When It Comes To Litter, Vietnamese Know Little

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Several days ago a Facebook user complained that he saw dozens of money withdrawal receipts scattered on the ground inside a Vietcombank’s ATM booth in Phu My Hung. He took a photo of the scene with a caption: “Here is what happened at one of the richest, most civilized and high-end urban areas of the country”.

And this is just a common scene in Vietnam, where litter is dropped right in front of rubbish bins in public places as if people don’t bother moving their fingers to put them in the bins.

The scenario is worse at road junctions or in front of red lights where hired people distribute leaflets to motorists and cyclists waiting at intersections. Many road users have a quick look at the advertisements and then throw them right on the ground.

The streets quickly become covered with white paper pieces and when it rains the papers dissolve, making the streets very dirty.

Littering has become an epidemic in Vietnam. People litter on the streets, in parks, on beaches, in pagodas, everywhere.

When did Vietnamese people adopt the habit of littering, and why does it still run deep in the society today, even as mass media talks about raising awareness about public hygiene?

An Established Habit

There are no official documents that state when Vietnamese people started littering. But according to historians, Vietnamese people traditionally lived in small communities, such as rural villages, so there probably weren’t many areas to discard trash responsibly.

They usually buried or burned trash when it piled up.

rubbishImage source: laodong.com.vn

Gradually people allegedly got used to throwing rubbish wherever it was convenient for them — until the French colonial rule.

In Dumb Luck (Số đỏ), a 1936 novel by Vu Trong Phung which satirised the late-colonial Vietnamese middle classes, one scene depicted two French policemen mourning “10 years ago”, when they earned a lot of money by fining Vietnamese people for public hygiene violations.

The policemen complained that they haven’t earned much since Vietnamese people became better aware of public hygiene code thanks to the press and strict fines.

Unfortunately, it did not last forever.

How To Break The Habit

I can easily list some reasons why Vietnamese people litter: a lack of rubbish bins; limited public awareness about public hygiene; a lack of consistently enforced strict fines; and a lack of law enforcement in public places.

There is quite a lack of dust bins and public toilets on the streets, which lead to littering and public urination. But you also don’t see many rubbish bins on the streets of Seoul and Tokyo, yet the streets are still clean.

In Tokyo, people have a compartment in their bags where they store trash to throw away when they get home.

Singapore is a good example of heavy enforcement to those who litter. But it is best if we can prevent people who are about to litter, rather than fine those who already have.

The most important task is to change people’s mindset. It comes from education. Vietnam’s textbooks should mention public hygiene issues more often, with pictures and detailed information about fines and comparisons with other countries.

Awareness-raising campaigns should be done regularly and at a grassroots level, informing everyone from family members to office workers, from street vendors to children.

rubbishImage source: 24h.com.vn

It must be noted that many Vietnamese people litter because of crowd psychology. When they see others litter, they litter. They’re afraid that other people will think of them as weirdos or show-offs if they hold litter in their hands rather than dropping it where convenient.

So if one person, and then two, change their littering habits, the rest may change too. Children will not litter if they see their parents putting trash in a bin.

Social Media

Nowadays social media is an effective tool to raise awareness about public problems. Two years ago Kyo York, a popular American Facebooker in Vietnam, was brave enough to criticize the littering habit of many locals.

He posted a photo of a pile of trash on a Vietnamese street on Facebook, asking people to stop dumping trash in public, especially in front of pagodas.

He commented, in near-perfect Vietnamese, that “most people seem to be saving their cultured sides just for the social networks”.

rubbishImage source: vietnamnet.vn

He was praised by many for telling the truth, but some others were offended by his criticism and insulted him in the post’s comment section.

If more people would take to social media networks to raise public awareness like York, many Vietnamese people will realise littering is not acceptable any longer and they might think twice before tossing a candy wrapper on the ground.

Banner image source: ndh.vn

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