spend the holiday with their loved ones. It is a moveable feast in the Gregorian calendar, as it signals the start of the Lunar New Year at the end of January.

 

“The full title is Tet Nguyen Dan, which translates as the Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.”

The country has used the Gregorian Calendar since 1954, but it still uses the lunar calendar to observe some holidays and commemorations, including Tet and the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is also worth noting that The Vietnamese calendar varies slightly from that of the Chinese. The Chinese use Coordinated Universal Time (GMT) +8 hours, whereas Vietnam is UTC +7 hours. This was chosen by North Vietnam in 1967 and the South joined in 1975 at the end of the war. The one hour difference sometimes means that the new moon falls on a different day and therefore there is a whole day’s difference between the two countries.

Vietnamese prepare special holiday food for Tet and give their houses a thorough spring clean. Holiday food includes different types of rice cakes called banh chung, and banh day; canh sang which is dried young bamboo soup; sausages called gio; and sticky rice.

Each day of the holiday is reserved for different purposes. Day 1 is for the immediate family, the 2nd for friends and the 3rd for teachers. Children look forward to receiving their red envelopes containing lucky money.

As people return home to their villages, so Ho Chi Minh City empties. Many businesses close down completely and the city becomes a place of solace. This is the one time of the year when traffic disappears, streets fall quiet and the choking smog dissipates. Many bars and restaurants also close, meaning that there is a lot less to do than normally. It is, however, a wonderful time to just chill out.

“Last year I rode down Dong Khoi on a Sunday afternoon and I was the only vehicle that I saw.”

What’s on in Ho Chi Minh City during Tet? One of the highlights in the city centre is the annual flower show that takes place. Nguyen Hue will be transformed into a magnificent garden in a truly breathtaking display. It is hard to believe that this is a temporary show, such is the amount of work that goes into it.

For families with children, many of the parks in city like Dam Sen Park and Suoi Tien Park are great choices to spend your holidays. Activities during Tet include music shows in the evenings, and the parks are full of colourful decorations as a festive atmosphere looms large.

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SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS DOES VIETNAM HAVE AN OBESITY PROBLEM ?

Are the Vietnamese people getting Obese?
Right now Vietnam is straddling two different worlds: at either end of this long and narrow country you have two powerhouse cities while a smattering of smaller cities follow suit. Although Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City get the lion’s share of the press, they make up just 25 percent of the country’s overall population. The vast majority live in rural landscapes, where life is completely different.

The realities of these two landscapes—rural towns and metropolises—differ in all aspects, from infrastructure to education to food and diet. While the former two examples affect the quality of life, the latter affects the length of it.

As Dr. Nguyen Thi Dan Thanh, a nutritionist at Victoria Healthcare and lecturer at the Medical University wrote to me in an email, “Community-wise, Vietnam currently is in a nutrition transition period, which is characterised by the existence of both the nutrition problems in advanced and advancing economies. On the one hand, malnutrition remains an issue; on the other, obesity and lifestyle-related problems have increased rapidly, which puts weight on government policy.”

She concluded, “All in all, more and more people are facing some kind of nutrition-related problems, but the sad thing is that it is hard to find an appropriate resource to help them.”

The Vietnamese Paradox

Nutrition-based health problems and non-communicable diseases are wreaking havoc on the population of Vietnam, a curious problem for a country with a deep-seated pride and love for its traditionally healthy cuisine.

Commonly lauded as one of the most healthy cuisines in the world, nutritional experts are quick to list the many benefits of a purely Vietnamese diet. Antoine Yvon, a former nutritionist at Centre Medical International, wrote in a former issue of #iAMHCMC that “[a]s a professional, I have seen that dishes and ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine can cover all the dietary needs on protein, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals because there is a great natural diversity of agricultural products.” He goes on to conclude that “It is this diversity and variety that are the foundations of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.”

The common example is usually a bowl of pho. Here you have everything you need for a balanced diet: fats, proteins, starches and, of course, plenty of vegetables.

Simple yet complex, fresh yet slow-cooked, there’s no wonder many Vietnamese people don’t stray from their national cuisine. However, this might be part of the problem.

Phil Kelly, a fitness specialist, took time out to meet—ironically, at Tous Les Jours, one of the many Western-style quick-fix cafes doing well in Ho Chi Minh City in recent years.

“There’s a big difference between what’s traditional Vietnamese food and what it’s turned into,” he tells me.

“Now, with modern-day cooking and flavour enhancement they’re adding more oils, more sugar… If you go back to basic eating, they never had that. It was actually very healthy.”

Antoine Yvon mirrored this view, calling the problem “a Vietnamese paradox”: while Vietnamese food might be based on vegetables and healthy cooking techniques, the onset of chemically enhanced flavour profiles and industrialised cooking methods have rendered it anything but.

Building a Foundation
“Nutrition is the foundation for everything that we do,” Phil Kelly says simply. “You can be very, very healthy and not exercise. If you exercise and don’t have your nutrition and lifestyle right, you can be unhealthy.”

Kelly describes the basic tenets of nutrition and its part in health: our bodies are in a continual process of rejuvenation. Our cells grow and die, renewing our skin and cellular tissue—the cells of our bones, for example, completely regenerate every 10 years.

However, the strength of the cells, and therefore the strength of our bodies and health, depends primarily on the food we use to fuel the process.

Antoine Yvon says that 40 percent of cancers in Vietnam are linked to food consumption, caused mainly by processed foods, bad eating habits and the presence of pesticides and chemicals.

Professor Hoang Dinh Chau, the director of the Hung Viet Cancer Hospital, says that in Vietnam more people die from cancer caused by unsafe food than from smoking, a shocking statistic when you consider that over 45 percent of men in Vietnam smoke habitually.

Cancer is just one example. Other non-communicable diseases caused by poor diet include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and chronic pulmonary diseases; it’s estimated that 7 out of 10 deaths in Vietnam are caused by cancer or one of these chronic diseases.

Getting Bigger Faster

The decline of nutrition standards, and the adverse effects that come with it, is nothing new to Vietnam, or even the world. Case in point: obesity.

A well-publicised study published in The New England Journal of Medicine last July found that worldwide, 2.2 billion people are considered overweight. Unsurprisingly, the US was found to have the greatest number of obese adults (79.4 million people, almost a quarter of the population), while Vietnam and Bangladesh were tied for last—8.1 million people in Vietnam were overweight, less than two percent of the adult population.

While these results are undoubtedly good—especially for a country ranked seventh-to-last in terms of daily physical exercise, according to a global survey put out by Stanford University—the rising rate of obesity is cause for alarm.

The obesity numbers have risen steadily in recent years, although the exact statistics depend on which studies you read. A recent study by the University of Washington has shown a 6.8 percent obesity rate in Vietnamese children aged 2 to 19 (to put this in context, the US’s current rate is 28.5 percent), while a survey by Vietnam’s National Institute of Nutrition has listed the childhood obesity rate in urban cities to be as high as 40 percent in major cities, an increase of almost 10 times from a decade ago.

While it can’t be called a fully fledged epidemic at the moment, Antoine Yvon points out that the number of Vietnamese children under five years old with weight problems has doubled in the past four years, and the rate of obese grade-schoolers in Ho Chi Minh City tripled from 2002 to 2009.

The municipal administration of HCMC aims to keep the rate of overweight and obese children under five years of age at less than 12 percent by 2020; as of yet, no public campaigns have been pursued.

East vs. West?

The changes in health, especially in urban and increasingly modernised areas, seem to point to a widespread shift in the way Vietnamese people feed themselves and their families. This has roughly correlated with Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2007.

Has the influx of Westernised food products spurred the changes?

Jake Pulkrabek, a barbecue specialist who owns Jake’s American BBQ in District 1, said that although Western food is now more prevalent in Vietnam, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Vietnamese people are flocking to it.

Pulkrabek’s business model emphasises American authenticity, and for him that starts with the ingredients.

“When you’re trying to make something as authentic as possible, you have to use a lot of imported ingredients. So that always brings up the price a bit more than the local cuisine, which makes it a little more challenging for the locals to come and try it.”

Hitting the right price points is important in a country still in the throes of development, where the average annual income per capita is below US$2,000 in HCMC. Even fast food, considered a cheap food option in Western countries, is a spendy splurge in Vietnam.

Although around 85 percent of Pulkrabek’s clientele are expats or foreigners on business trips, he has noticed a loyal following among Viet Kieus—Vietnamese people who have spent time or grown up abroad, many of whom are heading back to Vietnam.

With a more diverse palate and a taste for Western cuisines, Viet Kieus act as a bridge between the two culinary worlds, aided by a growing middle-class income that allows for a dinner out.

Dr. Thanh from Victoria Healthcare considers the issue from all angles. “As a specialist in nutrition, I do welcome the wide introduction of foreign foods in Vietnam,” she writes. “I can understand the worried views, however, from my opinion, food is a pleasure, and having the opportunity to try different foods is a blessing; why do we have to reject it? Eating right does not mean we have to starve until death.

It means we have to be smart and put everything on our plate with a sense of control.”

Worse Before it Gets Better

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, experts have been looking at individual factors in the shifting food landscape, above all: portion size, sugar consumption and an increased use of processed ingredients.

Phil Kelly is adamant that portion size plays a big role. “With a rising economy and additional [spending money], people are going out and enjoying more food. It’s treating yourself.” Kelly has observed that Vietnamese eaters are generally controlled, but he sees voracious appetites in children especially, encouraged by parents who might not understand the adverse ramifications of too much food.

On a cultural level, Kelly also worries about the ubiquitous use of sugar in modern Vietnamese cooking, a culinary trend especially prevalent in the South. Studies have shown that diabetes rates have grown particularly in the Mekong Delta region. Kelly recalls that when he moved to Ho Chi Minh City five years ago, “when [I] asked for no sugar, it was quite an issue to really explain it.” Today he sees more knowledge of the health defects of sugar, though the use of it in cooking is still strong.

Above all, Dr. Thanh worries most about sugar consumption in young people today. She writes that on the weekend, it’s common to see young people clutching a sugary milk tea. This, combined with “the habit of using sugar in almost every recipe, especially nuoc mam,” is cause for concern.

The government is also taking note of excess sugar consumption and has proposed an additional tax on imported soft drinks—a controversial proposition that has garnered plenty of criticism from advocates of free trade.

The tax would join the ranks of neighbouring countries like Cambodia (10 percent tax) and Thailand (20 to 25 percent tax), although nothing has yet been mandated.

When asked about the issue, Jake Pulkrabek sees similarities in America: “In America, we’re getting to the point where everything we eat is out of a box or a bottle.”

As convenience stores like Circle K, Family Mart and recently 7-11 have taken hold in the FMCG market, chances are the situation will get worse before it gets better.

Education Is Key

As Vietnam modernises and the middle class continues to grow, consumer spending has outpaced public education and awareness of health and nutrition.

Many people agreed that the general perception of health and the body is limited, leaving the market open for global food distributors whose sales in Western countries have stagnated.

“The whole snacking phenomenon came about when food companies were searching for new markets,” Phil Kelly notes. “It wasn’t that we needed to snack. Highly advertised packaged snacks came into existence for a purpose… When was the last time you saw a TV advert for broccoli?”

Dr. Thanh describes her own journey towards becoming one of Ho Chi Minh City’s first Vietnamese nutrition specialists when she saw the adverse effects of some foods:

“I came to the conclusion that nutrition is one of the most [serious] problems for patients, but at that time we were not taught nutrition at school. That was the reason I chose to join a newly established nutrition department in my university.”

Today Dr. Thanh is pioneering nutrition education with the help of Victoria Healthcare. She heads up a program called MyPlate, which counsels Vietnamese women about healthier cooking options.

And just as Vietnamese people who have spent time abroad come back with altered palates, they also come back with new information and outlooks about food in general. Cindy Kawak, General Manager of Propaganda Bistro, has noticed a shift: “They come back with different knowledge, with different views of health and the world. And they share it.” Kawak describes her experience becoming vegetarian, and seeing the curiosity of her staff. “Now some of them want to go that way too. They see that it’s not killing me, but in fact quite the contrary.”

Small shifts are perceptible on the business side of things as well: a recent Nielsen’s Consumer Confidence Index report for Vietnam has determined that 34 percent of Vietnamese consumers list health as a number one concern; Nguyen Van Viet, the chair of the Vietnam Beverage Association, has reported a trend away from sugary drinks and towards juice drinks or drinks with reduced sugar.

But a clear top-down educational structure has yet to be developed. At the moment, most people in Vietnam gain knowledge through their own efforts, rather than at school or through media campaigns. As food-related disease rates inch higher, can knowledge be gained before the damage is irreversible?

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS WHY THE UNITED STATES WON’T ADMIT GUILT OVER AGENT ORANGE

When Le Minh Chau, 26, meets someone for the first time he doesn’t shake hands, but it’s not a choice based on attitude.

Chau’s full stature is under four feet tall. He rests his full weight on his knees, and his arms, underdeveloped and limp, hang permanently and without use at his sides. As he quickly climbed the stairs to his art studio, a modest flat located in Saigon’s increasingly trendy District 2, he apologised for the mess: “I’ve been working a lot,” he said through a translator.

Afflicted by disabilities attributed to prenatal exposure to Agent Orange, Chau’s body might make his daily life more difficult, but he avers that he’s not a victim. Chau is an internationally recognised and sought-after artist, thanks mainly due to the Oscar-nominated documentary based on his life, Chau, Beyond the Lines (2015). Shot over the span of eight years, the 30-minute movie documents Chau’s journey from the Tu Du Peace Village for disabled youth in Ho Chi Minh City to the fully independent life he enjoys today.

The movie worked to shine a spotlight at an issue previously swept under the rug.

The Orange Stripe

In District 12, an hour from the city centre by motorbike and a lifetime away from the boutiques and coffee shops of District 2, the narrative is a bit different. Sister Kim Chi, founder and director of Thien Phuoc Orphanage, an organisation that houses and cares for 60 disabled children, many thought to be affected by Agent Orange, said, “Most of these children will be dead before they turn 17, 18. For us it’s about providing love and care while they’re here.”

Although Chau and the children at Thien Phuoc Orphanage were born long after the American War ended 43 years ago, they represent the conflict’s damaging legacy. Between 1961 and 1971, it’s estimated that the US Army sprayed around 20 million gallons of herbicides, loosely categorised as “Agent Orange” due to the colouring of the pesticide barrels, to deforest large tracts of densely covered land.

Exposure to the chemical’s chief component, tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD, referred to today as dioxin), has only recently been officially linked to “presumptive diseases” like cancers, heart disease and diabetes in veterans who dealt with the chemical directly; less studied, and more politically volatile, are the intragenerational birth defects, ranging from fused digits to spina bifida.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about it,” Charles Bailey, Agent Orange victims advocate and former Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam, said. “Once it’s in human bodies, it’s more complicated.” While the chemical does not affect the cellular structure of plants grown in previously exposed soil, it also does not dissolve on its own. During Vietnam’s annual months-long rainy seasons, heavy rains have transported much of the chemical to nearby water sources. Drinking this water, or eating the ducks and fish that live in and around it, can allegedly change the genetic make-up of offspring.

“It’s been found in blood, and the milk samples of lactating women. And we don’t know how many generations will be affected,” Bailey said.

Help, By Any Other Name…

The lack of definitive intragenerational medical studies, paired with the lack of funding from the US government to care programs for the disabled, has not been an oversight. To allocate funds, by association, leads to an admission of guilt and responsibility—a political arena the United States does not step into easily.

Today, millions of dollars of funds are transferred to foundations and care programs as part of humanitarian efforts rather than political reparations to ensure that at least politically, the United States will be cleared from blame.

“For the people working with these victims, I don’t think it matters where the money comes from, or the political discourse surrounding it,” Bailey said. “They just want to help people.”

While the Vietnamese government has held fast to a narrative that applies dioxin exposure to disabilities almost across the board in the country, in 2007 a former US Ambassador to Vietnam told the press, “I cannot say whether or not I have myself seen a victim of Agent Orange. The reason for that is that we lack good scientific definitions of the causes of disabilities […] that have occurred in Vietnam…We just don’t have the scientific evidence to make that statement with certainty.”

Although the Vietnamese government has pressured Washington DC to recognise intragenerational disabilities as dioxin-related, researcher Michael F Martin pointed out in a Congressional Report in 2012 that Vietnam’s Department of Agriculture has hedged away from these implications. The ministry “is concerned that by drawing attention to the continued pervasive presence of dioxin in the Vietnam’s [sic] environment, other nations may restrict or prohibit the import of Vietnamese crops, aquatic products, meats and poultry, and processed foods supposedly for health reasons.”

In 2017, Vietnam’s domestic food market was rocked by several high-profile food scares, including evidence that thousands of pigs had routinely been given sedatives to reduce weight loss. As of yet, no cases have involved references to dioxin.

Rather than dwell on the weaknesses incurred by the long-lasting drug, leaders in Hanoi typically focus on the environmental factors instead. Centres for the disabled subsist primarily on Vietnamese government funding, although the United States does allocate a small percentage of overall appropriations to rehabilitation centres. Sister Kim Chi’s Thien Phuoc Orphanage, for her part, subsists entirely on volunteer donations. “When I built the orphanage, people said I should make it in a old building that had leaks and problems. They said I would get more funding that way,” she said grimly.

This October, ground officially broke on the environmental cleanup of the Bien Hoa Airport, the country’s most dioxin-saturated area. It’s estimated that the cleanup will take 10 years to complete; a USAID Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) estimated that the cleanup will cost US$500 million.

When You Look at Them

So far, the United States appropriations committee has committed to helping fund the extensive cleanup efforts in all three of Vietnam’s dioxin hotspots: airports in Danang (a cleanup that was finished in 2012), Bien Hoa and, further down the line, Phu Cat.

“Now that the Bien Hoa cleanup is underway, I’m turning my attention to people with disabilities,” Bailey said.

“I want people to focus on recognising that they’re people too, with normal human needs. They need greater comfort and dignity.”

To that end, Bailey recently published From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange with Dr Le Ke Son, a work he hopes will be a landmark for Vietnam-US Agent Orange relations.

GET IT

In District 12, Sister Kim Chi remains practical in her work, if not optimistic. She discusses the recent death of a 12-year-old boy in the orphanage with the same matter-of-fact tone she uses to discuss the educational classes she has set up on the third and fourth floors of her orphanage.

More than anything, Chi speaks of changing the narrative of Agent Orange. “I don’t really like talking to reporters, because when I read the articles, it’s always the same. They talk about how sad the kids are, how disabled. But the kids don’t know about Agent Orange, or their disabilities. When you look at them, they’re happy. They just want love.”

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS VIETNAM HAS A PLASTIC WASTE PROBLEM. HERE’S WHAT’S BEING DONE

In District 2, just a few kilometers from Saigon’s city center, a small nucleus of women gather to address a local issue with far-reaching, global implications. They are part of a growing movement of people in Ho Chi Minh City seeking to address the city’s visible plastic problem and leading the way in undertaking the broader Vietnamese and Southeast Asia’s behemoth of a plastic waste issue.

Beneath the heat of the equatorial sun, Ho Chi Minh City is filled with a haze of dynamism. Projected to be the second fastest growing city in Asia by 2021, Saigon is Vietnam’s driving force of change – what people do or don’t do here have rippling implications for the rest of the Country.

As the city and country expands at such a fast pace, the impacts on the environment accelerate as well. Saigon is just as rife with environmental challenges as it is filled with Cafes and streetside canteens. Besides a visibly degrading quality of air, the city contributes a hefty quarter million tonnes of plastic waste to the country’s annual total, most of which can be found clogging up waterways, poisoning local ecosystems, and eventually making its way into the ocean.

But don’t let the smog, smoke, and refuse fool you. The people who call the city home – both local and foreign – bring a vast array of skills, knowledge, and expertise to the table; and where complacency once reigned supreme, conversation is taking place. People are pooling their resources to mitigate Saigon’s plastic footprint.

I wanted to uncover what was being done, so I sat down with a small group of professional residents who are passionate about this solving this plastic problem. Here’s what I learned:

ReThink Plastic Vietnam

ReThink Plastic Vietnam is an event turned platform, started by a sharp team of women who decided to jump to the front lines of this challenge. The forerunner of the team is Madeleine Van Hasselt, a change manager and expert on behavioral change management. Another key ReThink teammate is Dr Nika Salvetti from Italy. Dr Salvetti has extensive experience in global development work and expertise in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability research and advocacy. She is a prolific expert and leader in her field, consulting with corporations to facilitate socially responsible change. Other high-contributing team members include Raffy Luik, Maaike Evers, Karen Smit and Hester Eggink.

Collectively the team possesses a level of skill, expertise, knowledge and– most importantly– passion, that is as effervescent as it is undeniably impressive. And they have dedicated themselves to sparking conversation, bridging connections, and building a platform for key changemakers to exchange ideas, ask difficult questions, and come up with lasting solutions.

The Rethink Plastic Team are part of a growing movement of people galvanizing change from every angle imaginable. They are busy at work finding and connecting people and organizations, answering important questions, and searching for answers. But what exactly are they looking for?

A Quest for Answers to Vietnam’s Plastic Problem

Just a month earlier, Van Hasselt addressed a crowd of over 100 community members at Ho Chi Minh City’s first ‘ReThink Plastic’ seminar. The groundbreaking seminar focused on exploring the realities of plastic waste distribution and management in Vietnam while providing a platform for organic, solution-based conversations to germinate amongst attendees.

The ReThink Plastic team in conjunction with famous Australian journalist and director Craig Leeson, Nguyen Thi Thanh My Deputy Director of DoNRE (HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment), engaged local business owners, researchers and policymakers, and with the support of Dr Carel Richter, Consul-General of the Netherlands and corporate representatives from DBAV (Dutch Business Association in Vietnam), LDC (Louis Dreyfus Company), Phillips and Heineken the ReThink seminar sent a clear message: It’s time everyone does their part to ReThink our relationship with Plastic.

Since then, ReThink Plastic has evolved from an isolated event to a platform for ongoing conversation. An impressive 40,000 people on Social media and four thousand people in Vietnam have been engaged through direct or indirect action.

What started with awareness-raising has led to people posing the important questions. And now, the ReThink team is pooling their resources, expertise, and connections to help people find answers.

During our conversation, Van Hasselt explained that she was not always so active when it comes to reducing plastic waste. Like most people, she suffered from an out of sight, out of mind mentality-bothered by plastic, but not enough to do anything about it – until she saw one of the most important documentaries of our time, and one of the sparks that ignited this ReThink Plastic movement in Vietnam.

A Plastic Ocean by Craig Leeson Encited Action

Craig Leeson’s remarkably shocking film titled ‘A Plastic Ocean’ hits you like a visceral trash tidal wave. One of Australia’s most prolific journalists, Leeson uses his storytelling prowess to inform and inspire viewers to turn complacency into urgency.

A Plastic Ocean’s investigation of plastic’s insidious infiltration of the earth’s bio-systems exposes the true scope of the world’s plastic problem. The message is as undeniable as it is explicit: Our dependence on and consumption of plastic is an issue we should all be talking about.

Van Hasselt watched the film with her daughter and was moved to act. She wanted to know what was being done and what could be done at all levels of Vietnamese society and sought out key-players at the forefront of the fight, starting with people in her network.

But, why would European Internationals residing in Ho Chi Minh City dedicate so much time and effort to solving this local problem? Well, this plastic problem is actually so big that it has global implications that we will look at next.

Vietnam’s Plastic Contribution

It’s no secret that Vietnam boasts some of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after nature, food-tourism, and historical and cultural experiences. However, like many places in this region of the world, it doesn’t take long to see plastic…everywhere.

From marketplaces to convenience stores and coffee shops to street vendors, almost anything you purchase comes with some form of single-use plastic. Considering the historical popularization of plastic throughout the developed world since the 1950’s, it makes sense: Plastic packaging is convenient, cheap, sterile, and durable. Some even argue that plastic drives development.

But where does all of this plastic end up? Take a look around! Vietnam’s streetside, waterways, and green areas–discarded spoons, straws, poly bags, and styrofoam lunch containers abound. But that’s barely the tip of the iceberg. Annually, Vietnam churns out the fourth largest volume of plastic waste in the world. Thanks to the rivers and waterways that act as arteries connecting the land to the sea, the country adds significantly to a whopping 8-million tonnes of plastic proliferating in our oceans each year.

However, Vietnam is not to blame alone. Although many countries in Southeast Asia are poisoning the world’s oceans, plastic is as much a global concern as it is a global commodity.

Vietnam’s Plastic waste: A Global Cause for Concern

Leeson’s ‘A Plastic Ocean’ makes an undeniable case: as a global community, we’ve become far too dependent on plastic, and the effects are terrifyingly unknown. In fact, each year, we produce more than 300 millions tons of plastic, half of which are single use. A staggering 80% of plastic debris in the ocean comes from land. Once in the sea, the plastic is broken down by the sun, the action of the waves, and contact with sea life.

The smaller particles become what are called microplastics, or tiny particles of plastic that are invisible to the naked eye. These particles attract harmful chemical pollutants that are stored and then released directly into the fatty tissues of sea animals that mistakenly consume them. And evidence shows that these are being consumed by a vast majority of sea creatures including plankton. That means the pollutants have gone through a process of bioaccumulation to infiltrate everything from the ocean floor, all the way up the food chain to the world’s number one predator: Us.

According to a study cited in ‘A Plastic Ocean’ 97 percent of U.S. adults have traces of Bisphenol A (BPA), – a toxic, endocrine interrupting chemical used to make plastic more durable – in their blood. And children aged 6 to 11 have up to three-times that concentration. The presence of plastic in urine has been linked to childhood obesity, infertility, and certain types of cancers in men and women.

So what does this mean for the world’s health? The scary thing is that we don’t actually know how far reaching the implications are, and we are just barely beginning to understand.

Microplastics in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam’s plastic use is part of a larger, more complex global issue, which begs the question: How does the problem pan out on a local and national level? And that is exactly what ReThink Plastic sought to uncover.

Saigon, the country’s most populous urban center, produces over 250,000 tons of plastic refuse annually, and 80 percent of it ends up recycled or disposed of directly into the environment. What does this mean for the health of this city’s 8 million inhabitants?

Dr Emilie Stradya researcher at the University of Technology in HCMC who is funded by the French Institute of Research and Development (IRD), and keynote speaker at Rethink Plastichas joined forces with local scientists at the Asian Water Research Center in Saigon to look for answers in the elements.

Dr Strady and her team have surveyed the presence of macro, micro, and nano plastics in the Saigon river, air, soil, and fish samples. In the river they found shocking concentrations exceeding 1000 times that of European rivers. Being that this is the first project of its kind, the ramifications of such numbers are vastly unknown.

What Needs to Be Done to Curb Plastic Use in Vietnam?

For people who are aware of the harm that plastic causes the environment, it’s easy to get frustrated with the sheer amount of plastic that people consume in Vietnam, and the complacent attitude of most locals. Like many developing countries, plastic has become a vital a part of Vietnam’s economic growth because of its durability and cost-effectiveness.

Thanks to globalization and food commodification, the public was forced to buy into a plastic economy much faster than they could understand and adapt the prevailing socio-structural ecosystem to absorb its harmful environmental implications. Now, people’s day to day lives require an alarming amount of plastic.

However, it’s important to remember intention vs. impact: most people don’t have the intention to be environmentally harmful, even though that is their impact.

That’s why, alongside legislation, all levels of government should consider creative methods to engage the public with critical information. This includes communal education, and awareness-raising campaigns that target community members, key stakeholders, and people at all levels of society. Getting real people to look around at their own communities and care about the problem is the first step to a well-needed collective, grassroots rallying for solutions.

Leeson adds that sustainable solutions in any context include developing a better infrastructure equipped to process plastic waste effectively, banning single-use plastics completely, directing monetary resources to sustainable companies so the market will follow, and most importantly– educating the younger generation.

Businesses Play a Vital Role In Sustainable Action in Vietnam

As pointed out by Leeson and ReThink Plastic, it’s not just up to government and locals: businesses and corporations also play an integral role. Though consumerism is the main driving force behind the plastic economy, discourse often shies away from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Dr Salvetti’s field of expertise.

She says, “To address plastic, we need to change how we think about products – the way they’re sourced, packaged and sold, and where they go after the product expires”. Dr Salvetti says that the solutions that companies must put forth can’t be band-aids, they must be willing to make a long-term commitment to finding solutions and evolving their business model at the fundamental level.

“Changing the corporate relationship with plastic needs to become a part of the company’s mission and values. The change will not happen overnight, but companies need to see the value in the long-term conversation,” She adds.

The ReThink Plastic team is a proponent for building connections between companies. Since the entire production chain is entangled in supply-chain relationships, it’s about businesses and corporations working with each other to find solutions.

What is Being Done about Vietnam’s Plastic Waste?

However complacent local businesses, community members, and government officials may seem, ReThink Plastic proved that there are increasing efforts to address this precarious issue.

Strategies implemented by the Vietnamese Government

The director of Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE)Ba Nguyen Thi Thanh, spoke at ReThink to discuss what is being done at different levels of government. Thanh says all 63 of the republic’s major municipalities are implementing their own strategies to manage solid waste.

The Cities of Hoi An and Hai Phong hold some of the highest concentrations of plastic waste due to the prevalence of manufacturers who import plastic from around the country and the globe. The National Government has recently followed China and placed heavy restrictions on such imports.

Thanh says city Officials in Ho Chi Minh City have deployed 3 long-term plans to raise awareness, reduce, reuse, and recycle solid waste. Developed in 2010 and implemented 3 years later, the plan seeks to reduce solid waste by an ambitious 60 percent.

Popular Solutions outside of Vietnam include government enticing local and foreign business owners and corporations to buy into the sustainable economy with subsidies or tax incentives. Also, raising tariffs on single-use plastics or deterring their use through tougher laws and regulations are what many cities and countries around the globe are doing, however, the drawbacks on commerce and the local economy are hard to work around.

Though a noble effort, the greatest challenge has been getting the general public to value such initiatives, especially in places like markets and streetside where disposable plastic is an integral part of everyday life.

Community Solutions

When it comes to community solutions, there are many examples of locals taking charge. In Vung Tau, a popular beach city just southeast of HCMC a community-led group called Chạy Nhặt, or ‘picking up’ in english, hosts daily beach cleanups. The group was started by Mr. Phat Nguyen, a Vung Tau Local.

In Danang, city officials are working closely with locals and businesses to carry out the ‘Say No to Plastic’ campaign works directly with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to upgrade the cities waste management capacities and raise public awareness to reduce the amount of single-use plastic consumption.

In Saigon, a facebook Group called Zero Waste Saigon has over nine thousand members, a majority of which are locals. The group– which has since become a small startup for selling zero-waste products– is a platform for Ho Chi Minh City residents to share resources and exchange solutions and ideas. Since its beginning, many isolated sustainability businesses have found a way to share and interact.

Business Solutions

Rethink Plastic also provided a platform for the following local entrepreneurs and businesses to share their innovative solutions and initiatives. Here are some of the businesses that shared their products at the seminar:

Wave Vietnam

Started by foreigners Roberto Guzman and Malou Claessens, Wave creates sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics. The company developed a plastic bag that is made from cassava protein. The bags are durable, waterproof, and completely harmless to fish and wildlife, dissolving in water above 80 degrees Celsius.

Upcycling

This locally owned company recycles plastics by turning refuse into durable outdoor materials for parks, gardens, and residences. They create things such as benches, poles, planks, etc. The materials are completely UV resistance, nonslip, and maintenance free.

Reform

Investigates plastic waste barriers at meso and macro levels working with key stakeholders to facilitate locally inspired solutions through the informal infrastructure.

Impact Vietnam

A sustainability advisory organization that provides resources for local tourism, finance, water, IT, and agribusiness sectors. Their most recent project is titled the ‘Refill my Bottle Campaign’, placing water refill stations at different locations throughout the city. People can use an app to find where they can refill, earning points for discounts and prizes. Local companies who use the refill station have to pay nothing and benefit from the added foot traffic. So far they have acquired 100 stations and counting.

The Future of ReThink Plastic Vietnam

ReThink Plastic was an event that acted as a catalyst for conversation. From the conception of the seminar and beyond, the group has dedicated themselves to ReThink Plastic as a force for meaningful change in Vietnam. And, they are aware that this is much bigger than them.

Since the event, ReThink has become a platform. Many corporations, schools, start-ups, and community members have become aware of the daunting challenge at hand, and looked to ReThink for solutions. Dr Salvetti says that no one place can provide all of the answers or solutions, but ReThink’s goal is “to engage all stakeholders at all levels in a sort of cultured thinking and common agenda and see how that translates in to real world practical changes.”

Rethink Plastic is a big deal for Ho Chi Minh City, but only a tiny part of a global puzzle. The important takeaway is this: the conversation on how to reduce plastic waste in Vietnam is happening and we all have a duty to do our part. Plastic pollution affects everyone, and we all have a duty to do our small part to educate ourselves, rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle, and take actionable steps towards a plastic-free future.

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS WHAT DO YERSIN, CALMETTE AND PASTEUR HAVE IN COMMON ?

Every one of us who lives in Vietnam for more than just a few weeks, knows Calmette, Yersin and Pasteur. If we didn’t know them already from history lessons, we know them from street names.

Whether we shop for wires, ropes and screws on Saigon’s Yersin street, cross Calmette bridge to District 4 in pursuit of our favorite banh flan or eat a delicious cheese fondue in The Alps on Pasteur, the three gentlemen are frequent encounters.

If you don’t want to read my rambling about the accomplishments of these three astonishing men, you can scroll right down to the bottom of the post to get a crisp answer.

What did these French scientists actually do?

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur was a French chemist and microbiologist who lived from 27 December 1822 to 28 September 1895. He discovered the principles of microbial fermentation, pasteurization and vaccination. His probably most remarkable, or rather most memorable contributions were the creation of vaccines against rabies and anthrax. To the public, Louis Pasteur is probably best known for the pasteurization process to end bacterial contamination of milk.

He was the one who conducted experiments on the germ theory and convinced most of Europe of the fact, that germs can contaminate a medium or cause diseases. Pasteur was the director of the Pasteur Institute that was established in 1887. His body lies under the institute in a vault covered in Byzantine mosaics depicting his accomplishments.

Albert Calmette

Léon Charles Albert Calmette was a French physicist, bacteriologist and immunologist who lived from 12 July 1863 to 29 October 1933.

Albert Calmette did important research in the field of immunology and developed Calmette’s serum, the first serum against snake venom. He met Louis Pasteur in Paris after he returned from French Congo, where he researched malaria, pellagra and sleeping sickness. Pasteur promoted Calmette to lead the Saigon branch of the Pasteur Institute, where he focused on the field of toxicology. He organized the production of vaccines against rabies and smallpox. Another contribution to our well-being was when he collaborated with Alexandre Yersin in developing a serum against the bubonic plague – the black pest, which brings us right to:

Alexandre Yersin

Alexandre Emile Jean Yersin was a Swiss/French physician and bacteriologist who lived from 22 September 1863 to 1 March 1943.

His groundbreaking discovery was the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague. He created a small laboratory in Nha Trang to conduct his research on the bubonic plague, which became the first building block of Nha Trang’s Pasteur Institute and today hosts the Yersin Museum. Apart from contributing to vaccination and eradication of the world’s most feared disease, he worked in sanitation and agriculture, as well as in the prediction of typhoons. Alexandre Yersin is remembered in Vietnam fondly to this day. A pagoda was erected on his tomb in Suoi Dau and ceremonies are performed in his worship. Yersin also discovered Da Lat in 1893 and a private university that was founded in Da Lat in 2004 was named Yersin University.

So now we know what these gentlemen contributed to our modern healthcare system. All three of them were French scientists, mainly active in the fields of bacteriology and immunology. While Pasteur never lived in Vietnam, Calmette did and Yersin even adopted the country as home.

But what – in context of Vietnamese history – do they have in common?

When Vietnam was finally reunited, all the French names in public places, such as streets, squares and and parks got rigorously eradicated. However, no political disagreement was able to cloud the respect for these three Frenchmen, who contributed so much to healthcare and medicine.

Yersin, Pasteur and Calmette are still a part of Vietnam’s daily life.

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS What are the main religions in Ho Chi Minh City ?

The six most popular religions in Saigon and the rest of Vietnam are: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hindu, Islam, Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo. The last two are indigenous religions that emerged during the colonial period. However, the majority identify with what is called “triple religion” or Tam Giáo, which is a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism, in addition to practising ancestor worship.

Ancestor worship plays an important part in the daily lives of the Vietnamese people. No matter what one’s religion is, almost every Vietnamese home maintains a household altar which is used to pay respect to one’s ancestors. Vietnamese believe in the afterlife, and that it is the duty of the living to meet the needs of the dead. In turn, ancestors will give their blessing to the living.

Generally speaking regardless of your religion you can find a suitable place to worship in HCMC.

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS PRIDE AND PROMISE FOR VIETNAM’S LGBTQI+ COMMUNITY

 Vietnam is
moderately accepting on the international stage.

 Queer
media representation is increasingly positive in Vietnam.

Thời gian thấm thoát thoi đưa
Thể nào anh cũng sẽ lừa được em
Chàng trai đang sánh bước bên em
Đằng nào rồi cũng sẽ thuộc về anh!”

A chorus of young voices sang this
year’s unofficial Vietnam Pride anthem
 from singer and gay pop culture icon Truc Nhan as they charged up and
down Saigon’s iconic Nguyen Hue walking street. Hoisting a giant rainbow flag over their heads, participants broke out
into dance, took selfies with drag queens, and some even brought family members to an LGBTQI+ event for the first
time. Local papers were there snapping photos, and even some international news outlets in far off countries covered the events of September 14th, 2019. It
was only the eighth year in Vietnam’s history that Pride was publicly celebrated.

What made this day’s gathering truly special, however, was its significance as a platform for the Saigonese LGBTQI+ community to visibly occupy public space – in plain view of their friends and families, their fellow Vietnamese citizens, tourists and expats, and even the police. 

“A western style drag scene has started and grown in Hanoi and Saigon,” says Blake, a Hanoi-based expat and performer. “Pride itself seems to be getting bigger.”

Here in Vietnam, the LGBTQI+ community has only recently begun to occupy a public platform, with the first ever Pride held in Hanoi on August 5, 2012. In a short span of time, Pride celebrations have spread to cities and rural towns all throughout Vietnam, and new ones – like this year’s first ever Pride in Tra Vinh, a sparsely-populated coastal province in the heart of the Mekong Delta – are popping up every year.

Vietnam on the International Stage

The landscape of sexual orientation and gender identity in Vietnam, and more broadly throughout Asia, is a complex terrain from which cultural values, family intradependence, religion, and the tumultuous legacy of colonialism grow and intertwine. As a result, LGBTQ rights vary widely in this part of the world. 

Taiwan is a model of acceptance among its fellow Asian nations, recently becoming the first to legalize same-sex marriage. Its annual Pride celebration in October drew about 200,000 local and international participants, making it the largest in the region.

Malaysia and Brunei have enshrined and upheld some of the world’s harshest punishments for same-sex sexual activity into law, ranging from jail time to caning and, in the most extreme cases, vigilante execution. Though these punishments are rarely enforced, LGBTQI+ individuals receive virtually no protection from the state and are frequent targets of hate crimes and discriminatory police raids.

Among its neighbouring nations, Vietnam sits relatively comfortably on the tolerant end of the spectrum, though perhaps not yet fully accepting. 

“The biggest challenge that we’re facing now,” says Long, a transgender dancer and drag performer based in Saigon, “Is the legal matters of same-sex marriage and the transgender community’s rights to legally adopt their new gender.”

Homosexuality has never been criminalized in Vietnam, and as recently as 2015, the National Assembly passed a bill that would make it legal for transgender individuals to change their gender on legal documents to reflect their true gender identity; however, guidance for enacting this law has yet to be discussed or passed by the National Assembly, leaving the fate of thousands of transgender individuals in Vietnam to the discernment of local authorities, who are unable or unaware of how to proceed without a clear mandate to do so. 

But perhaps the greatest source of controversy over this bill within the transgender community is that only those who have had gender reassignment surgery qualify for legal recognition.

“Because that law will be defined by surgery and not by someone identifying as transgender, it really should be called the ‘transsexual’ law,” says Linh, director of ICS Center, a nationwide legal advocacy group. “So now the current draft, and older drafts, have been debated even in the trans community…because being legally recognised requires you to have some kind of medical transition, and not every trans person wants to do that.”

Rectifying this aspect of the law may take some time. The National Assembly, having agreed in principle that this law should be made in 2015, have since given a mandate to the Ministry of Health to work out the specifics of that law, as well as how it should be implemented.

“Though the transgender law is still debated within the transgender community, the main reason that hasn’t been passed is because there have been a lot of new laws proposed in the last two years,” says Linh. “At present, the transgender law is not the Health Ministry’s priority. The draft bill has been proposed eight times from 2017 until now but it still hasn’t been prioritised, most likely because this law only affects a small minority of the population.”

Despite this challenge, there is a palpable sense of hope and anticipation within the local community that major progress could be made in the next few years. “I don’t think we’ll never be prioritised just because we’re a minority,” says Linh. “It just means we need stronger visibility, to raise our voices and express our needs.”

“I’m positive that Vietnam will be the next in Asia to legalise equal marriage.” 

… says Dan Ni, a Saigonese drag performer whose optimism is shared by many in the Vietnamese LGBTQI+ community.

As public perception warms up to the LGBTQI+ community, mostly through increased representation in the media and pop culture, many Vietnamese citizens maintain a bright outlook for the advancement of gay rights in the next decade.

“We hope to achieve same sex marriage, hopefully in the next 6 years,” says Linh. “I hope that the transgender law will be resolved sooner, since it’s achieved more progress than the same-sex marriage law.”

Media Representation

Public exposure to queer individuals in pop culture, politics, and the media has certainly increased in the last decade. Vietnamese movies frequently depict protagonist, usually gay male or transgender female characters, though their roles have often been relegated to well-known and tired stereotypes. 

“Securing acceptance and respect is important,” says Ana, a British expat and performer based in Saigon. “As opposed to the current portrayal [of gay men] in the media as just jokers or flamboyant comedy characters.”

“In the past 2-3 years, there has been a lot of LGBTQ representation,” says Linh. “Talk shows and reality shows create a lot of positive influence, although most of them are not perfect, and there are still stereotypes and bias. But it does bring different stories to the general public. That is something we appreciate about the media. And we will need all this visibility and much more in order to pass the transgender law in Vietnam.”

Though stigma and harmful stereotypes certainly remain in pop culture, LGBTQI+ representation seems to be steadily increasing and improving. In the Spring of 2019, popular TV game show Người Ấy Là Ai featured a young gay male contestant who shared his story on national television. His parents later joined him onstage and talked about how they had come to love, accept, and celebrate their son for who he is. Former Vietnam Idol singer and transgender pop icon, Huong Giang, is also a regular judge on this show, which has subsequently featured a handful of other LGBTQI+ contestants.

One of 2018’s biggest viral moments in Vietnamese television that made international waves came in the form of a shocking reveal on Vietnam’s first ever season of The Bachelor, in which one of the female contestants, Minh Thu, broke decorum and declared her love for one of her fellow female contestants, Truc Nhu, and asked her to quit the show in front of a national audience. Later footage would reveal the producers’ shock as the contestants embraced and left the set together, though Nhu would agree to stay on the show until her eventual elimination. After the season aired, the two announced that they had gotten together after the show, and have been the subject of national admiration ever since.

Just a few weeks after international Pride month this year, Vietnamese singer and pop culture icon Truc Nhan released his latest hit music video, Sáng Mắt Chưa—a wacky, colourful, unapologetically flamboyant rollercoaster ride in which he is depicted “crashing” his friend’s wedding to let her know that her fiance is secretly his gay lover. 

While the tabloid-esque frivolity of illicit sexual affairs may seem like a rather shallow and tacky Pride anthem to the casual Western observer, this hilarious jab at “closeted” gay culture in Vietnam struck a chord with the local LGBTQI+ community for depicting an all-too-relatable scenario, in which many deny their own sexuality to fulfill their parents’ expectations to have a heterosexual marriage and start a family. Indeed, the tremendous pressure gay men face to take up the mantle of their family name and have children of their own is at the root of a lot of the violence, rejection, and discrimination they experience, sometimes in the form of violence from their own families.

Out in Public, Closeted at Home

Many people, particularly in urban areas, lead fairly open lives with their friends, finding local queer spaces when they are available, and of course dating and often getting into serious relationships—but they simply don’t talk about their public lives at home for fear of disappointing their parents, maintaining a precarious separation of the two worlds. It is common, therefore, for LGBTQI+ individuals in Vietnam to be publicly “out” but still “closeted” in their own homes.

This cultural phenomenon is widespread in Asian countries, where three or more generations often occupy a single household, and where adult children often stay with their families well beyond the age of 18. In Vietnam, this is partly due to cultural values rooted in traditional Confucianism, and partly due to socioeconomic necessity, with families functioning as a vital support system.

The legacy of Confucianism, imported by Chinese colonial rule centuries ago, still lies at the foundation of family values in Vietnam and, like many other patriarchal systems around the world, governs familial relationships, and assigns specific roles to women and men. Though Vietnamese women today enjoy a greater measure of independence and equality than in the more conservative, fundamentalist past, they are still typically expected to leave their childhood homes to join their husbands’ families after marriage. 

Traditional Confucianism says little about sexuality, but the structural mandates built on gender and generational hierarchy have historically left no room for homosexual relationships, and in extreme cases, have made homosexuality a de facto threat to the fabric of society and the status quo.

A notable exception exists in the centuries-old tradition of Đạo Mẫu, or “Mother Goddess” worship, originating in the north of Vietnam in the 16th century as a rebellion against Chinese colonial Confucian gender roles. Instead of relegating women to submissive, passive roles, Đạo Mẫu incorporates numerous female and male deities, and places female deity Lieu Hanh at the center—a symbol of women’s desire for freedom, happiness, and independence. Even more transgressive were the mediums specially chosen to commune with the goddess, who wore the clothing matching the gender of the male or female deity they wanted to commune with, regardless of their own gender. This is, perhaps, the first recorded instance of the performance of gender fluidity in Vietnamese culture. Đạo Mẫu received UNESCO’s inscription in 2016, and has had a cultural resurgence at the Four Palaces in Hanoi, where visitors can witness the colourful and centuries-old ritual practices of the religion in a dramatised way.

Looking Ahead

“There is no secret group of smart, benevolent activists who are going to secure rights and acceptance for you,” says Blake. “If you want things to change, you must be part of the effort. How big your contribution is and exactly what that contribution is, is up to you, but you should not be a bystander.”

Vietnam stands at the precipice of an exciting time for the LGBTQI+ community. Awareness and acceptance is spreading, laws are gradually making their way into the books to secure equality and protection for some of Vietnam’s most vulnerable communities, and the general outlook for the community in Vietnam is positive.

Vietnamese children and teenagers now have access to role models and resources that were almost completely out of reach only a decade ago. Media representation is increasingly affirming and positive. International influence imports a diversity of worldviews and cultures to a country that, up until the early nineties, was virtually cut off from the outside world.

Still, there are plenty of challenges that remain. The LGBTQI+ community continues to be ostracised and isolated, particularly in rural communities, and disproportionately affecting trans people. “Coming out” is a hot topic and widely seen as something that is still impactful and consequential for many families. Particularly with the older generation, outdated stereotypes and misinformation through lack of exposure and education persist.

Thanks to the efforts of local initiatives and organisations like ICS, this is gradually changing, and leaders in queer communities throughout Vietnam are becoming more and more outspoken to challenge conventional assumptions and offer support to people who are vulnerable or afraid to be their true selves. 

“Don’t be shy, be confident, do everything you can to be confident,” says Phong, a Hanoi based drag performer. “You’re beautiful and have the right to exist. When you accept who you are and show your talents, don’t be afraid of what other people think of you.”

“No matter what gender you have, you have the right to choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing,” says Lolita. “So, choose the right path to discover yourself and do not rush to conclude anything when you do not really understand it.”

“Be you,” says Dan Ni. “Because as Lizzo said, it feels good as hell.”

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS VIETNAM’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL FOODS

When I was asked to write an article about the top 10 most adventurous foods I have ever eaten in Vietnam, I thought to myself, “I’ve never eaten any adventurous foods before.” I started to reflect on my time in Vietnam and tried to have intentional flashbacks.

I am not an adventurous person by any means; however, living in a foreign country one must try local cuisine to fully understand and appreciate the place they are living. Not only is food essential for life, but food gives a traveller a chance to try what other inhabitants are eating.

Full disclaimer: my meaning of “adventurous” might not seem all that daring to you.

Súp Cua (Crab Soup)

The reason I put súp cua number one is that at every wedding or party that I have been to over the last decade in Vietnam there was and will always be súp cua at the table. I will be honest, it smells delicious, but just looking at it makes me gag. It really looks like thick snot and whenever I eat it I have to hold my nostrils together. It does taste good though.

Chân Gà (Chicken Feet)

There is just something strange and odd about eating chicken feet. Even though locals love chicken feet, I can’t even dare to try them. However, if you are mood for good value, I am told you can get a kilo of chicken feet for about VND60,000.

Lưỡi Lợn (Pig’s Tongue)

This is an obvious choice. No way will I ever try this again. I remember going to the countryside in the Mekong Delta (Long An) and being served some local tongue. Needlessly to say I wasn’t having it.

Côn Trùng (Bugs)

Cockroaches, crickets, larvae and so on—pique your attention yet? This number should probably be number one. There’s really nothing worse than seeing a bowl of worms or larvae swimming around and then being asked to devour them without hesitation. Obviously I am not going down that road again.

Phá Lấu (Meat Offal)

Have you ever driven down the street and looked at all the street vendors and stalls and seen piles and piles of meat hanging and dripping all over the stalls? Well, that is phá lấu, basically all the leftover meat. If you are into intestines, lungs, kidneys and whatever else there is, this is something you must try—just kidding. Seriously, I remember trying one piece of meat from a stall one time and told myself that is not happening again.

Con Ếch (Frogs)

There is just something creepy and wrong about eating frogs. People religiously eat them here and they actually do taste like chicken. I remember venturing into an alleyway and eating frog porridge. There was something strange about eating frogs in a liquid substance. I prefer my frogs dry and crispy.

Bánh Bao (Steamed Buns)

Locals love them, as do some expats and foreigners. Me? Nope. I honestly don’t eat much meat in general and when I do I need it to be cooked and grilled properly. I just can’t open up some bread and demolish a local meat-stuffed pie—actually I can, but that is usually in Australia or the UK.

Bánh Mì Muối Ớt (Chilli Banh Mi)

Imagine biting into the world famous bánh mì only to discover your mouth burning, snot coming from your nose and burning sensation in your lips and fingers from touching the chilli. Yes, that happens. The problem will eating bánh mì is that you can’t really see if or how much chilli they actually put into it. It is really audacious, to say the least. These were a big trend a few years ago, but it’s hard to find one in HCMC now.

Hột Vịt Lộn (Fetal Duck Eggs)

This should also be number one—it has to be number one! I wanted to put fetal duck eggs number one, but that would have been too obvious, so I decided to put it here instead to catch your attention. I remember using a spoon one day on the street to crack open one of them and I opened up the shell and I just felt like I was looking at a baby duck. I was really expecting and hoping it would move so I did not actually have to try to eat it. I masked it with salt and pepper and slowly put it close to my mouth. I was just about it try it and bam! I vomited. Thank God for that because I would never have been able to forget that taste and memory if I actually had tried it.

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS HISTORY, BEAUTY AND MYSTERY: THE AO DAI

Get on a plane, go to a bank or even just walk outside and you’re likely to see a Vietnamese woman beautifully adorned in this head-to-toe, tight-fitting look. But what is an ao dai, really?

Technically speaking, a long shirt (“ao” means shirt and “dai” means long). But it’s much more than this simple definition, or the sum of its parts. This is an outfit that has morphed with Vietnam’s history for hundreds of years.

It communicates more about a woman than a conversation ever could. Designer Si Hoang helps sift through this complicated history.

Ao Dai: An Uncertain History

It’s impossible to say exactly when the ao dai entered Vietnamese culture. The first recorded evidence appeared in the 17th century, when records show ao dai worn in the courts of the Nguyen Dynasty in Hue. In the beginning, it was a royal dress worn by Vietnamese aristocracy, and was made in a traditional “five-panel” style.

Heavily embroidered and worn with jewellery and headdresses, it’s safe to say that the ao dai looked considerably different from how we see it today. As French writers began to describe the garment in increasing detail, this long dress adapted to Vietnam’s changing cultural climate.

Things really started to pick up in 1934 when designer Nguyen Cat Tuong got hold of the design. Si Hoang speaks with reverence about Tuong, saying, “Before, the colour was very dark and boring, but he designed the ao dai with fabric from Europe and Bombay. He made the design with two pieces, and always used white pants.”

The bold colours and tight fit we associate with ao dai were developed further in the 1950s. Since then, it’s just been a matter of changing design features like the neckline, length of the shirt and designs on the fabric.

Ao Dai Translation Lesson

While the basic silhouette of an ao dai is relatively fixed, that doesn’t mean that all ao dai are the same. In fact, Si Hoang is adamant that every ao dai he makes for a client should reflect her individual personality: “When I make an ao dai for someone, I need to understand. I need to understand what they need it for, where they will go, who they will meet.”

This unspoken language conveyed with shapes, colours and designs is a sixth sense to designers by Si Hoang and sartorially adept Vietnamese in general. Need an example? Western women are often warned against wearing white ao dai to weddings and social events, as “they’ll look like a schoolgirl” – many schools, even today, dress young girls in pure white ao dai. Older, unmarried women will typically choose soft pastel shades, while stately, married women will adopt dark, rich colours along with white or black pants.

And then there’s the ornamentation. Traditionally, ao dai were heavily embroidered, a laborious process that took days to weeks and therefore connoted wealth and power. Today, designs can either be embroidered or painted on (a technique Si Hoang, an artist, is famous for). Popular images include peacocks, dragons, lotuses, apricot blooms and peonies.

So, when you get your ao dai fitted, the first question is clear: Who are you?

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS TELLING THE STORY OF VIETNAMESE WOMEN

Femininity is inherent in Vietnamese culture, and women play an immensely important role in the country’s history as well as in modern society. Vietnamese women are just as hardworking as men are, and contribute a lot to the economy, as can be observed everywhere in the country.

So you shouldn’t be surprised that there is a museum dedicated to women in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

Located at 36 Ly Thuong Kiet, the four levels of the building are filled with over a thousand documents and artifacts, labeled in English and French. It took nearly 10 years to collect these from all over the country. Walking inside, you can see a glass dome on top. The exhibition floors are designed as large circles, so as to let light it collects in through to the first floor.

The second level showcases artifacts from the daily life of women from different ethnic groups, including jewelry and clothing, arranged in a way as though to tell the story of the typical life of a woman from getting married to giving birth to family life. You will be able to learn about different wedding customs, rituals and superstitions surrounding the birth of a child and the many roles of a woman in the family.

Moving on to the next level, women’s contributions to the country throughout history, especially during wartime, will leave you mind blown. Vietnamese women are shown here as true heroes, from the very first queens and warriors in history, to those who gave all their youth and their life for the mission of bringing peace to their home country.

On the third level, the focus is on the history and activities of the Vietnam Women’s Union, including a stunning collection of propaganda posters, and gifts from other women’s unions around the world. The final level is where you can take a look at the evolution of Vietnamese women’s traditional clothes, in different regions, ethnicities and periods.

There are ongoing exhibitions on specific topics, including the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam. The colorful exhibitions, conducted with the supervision of experts such as Dr. Laurel Kendall of the American Museum of Natural History, showcase and explain a mysterious part of Vietnamese culture.

From 8 March to 8 May 2018, in celebration of International Women’s Day, there is an art exhibition called “Mother and Nature” by artist Van Duong Thanh with a selection of 35 artworks, depicting the beauty of the mother and the child in the settings of Vietnamese nature.

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS IN VIETNAM, NEITHER DOG THIEVES NOR DOG LOVERS ARE GIVING IN

Tensions between local residents and dog thieves in Vietnam show no signs of easing as local media reported. Last week an angry mob of civilians severely beat two dog thieves and, in an unrelated incident, dog thieves attacked police officers after being caught.

New Cases

The first case involved two dog thieves who were beaten unconscious and had their motorbike set on fire by a crowd of locals in Bien Hoa City, Dong Nai Province on July 28.

According to Thanh Nien, the two men were caught red-handed by citizens of the town while they were shocking a dog with a home-made taser gun in the early morning.

More locals reportedly came and chased after the thieves.

By the time the police arrived, the dog thieves were lying unconscious with multiple injuries, while their motorbike was completely burned.

The taser gun and the bodies of ten dogs were found nearby.

One of the thieves suffered a fractured skull, along with a broken arm and a broken leg. The other sustained minor injuries.

Additionally, on July 24, two police officers were injured while chasing two suspected dog thieves in Soc Trang Province in the Mekong Delta.

The officers, suspecting the pair were dog thieves, signalled the men to pull over their motorbike. The men ignored the request and sped up.

One of the suspected criminals shot an officer in the stomach with a home-made taser gun, while the other threw hot chili powder into the face of the accompanying officer.

Local police are still searching for the men.

An Enduring War

Civilians have repeatedly attacked suspected dog thieves over the years despite public outcry.

No matter how brutally dog thieves are injured, thieves have not been deterred and continue to find new ways to steal dogs and evade residents.

Along with tasers and other weapons, many thieves also use dog poison disguised as candy. One such tragic incident happened last year when a 53-year-old man in Dak Nong Province died after mistaking dog poison for a lollipop.

The man found two “lollipops” while he was sweeping his front yard. After eating one he began to foam at the mouth and convulse violently. He was rushed to hospital but died 15 minutes later despite doctors’ efforts.

In November 2014, a two-year-old boy in the same province died for the same reason.

A number of fatalities involving dog thieves and residents have been reported in the last few years.

Dog thieves have turned their weapons on dog owners or civilian pursuers after being caught red-handed in some cases, while angry mobs have fatally attacked dog thieves after catching them in other cases.

The Changing Law

For years dog theft has been treated as petty theft; according to the law, dogs were considered to have too little material value to bring about a criminal prosecution. By Vietnamese law, theft is only considered a criminal offense if the stolen property’s value exceeds VND2 million (US$88).

As a result, most thieves have been more scared of vigilantes than law enforcement.

However, an amended law which took effect in July 2016 has finally turned the table against dog thieves by allowing prosecutions to be brought against those whose thefts cause “insecurity” and “social disorder”.

In May of this year, a court in the southern province of Tay Ninh enacted the new law for the first time and handed out custodial sentences of three to seven years to six dog thieves.

According to Tuoi Tre, the thieves had been stalking houses at night and shooting dogs with home-made stun guns at the behest of a local dog meat restaurant.

The scale of their crime was eventually their undoing,as police raided the restaurant in December 2016, finding 47 dogs, 32 of which had already been slaughtered.

Dog Meat Industry

Around five million dogs are killed in Vietnam every year, making it the world’s second-biggest consumer of dog meat after China, which consumes roughly 20 million every year.

The consumption of dog meat has been condemned by many in Vietnam and around the world, as most of the dogs eaten are stolen pets.

Dog meat eating is an established tradition in Vietnam, especially in the northern region of the country.

VnExpress has quoted a Vietnamese senior labour official as saying that eating dog and cat meat has negatively affected the reputation of Vietnamese labourers overseas.

“They drink or gamble every time they get together. Some workers went to Malaysia, and people’s dogs and cats started disappearing, and they put any birds they could find into bowls of rice porridge,” she said.

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS VIETNAM’S TRANS COMMUNITY IS GETTING HELP – BUT STILL NEEDS MORE

Dong Thap, a 24-year-old transgender woman, chose to start reassignment surgery in 2015. It should have been a momentous occasion, the start of her new life in her preferred identity.

But two years before the country would recognise her desired gender, and one year before Ho Chi Minh City’s first gay-and transgender-centered healthcare provider would open its doors, she was about to undergo a potentially agonising physiological journey.

“[M]y friends, who had gone through gender transition, had problems from overdoses because they did not go to a doctor, but just listened to advice from friends,” Thap said. She shared her story through HCMC’s Men’s Health Center, a clinic that specialises in caring for patients who are transgender and gay.

It’s been nearly a decade since Vietnam’s first legally-recognised transgender woman Pham Le Quynh Tram made her first public remarks in her chosen gender identity. But despite the widening acceptance of Vietnam’s transgender and gay community, both communities still face issues accessing basic social services on top of significant social stigma.

For transgender persons, the diminution is especially dangerous because they require particularised medical care. Instead, Vietnam’s transgender community is generally starved of sensible medical advice and has to manage their own transitions.

Thap, like many others, was left guessing.

“After the cosmetic surgery, I continued to inject hormones, but only one tube every two weeks. I did not have any health problems from the injections,” she said.

The Right to Be a Person

Nearly one year after the General Assembly passed a law recognising trans people’s right to select their preferred gender, much remains to be done.

In January of this year, the Vietnamese government enacted a change in their Civil Code to for the first time legally grant all transgender persons, including Thap, personhood.

How then did Pham become the first legal transgender woman in 2009? The decision to awarded her new government identification that superseded her previous male identity came from leadership in the Chơn Thành District where she lived at the time.

The decision on Pham would go unchallenged for four years until provincial authorities brought the case before the federal government. Their contention was that Pham had had her gender redefined illegally, the district level authorities ought to have taken medical documents recognizing the gender reassignment. At the time, no facilities capable of issuing such documents were operating in Vietnam.

The onerous gender reassignment process and persistent social stigma have pushed some transgendered people into hiding.

Thap successfully completed her transition, but she knows many who couldn’t manage their reassignment process on their own. “They can overdose or use substandard hormones, or those without clear origin. They also may not be using hormones in a hygienic way,” she said.

A Better Healthcare Provider

This was just the way business was handled if you were undergoing gender reassignment in Vietnam.

It’s for this express reason that gay-and-transgender-friendly Men’s Health Center was founded in 2016.

“LGBT members are stigmatised and are not well understood, lack the healthcare and understanding facilities for them,” Dr. Tra Anh Duy, a doctor at the Saigon clinic, said.

The biggest misconception about gay, lesbian and transgender Vietnamese is that all members have a sexually transmitted disease, Tra said. That’s turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lack of doctors who are trained to care for Vietnam’s trans and gay community compounded with social stigma leads to a rift between existing healthcare providers and members of these groups, which creates an unnecessarily high rate of treatable intercourse-related infection.

Tra said healthcare providers need special training and new triage techniques to figure what to do when; for example, a woman transitioning to a male gender identity requires maternity-related care. He said that traditionally, these patients are either treated at the men’s clinic Faculty of Andrology, or not at all.

Men’s Health Center is aiming to enhance gay and trans people’s healthcare through a 12-person staff that includes five doctors. The health center has even staffed a dermatologist to create what they hope is an exhaustive patient care portfolio.

Tra said one of the biggest threats to the gay men’s community as a whole is undiagnosed HIV. To combat this, the center provides free HIV tests and offers guidance and support for those who’ve had a high-risk sexual encounter within the last 72 hours.

The clinic has tried to establish a sensitive price structure for its services, Tra said, which are all available to both foreigners and Vietnamese.

Tra said the center has served around 1,500 patients since its founding in 2016.

Tra observed cultural acceptance of the LGBT community has been patchy. A little less than half of Vietnamese still consider themselves opponents of anything outside a hetrosexual, gender-static worldview, Tra said. They’re mainly elderly people. The South tends to be more open and progressive than the North, Tra noted.

New Laws Fall Short

Vietnam’s government made waves last year when they activated a civil code change protecting the country’s trans population. The bill won overwhelming support in the legislature: 282 of the National Assembly’s 366 lawmakers voted in favour of the revision during voting in November 2016. As when Pham came to the public stage as the first legal transgender woman, a sea change was anticipated.

Unfortunately, the changes promised in the new laws have not been realised for many. The Ministry of Health itself publicly observed that transgender people are still being barred from accessing essential services like healthcare and banking.

The Ministry of Health’s top legal affairs officer Nguyen Huy Quang made the comments to Tuoi Tre News in conjunction with an announcement that the federal government is pursuing further protections for transgender individuals.

The existing law was enacted in January. Among its major provisions is the right to a gender of choice for those who’ve undergone gender reassignment surgery.

Transgender persons’ rights activists were worried about where those who wish to have another gender, but have not undergone the surgery, would stand before the law.

“The term ‘transgender people’ is a concept of gender identity,” Huynh Minh Thao of LGBT advocacy organization ICS Center said. “It’s not about whether they undergo sex changes.”

The new law containing enhanced protections will be submitted to the National Assembly for review in 2019.

“The law will enable a more comprehensive view of the transgender community, which is a particularly vulnerable group of citizens,” Quang said.

“The lack of legal recognition has rendered them ‘invisible’ in the eyes of the law and led them to face tremendous difficulties in life.”

Vietnam’s First Trans Woman Almost Wasn’t

Long before the government conferred legal personhood and recognition to transgender persons, members of the community were making noise on their own and working to reshape cultural perceptions by just being visible.

In 2009, Vietnam’s first trans woman created a buzz after she went public with her story. Pham Van Hiep transformed herself to Pham Le Quynh Tram and received legal recognition for her preferred name and gender.

“I can’t believe that this is true,” she told VietNamNet in her first public comments nearly a decade ago.

A law, passed in November 2015, allows Vietnam’s hospitals to perform gender reassignment surgery. Back in mid-2000s when Pham began to contemplate gender reassignment, she had to search abroad for the appropriate healthcare provider. Pham went to Thailand for her procedure. She paid US$250,000 to undergo gender reassignment surgery in there.

Pham said at that point, the surgery was so risky that she didn’t disclose it to her family in Ho Chi Minh City to save them the worry.

“I did not tell my family about the surgery when I left Vietnam because I was afraid that I might die in Thailand,” she said.

Pham’s troubles didn’t end once she completed the surgery, however. The decision to confer her a female identity came from the People’s Committee of Chon Thanh. The group rules within the Binh Phuoc Province, and these leaders contended in January 2013 that the move runs counter to law. Citing existing regulations stating that only those born with ambiguous sexual organs are allowed to select their gender, “Mr. Hiep is not subject to sex reassignment,” the province’s attorney told VNExpress in 2013, referring to Pham by her former male identity.

In February 2013, the Ministry of Justice suspended the case pending further review, where it awaits a ruling.

When she completed her surgery and spoke publically about it as the first legally recognised transgender Vietnamese woman, Pham said she aspired to one day be a singer. In 2013, she released an album.

But four years before, presumably aware of the dangers that would befall her as a trans person with a relatively high profile, Pham was upbeat in spite of the difficulties.

“I cannot describe my happiness of living with my true sex,” Pham said.

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS DEADLY CONSEQUENCES: THE LACK OF SWIMMING INSTRUCTION IN VIETNAM

The then-18-year-old swimmer Nguyen Thi Anh Vien made national headlines in 2014, when she won the first ever Asian Games medal for Vietnam in swimming.

Born in Can Tho, Anh Vien was one lucky Vietnamese child, as she began swimming with the guidance of her grandfather. The majority of Vietnamese children, however, do not receive swimming lessons at a young age. A recent survey found that only 35 percent of children in the Mekong Delta and 10 percent in the Red River Delta can swim.

A National Epidemic

This lack of swimming skills is closely linked to the consistently high number of drowning cases among Vietnamese children and teenagers. In 2005 and 2006, a total of 7,249 children died from this preventable cause, as reported by the Ministry of Health (MOH).

A 2016 report by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) shows that this shocking number has not fallen after a decade: an average of 6,400 people die from drowning in Vietnam each year, over 50 percent of whom are children. This means that everyday, about 10 Vietnamese children die from drowning, the highest rate in Southeast Asia.

There are numerous reasons why this is such an epidemic across the country. Vietnam is famous for its 3,260km coastline, as well as for its bevy of rivers, springs and lakes throughout the country. These landscapes of scenic beauty are potentially dangerous environments, as children like to spend time there during summer months, often without adult supervision. There are also frequent risks of flash floods in mountainous landscapes, and rip currents along the coastline—especially in the country’s central region.

Even uncovered water storages, wells and construction holes can cause child drowning, as young children are not entirely aware of the inherent dangers while playing near these things. Left on their own when their parents are busy working, they might accidentally trip and fall, or even climb inside, not knowing how to get out.

Preventable but not Prevented

According to WHO, drowning is the leading cause of death among Vietnamese children aged 5 to 14. Yet, swimming lessons are not a compulsory part of the school curriculum, and generally Vietnamese parents do not view swimming as an indispensable survival skill.

Only parents in big cities like HanoiSaigon and Danang are likely to send their kids to private swimming classes held during the summer at various swimming pools around the city. These range from inexpensive and overly crowded public pools to highly priced private pools inside hotels or condominiums.

The price for a basic swimming course is not cheap compared to the average monthly income, around VND2 million (US$90) per child. However, many parents would rather pay more than this amount for their children to join a summer English course instead.

In rural areas, swimming facilities are few and far between, hence the lack of adequately trained teachers. Children who manage to learn to swim are mostly taught by their family members or even their friends, in a pond or river near their village.

Many believe that swimming can be self-taught, as our “reflexes” kick in when thrown into water. However, these reflexes are only seen in babies for a short period of time underwater, and more importantly, babies are not strong enough to be able to swim.

The use of safety devices, such as life vests, ring buoys and floaties, is largely limited to swimming pools and beaches, and rarely seen in countryside waters, where they might be most helpful.

Hope for the Future?

While there are no policies in place to encourage and facilitate swimming learning among Vietnamese children, organisations such as SwimSafe have stepped in to provide primary school children in Danang with free swimming lessons.

As Nguyen Thi Anh Vien said during the launch of the “Fund for Drowning Prevention and Swimming Literacy for Vietnamese Children” by the Vietnam Aquatic Sports Association in 2016, “I wish that more and more Vietnamese children would know how to swim, and there would be no more heartbreaking accidents caused by drowning.”

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS THE ART OF BARGAINING IN VIETNAM

By: Vinh Dao

While Ho Chi Minh City has it’s share of shopping malls plying Guess handbags and froyo in air conditioned comfort, shopping at one of the local markets can give one a better sense of the city’s cultural, social and culinary heartbeat. These markets, mainly ones tailored to tourists offer a wide range of affordable clothing, souvenirs and handicrafts. However, finding the right price can seem elusive as price tags are non-existent in such markets as the famous Ben Thanh Market. This is where the art of bargaining comes into play.

Bargaining can be a fine line between friendly banter and downright indignation and it takes some experience to get it right. You can’t bargain correctly if you don’t know the price so it’s always good to do some research. Go to different shops to get a general idea on price. Once you have done your research, it’s time to start bargaining in earnest.

Head to that stall that you have been eyeing up and remember to walk with authority! Ask the shopkeeper to quote their price. The price hike will differ depending on the country and even region when it comes to Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City, the prices are inflated by about 30 – 40 percent on what a local can pay while in Hanoi, they can be inflated by up to 50 percent. Establish the price that you are willing to live with and counter offer with a number that is much lower than that. Some seasoned travellers that I know learn the word for expensive and feign indignation with a smile when offered an initial price. Shopkeepers know there will be a bargaining process so you might as well make it as fun as possible.

Try to stick close to your final price. If it doesn’t work out, and the shopkeeper isn’t budging, you can always try the walk off. This almost always works if the amount is within VND10,000. But if not, there’s always the next shop!

Whatever you do, don’t raise your voice or get angry. This causes you to lose face and makes the shopkeeper uncomfortable which won’t help with the bargaining

Enjoy the shopping extravaganza that is Vietnam with these bargaining tips!

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS LONELY BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: VIETNAM’S GHOST MONTH

 The
significance of the seventh lunar month


 How
Vietnam celebrates this festival their own way


 Superstitions
& beliefs


It may be August on the Gregorian calendar but in Vietnam, the lunar calendar plays a significant role in the culture’s traditions and practises.
Besides Tet, the national
celebration of a new lunar year, the seventh month of every lunar year is also prominent but for a totally different
reason: it’s known as Tháng Cô Hồn, or “the month of lonely spirits”.

The seventh month in this lunar year officially started on August 1st, 2019 and throughout this period many believe that
living beings will share our world with spirits of the dead. This belief is taken pretty seriously in East Asia, and
that’s also why you may have noticed a higher number of altars and offerings along the already-crowded sidewalks.

So What is the Seventh Month in Vietnam?

Originating from Chinese folk religion, during the seventh month of the lunar calendar the gates of hell open and
spirits roam free. This results in a surge of negative energy; in Vietnam, this is known as âm khí.

Therefore, during this period people tend to put off making life decisions such as buying a house, getting married or
even relocating.

Things are taken up a notch on the 15th day of the lunar month, because there will be a flurry of activities that day:

Vu Lan Báo Hiếu: or “Mother’s Day”, where people with living mothers bear a red rose and give thanks.
Those whose mother has died will choose to wear a white rose and attend prayer vigil services for the deceased.

Cúng Cô Hồn: the day of the full moon, when a ghost ceremony is held, food is “offered” to the deceased and items are burnt to satisfy the spirits’ needs. These items are large-scale paper models of material possessions such as cars, houses, hell currency notes, and it’s believed that when burnt, they will manifest in the afterlife for the deceased relatives to use. So yes, that will be the only day you get to see a paper model of a Mercedes Benz on fire, and now you’ll understand why.

Giựt Cô Hồn: Shortly after the ceremony is over, things get crazier when someone starts throwing money down the street. Literally. In this ceremony, it’s tradition for people to physically “steal” the items on offer with the belief that the more items “stolen”, the better the luck for the household. Unsurprisingly, this usually ends up causing a frenzy.

The Vietnamese Focus

Although this festival is common across East Asia, Vietnam’s version has a few elements that make it unique.

Unlike Singapore or Malaysia, which refer to the period as “hungry ghost month”, in Vietnam it’s known as “lonely spirit month”, which actually sounds less scary. The focus of the month in Vietnam is not just to avoid wandering spirits, but also a time for families to honour their deceased loved ones and ancestors.

The concept of “offerings” is not to calm down angry spirits out for blood, as per the practice in other countries, but rather to help them and ease their suffering in the afterlife.

Customs in Vietnam

There are many things to do in memory of someone who died during the ghost festival, a series of customs that have been passed down through generations, and there are some taboos to be avoided.

– Avoid staying out late

As spirits are usually nocturnal, a wandering spirit might just follow you home while you’re in a post-clubbing drunken stupor.

– Avoid wearing red, black or white during the witching hour (3 a.m. to 4 a.m.)

Red and black are colours that generally signify evil, and in this case, if you were to wear either of these colours and happen to be out during that hour, you might attract evil spirits. White is a general colour for ghosts, and although nothing will happen to you, you might end up scaring people, which leads to the next point.

– Do not play pranks

Especially the types where you creep up behind someone and go “boo”. Some locals believe that when someone is frightened, that person’s spirit gets temporarily displaced, and this leaves them prone to “invasion” from a wandering spirit.

– Do not call out your friend’s name in public

You’ll never know if there’s a spirit eavesdropping, and it will remember the person’s name for future reference.

– Avoid swimming

Spirits are also known to lurk in waters, and they might grab you by the ankles to make you join them.

– Do not pick up money

Unless it’s on the 15th day. Otherwise it’s no longer “stealing” but actually stealing, and you might make a spirit mad.

– Do not leave your footwear facing the bed

This might sound a little strange, but if your footwear is pointed towards your bed, you’re unintentionally inviting spirits into bed with you.

– Avoid taking photos at night

Unless you’re planning to start a new Vietnamese version of the TV series Ghost Hunters. In other words, you might see things that are not supposed to be in the picture.

– Avoid making your chopsticks stand in bowls.

This is general etiquette in all Asian cultures, but it’s especially applicable during this month simply because chopsticks only stand in bowls during ceremonies for the dead.

The seventh lunar month is a unique tradition across most Asian countries, including Vietnam, and it’s something that has been practiced for centuries. If you’re interested to know more about the festival and the rituals, feel free to approach a local for a deeper understanding, and remember not to disturb any offerings or altars that you may come across in public. If you’ve accidentally stepped on or kicked something off an altar, do apologise to it like you would to a real person.

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS CONVENIENCE STORE CULTURE: WHAT HAVE WE LOST ?

In Saigon, we see convenience stores replace cafes at a rapid clip. What are we losing as the city’s youth begins to prefer canned coffee to cafe sua da?

A young woman walks into a convenience store, buys a cup of instant noodles, sits down in front of the glass window and eats it right there, while the rain falls outside. It sounds like a common scene in Korean dramas. But wait, this is not Korea – this is Ho Chi Minh City. Nowadays, it is just as common to find young Vietnamese studying on their own or spending time with each other in the numerous convenience stores.

A Growing Business, A Growing Demand

Convenience stores such as Family Mart and Circle K have grown fast in the last decade. According to Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Industry and Trade, by 2016 Circle K has had at least 150 stores in the city, Family Mart 73 stores, B’s Mart 98 stores and Shop & Go 111 stores. Newcomers such as Ministop, VinMart and K-Mart are also quickly increasing their presence.

International grocery research organisation IGD predicts that Vietnam’s convenience store market will grow by 37.4 percent in the next four years, the fastest in Asia.

For students and young people in the city, convenience stores have become not only a place to shop but also where they can hang out with air conditioning, Wi-Fi and food available 24/7 (or 24/24, as they say in Vietnam). The stores are conveniently located on every other block of streets, with large signs and bright lights, easy to spot and easy to remember. And the ready-made food, while maybe less tasty than elsewhere, is relatively safe and inexpensive.

The recent wave of convenience store franchises resembles the wave of fast food chains that came into Vietnam over a decade ago. KFC, Lotteria and Jollibee became favourite hangouts for young people and enjoyed rapid growth for a few years, though recently their expansion has started to slow down. Compared to fast food restaurants, convenience stores provide a cheaper and more casual alternative for students, and sometimes even healthier options.

Unlike the more established and omnipresent coffee chains, indie and small cafes usually attract a more mature clientele. It remains to be seen whether the teens who frequent Circle Ks today will switch to more sophisticated food and drinks as they grow up, or whether convenience stores will eventually replace the need for neighbourhood coffee stores.

The future may look brighter for street food stalls, as they are almost impossible to replace – it is not likely Family Mart will sell bot chien anytime soon.

But without the almighty air conditioner and Wi-Fi router, their millennial customers are unlikely to linger for long. Food safety and general hygiene are also areas in which convenience stores outshine street vendors.

Young people seem to be moving towards an on-the-go lifestyle that values connectivity and convenience more than ever before. Convenience stores fill this demand for something that’s more modern than street food eateries, and less expensive than cafes and restaurants. Students can spend hours on end there, studying, discussing group projects, or just casually chatting and enjoying each other’s company.

They do not seem to mind the drawbacks of convenience stores – a somewhat industrial atmosphere, lacking the creativity and diversity that local stores offer. They often do not mind the quality of food either, as long as their friends are with them.

The Lure of Convenience

While there is still a lack of free and easy-to- access public spaces like libraries, convenience stores provide a great alternative. Even though their shelves are filled with mostly junk food instead of books, they provide enough study space at a price students can afford. With most stores having security cameras and located in crowded areas, they are also safer than many other places in the city for teenagers to hang out after school.

Perhaps what young people will demand next are convenience bookstores, where they can borrow a magazine to accompany their quick lunch and feed their hungry minds as well as their hungry stomachs. Wouldn’t it be nice?

SAIGON INSPIRATION TRADITIONS 10 LOCAL THINGS TO DO IN VIETNAM

There are many things to do in Vietnam, but the country has such a well established backpacker trail that a real immersion into the local culture can seem impossible. Sometimes it’s hard to see past the famously cheap beers, tourist tours and gaudy souvenirs. But if, like us, you’re a lover of all things authentic, the question still remains – what are some local things to do in Vietnam?

If you have ever visited Vietnam, you will know that the Vietnamese population still relies very much on traditional processes as they go about their daily life. Even in the country’s metropolitan hub Ho Chi Minh City, with its transnational chains and fusion of Western and Vietnamese lifestyle, many locals still cook traditional Vietnamese food, wear traditional dress, use traditional tools and run businesses which date back tens of generations. Vietnam is well known for its rich and still thriving culture, and its past is very much a part of its present. There’s just so much to see!

In light of this, we’ve compiled a list of 10 local things to do in Vietnam that will get you off the beaten track and immersed in the country’s unique past and present. There’s nothing touristy about this list of must-sees…

Explore the countryside and experience the thrill of getting lost amongst the rice paddies. You never know what you might find. In the outskirts of Hoi An, you have the opportunity to stumble upon an astonishing 300 meter handmade bamboo bridge, with its builder sitting by peacefully, smoking a cigarette, and waiting to collect a small toll of 10,000 VND. Local people in the countryside are friendlier than you may think, so feel free to say “Xin Chao” and shake the hands of people like this bridge builder, Thanh. He repairs this bridge every year by hand so that local people can have a safe way to cross the river.

Learn how to cook rice crackers

One of the top things to do in Vietnam is eat. But why not try cooking the food you eat yourself? Vietnamese rice crackers are a popular snack throughout the country. They are made with rice flour, chili, salt, pepper, and sesame seeds. First, the batter is steamed and then laid in the sun to dry. The final step in the cooking process is lightly toasting the crackers over an open fire. Banh Dap is a popular dish made with rice crackers and rice noodles. To eat Banh Dap, you smash the center of a large cracker to turn it into bite-sized pieces, and then dip those pieces into classic Vietnamese fish sauce. To experience this firsthand, check out Vespa Adventures’ countryside process behind that piece of culture. Vietnam Vespa Adventures provides the chance to get tours in Hoi An

Weave your own Vietnamese sleeping mat

Vietnam is known not only for its healthy and deliciously fresh cuisine, but also for its handicrafts. Hand-made goods are a significant aspect of traditional life here, and are still used today especially among the rural community. Many people visit Vietnam every year to purchase a piece of the country’s creativity for themselves, but what if you could be a part of the design and creation involved. Learn how to weave Vietnamese cloth and rush mats, understand the process and ask as many questions as you like while working with the smiling local women who have been weaving these mats for generations.

Sleep on a traditional rush mat

A typical bed in Vietnam isn’t a plush mattress like many people may imagine when wishing for a nap or a good night’s sleep. Here, a bed is usually a thin sleeping mat made of dried reeds. These reeds are dried in the sun and dyed with vibrant colors that are weaved into intricate patterns. If you want to experience the real local way of living, try sleeping on a rush mat for a night. It’s pretty hard to find a hotel with these traditional mats, but you can always grab one at the market for a few dollars and try it out. Alternatively, using your mat to dine picnic-style is a great local experience for those who’d like to keep their cushiony mattress.

Tailor a traditional dress: A unique thing to do in Vietnam

Ao Dai is the traditional Vietnamese dress that you will often see women wearing to work or to formal events. With tailoring prices being surprisingly low, we suggest getting one of these iconic dresses made. Pick a fabric, typically silk, with a traditional design for a fun and unique outfit. If you don’t know what kind of design you want, swing by the Women’s Museum in Ho Chi Minh City to see some beautiful displays of Ao Dai’s and more. Buy your fabric in the local market, but make sure you bargain! Some tailors offer their own range of materials.

Learn how to build a fishing boat

Seafood is a staple in Vietnamese cuisine, being both fresh and widely available throughout this skinny country. Hundreds of local families are employed, either privately or commercially, to supply local Vietnamese markets, restaurants and households with the best of the country’s seafood. And what if, aside from filling your stomach, you could understand the process behind that whiskery piece of catfish on your plate? Vietnam Vespa Adventures provide the chance to visit a local fishing village and watch as the men build and repair their fishing boats using unbelievable traditional methods, bring in their catch or head out in the early morning for a day of salty sea-spray and Southeast Asian sun.

Harvest rice the traditional way in Mai Chau

Mai Chau is a spot that’s not to be missed. The iconic scenery makes this a perfect place to travel for a few days of relaxation. There are a variety of cultures in Mai Chau, including Vietnamese, the White Thai and other ethnic minority tribes. With Mai Chau Ecolodge you can interact with the locals and help out with the rice harvesting. This authentic experience in Vietnam will show you first hand how hard harvesting rice is, but as you connect with the local people around you and gain real insight into how they live, it could also be the highlight of your travels. To really get in touch with the nature of Mai Chau, staying at Mai Chau Ecolodge is a must-do.

Go night fishing on local boats

If you’re a fan of fishing, and even if you’re not, night fishing for squid on Phu Quoc Island is both intrepid and eventually delicious. There are many opportunities to head off for a few hours with a local operator and catch your own fresh squid, before barbecuing it on-site. Catch, cook and sample some traditional Vietnamese seafood, as you float on gentle water and watch the sun fall behind the horizon.

Lounge in Vietnam’s second Halong Bay

Vinh Hy Bay on Vietnam’s central coast is usually off the radar for the typical backpacker. Far less popular than Halong Bay but with similar majestic scenery, towering rock faces and strips of white sand, this bay is protected from the tourist trail by its proximity to the Nui Chua National Park. Visit this quiet bay for a quiet getaway, and take in the area’s vibrant marine life with a glass-bottomed boat or a snorkel.

vinhhybay-Vietnam-Citypassguide.com

Drink with the locals.

Drinking with Vietnamese people is one of the best ways to interact and learn about local life. Find a busy restaurant with those iconic little red chairs and grab a seat. Although the locals might not speak perfect English, you’re bound to have a good time. In Vietnam, it’s common to put a large ice cube in your glass of beer, especially since usually they don’t keep the cases in the refrigerator. Also, you’ll notice a lot of ‘cheers!’ going on because it’s considered rude to drink by yourself. After a few hours at restaurant and a lot of beer, the locals will most likely invite you out for karaoke, a favourite here in Vietnam. Make sure to learn “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!” (Means 1,2,3, cheers!) before you experience the nightlife, and this will surely be one of the top things that you do in Vietnam.

Conclusion

This list of top 10 things to do in Vietnam may seem unusual to travelers, however these experiences are actually very common to the locals. We encourage travelers to discover something new, and these authentic experiences will without a doubt be the highlights of your Vietnam trip.

This article was co-written with Vietnam Vespa Adventures’ Lindsay Russell.

SAIGON Inspiration TRADITIONS WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? ORIGINS OF VIETNAMESE DISHES

Modern Vietnamese food has a number of influences from countries near and far.

The most obvious of these are intertwined in Vietnam’s history and geography, from its colonial past with France, to its neighbouring countries like China and Cambodia.

Inspirations from the West are evident with touches of America seen in Vietnam’s food and drink scene in major cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

Perhaps less obvious are the influences from countries like India and Malaysia, but nevertheless these places have also had a hand in shaping one of the most unique and delicious cuisines in the world.

Dishes and drinks

Bánh mì: France

The baguette was introduced by the French during the colonial period in the 1800s and has since been turned into a staple Vietnamese ingredient.

Rather than using wheat flour, however, the Vietnamese make their baguettes with rice flour, giving them a much lighter texture to the ones found in France.

Bánh mì also refers to the popular street food snack, which is a wonderful Viet-French fusion sandwich, packed full of meats, pickles and pâté—the latter of which is another ingredient that was introduced by the French.

Hủ Tiếu: Cambodia

The origins of this dish—which is particularly popular in the south of Vietnam—can be traced back to Cambodia’s Kuy Teav, which is a meaty noodle soup, garnished with crispy shallots and bean sprouts.

The Vietnamese version is made with pork stock, rice noodles and meat. Similar to the nation’s much-loved phởhủ tiếu is also served up with a plate of fresh leaves and herbs.

Cà ri gà: Malaysia/India

Malaysian and Indian influences can be seen in Vietnam in this wonderfully fragrant chicken curry, cà ri gà.

It is cooked with carrots, sweet potatoes and peas in a coconut sauce and is often mopped up with rice or a baguette.

Bánh bao: China

This is Vietnam’s take on the Chinese baozi, which is a type of steamed, filled bun.

Bánh bao are typically filled with minced pork, a piece of sausage and a hardboiled egg and are sometimes served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Vendors can be found selling these on most street corners across Vietnam.

Bánh flan: France

A quintessential French dessert is the crème caramel and bánh flan is Vietnam’s take on this.

The Vietnamese version is a set custard, served chilled with a caramel or coffee topping.

So popular is this dish in Vietnam, that it is not uncommon for it to be served in the mornings on a breakfast menu.

Phở: France

Phở is arguably Vietnam’s most famous dish. It’s known and loved by many across the globe as a wonderful balance of Asian flavours.

What is less known about phở, however, is that it was likely influenced by the French beef stew, pot au feu.

Both dishes use the likes of a meat broth, with chunks of meat and shallots. However, in Vietnam, rice noodles and herbs are used to bulk out the dish rather than potatoes and vegetables.

Cà phê đá: France

Coffee is another ingredient that was introduced to Vietnam during France’s reign over the country in the 1800s.

Since then it has become the nation’s drink, with thousands of cafes and vendors selling it all across the country.

The favoured way of drinking it in Vietnam, however, is somewhat different to the hot, black version enjoyed in the West.

Instead, the Vietnamese pour a shot of coffee over ice and add a good glug of condensed milk to make cà phê đá, making something sweet and frosty to cool down the locals during the humid days.

Craft beer: America

Vietnam’s craft beer boom is well and truly underway—a clear influence from America, which has been brewing up a variety lagers and ales for years.

The favoured way of drinking it in Vietnam, however, is somewhat different to the hot, black version enjoyed in the West.

Instead, the Vietnamese pour a shot of coffee over ice and add a good glug of condensed milk to make cà phê đá, making something sweet and frosty to cool down the locals during the humid days.

Craft beer: America

Vietnam’s craft beer boom is well and truly underway—a clear influence from America, which has been brewing up a variety lagers and ales for years.

In particular, the use of French shallots as a garnish—either pickled or fried—can be seen on most dishes. Their sweet flavour works very well with Vietnamese dishes, which aim to balance out spicy, sour and sweet elements.

Soy Sauce: China

Fish sauce may be the most popular and widely used condiment in Vietnam but that doesn’t stop China’s soy sauce from making a regular appearance.

It can be used during the cooking process as a seasoning, much in the same way cooks use salt in the West.

Alternatively, it can be served up as a condiment in a small pot with fresh red chillies—similarly to Vietnam’s favourite dip nước mắm pha, which is made with fish sauce, chilli and sugar.

Wok: China

China’s wok cooking is commonly used in Vietnam today to rustle up Viet-style stir fries and other quick-fix meals.

Like China, the wok is also used in Vietnam to deep fry certain ingredients such as tofu, which is often enjoyed with a few fresh herbs and a spicy soy sauce dip.

Chopsticks: China

In addition to the wok, the Vietnamese also use the Chinese chopstick during food preparation.

These can be used for stirring, stir fries or even for making a bánh mì. And, of course, they are used for eating most foods in Vietnam too.

Clay Pot Cooking: China/Malaysia

This method of cooking is particularly popular in the southern regions of China as well as in Malaysia and is traditionally done over a charcoal stove, which is what gives the dish its distinctive flavour.

A popular Vietnamese clay pot dish is mắm kho quẹt, which is a rich and flavoursome dip. It is made with pork and shrimp, which are slowly cooked in pork stock, with garlic, chilli, fish sauce and sugar.

This was once enjoyed as a cheap meal by poorer families but nowadays it is not uncommon for chefs to serve it up in high-end restaurants, with the clay pot acting as both a technique for cooking the dish as well as an impressive way of presenting it.

About the Author

Robyn Wilson is a freelance journalist currently based in Asia. Formerly the news editor for a popular B2B publication in London, Robyn now writes on food, travel, culture and history. She blogs at: www.weirdfishes.org