Ho Chi Minh City has a pollution problem. From the growing smog — Vietnam ranked among the top 10 countries with the worst air pollution in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index — to the poisoning of its waterways, the city faces tough decisions as it continues to modernise. But there are those who are looking at the issues and coming up with solutions, some simple, some creative, that they hope will lead to a greener future for the city and the country. By Lien Hoang and Chris Mueller. Photos by Fred Wissink.

Litter on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City is nothing new. But at a small park in District 7, trash has taken a new form. Here, plastic bottles have been made into a ship that sits in a small pool of water. Other bottles have been cut and shaped into colourful flowers and fastened to tree branches. Glass bottles, along with motorbike and bicycle rims, are now chairs, while old tyres have become swings and colourful, cartoon-like characters for kids to play on — and yet more tyres and computer keys form life-sized horses.

This little park on Nguyen Luong Bang Street may be modest, but it shows that there is growing interest in tackling the many environmental problems facing the city. Now, more than ever, officials, local businesses and individuals are beginning to see that Vietnam’s development is coming at a cost and they are turning to sustainable solutions to ensure Vietnam has a bright future.

Ho Chi Minh City pollution problem Ho Chi Minh City has a pollution problem. Vietnam ranked among the top 10 countries with the worst air pollutionBuilding for the future
Who knew milk cartons could provide shelter from the elements? Apparently, the Dong Tien packaging and paper company knew this, because it now produces roofs using the recycled cartons. If that conjures up images of something unstable and ramshackle, the reality is that the roofs look the same as the typical metal variety: thick and wavy.

Company chairman Hoang Trung Son explained in an interview at his office in Binh Thanh District that Dong Tien starts by buying the milk cartons after their traditional use has been exhausted.

“If we don’t recycle the boxes, the only two solutions are to bury or burn them,” Son says, after handing over his light-brown business card, which was made of, that’s right, recycled paper. Those solutions he considers wasteful.

Besides the so many ad hoc collectors on the street, Dong Tien buys the material from kindergartens and day care centres, an obvious choice with their many children drinking from milk cartons. Those cartons are then washed, dried, and pressed at a factory in neighbouring Binh Duong province. Next, the combination is mixed with aluminum, yielding a silver finish with rainbow blotches from the milk packaging.

Son says he travelled to Thailand, Indonesia and India, where he sought advice on how to produce the recycled roofs. Samples of these roofs now clutter his office. Near the entrance is a display shaped like a tree, bearing jars of powder and recycled paper, both made from the milk containers. Dong Tien, which traditionally made packaging material for industrial clients, also turns the cartons into paper bags.

As for the roofs, Dong Tien tends to serve farms and factories.

“When we introduced it, people were really surprised and excited,” Son says. At the same time, customers worried that the roofs would be more flimsy than what they were used to. In response, the company produced marketing materials that show a car can drive over the roof without damaging it. Son also says the roofs do a better job of keeping out heat and noise.

The chairman says his priority is environmental preservation, and profits would come later. He’s concerned about public awareness, wishing policymakers would do more to promote conservation in general.

Dong Tien isn’t the only company focusing on green construction. A growing number of buildings around the country are flaunting their environmentally friendly credentials.

Take President Place on Ho Chi Minh City’s Nguyen Du Street, for instance. This office building set the standard last year when it became the city’s first LEED-certified office building. LEED is a system designed by the US Green Building Council to determine how environmentally friendly buildings are. But the office building is meant for high-paying occupants, such as Canon and Starbucks.

Still, there is an increasing amount of projects around the city that are meant for the average person. Vo Trong Nghia and his namesake architectural firm first started gaining publicity in 2012 with his ‘stacking green houses’. These homes were designed as a typical Vietnamese tube house, but use various techniques — such as shade from trees and natural materials that reflect heat — to keep the building cool and energy efficient. One of the major upsides to these houses is the $150,000 price tag, which is only slightly more expensive than the average Vietnamese home of the same size.

Nghia has gone on to develop numerous projects throughout Ho Chi Minh City and the country and has been nominated for several architectural awards. “ I want to have as much green on the earth as we can, everywhere we can,” he told AsiaLIFE.

Ho Chi Minh City pollution problem Ho Chi Minh City has a pollution problem. Vietnam ranked among the top 10 countries with the worst air pollutionMoving forward
The government is also catching on to the green movement. Last year, then-Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan warned of the dangers of environmental pollution and said it must be stopped. In April, the prime minister approved a plan to use public awareness as a way to reduce the number of plastic bags in the country by 60 percent, Viet Nam News reported. Like many goals the country sets for itself, this is supposed to happen by 2020.

Whether they reach their target may not be certain, but now, among Ho Chi Minh City’s many public service announcements, city planners have put up more recent billboards that call on residents to do their part by taking the bus. Employees at the main Ben Thanh bus station near the market give away free bus maps, which show the fleet’s wide network extending as far as Dong Nai province.

With the widespread, cheap availability of motorbikes and fuel, it can be hard to convince Vietnamese or foreigners to use the bus, unless they care about reducing pollution. Buses can be less convenient for those who don’t want to make transfers or walk the few extra blocks between their stops and their final destination. But they do a far better job of guarding against rain and sun, most of them providing air conditioning. Motorbikes expose commuters more directly to accidents and pollution.

Even for those who own motorbikes, buses can be an occasional option. When going long distances from one end of town to another, buses are cheaper (starting at VND 5,000 a ticket) and more comfortable than sitting on a motorbike for an hour.

“To save the situation of air pollution, I think public transport is key,” says Akira Hosomi, the Vietnam representative at Japan International Consultants for Transportation.

Hosomi is based in Ho Chi Minh City, where he’s working with the government to build a metro. Vietnam has discussed the need for the train system, both here and up in Hanoi, for more than a decade, but finally has broken ground on construction.

As with buses, public officials face an uphill battle convincing commuters to forgo their motorbikes for subways. But trains do have an advantage over buses: they represent progress for an industrialised country.

“I feel that having the metro system is kind of the symbol of modernisation,” Hosomi says. “So all the developed countries have such systems, specifically the Asian countries. So I believe that after completion of the metro system — not completion, but the construction of even part of the line, I think Vietnamese people will feel more confidence about the development of the city.”

Besides public transit, people with flexible hours can schedule their drives outside of rush hour, when pollution is at its worst. And soon, it looks like residents will be able to rent bicycles to see if they like commuting that way. VietNamNet reported in February that five cities, including Ho Chi Minh City, will have a pilot program that lets customers pay as little as VND 4,000 an hour to use the bikes. This has been tried around the world, from Sacramento to Paris, and gives both locals and tourists a liberalising option for transportation. And when it comes to bicycles, transport doesn’t get much more environmentally friendly than that.

Be cool

It’s a daily experience for urbanites in Ho Chi Minh City: jostling with thousands of motorbikes, cars and buses during rush hour, and ending up at home sweaty and light-headed after inhaling a scary amount of exhaust.

And what is the first thing many of us do when we walk inside? Reach for the air conditioner remote. For westerners, especially those living in warm climates, air conditioners are no longer thought of as a luxury item, but rather a necessity. And it seems upwardly mobile Vietnamese are beginning to follow suite. Air conditioning sales around the country are skyrocketing, consistently increasing year-to-year, according to market research group GFK Vietnam.

As global temperatures continue to rise, so too does the amount of energy — most of which comes from fossil fuels — required to run all of these units. According to estimates from Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, global consumption of energy due to air conditioners could increase tenfold by 2050. Much of that increase will come from the developing world, especially Asia.

Since many of us would rather harm the environment than sweat in our homes, here are some tips from the US Department of Energy to keep the damage to a minimum:

• Set your thermostat at as high a temperature as comfortably possible. The smaller the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures, the less energy will be used.

• Avoid setting your thermostat at a colder setting than normal when you turn on your air conditioner, since it will not cool your home any faster and could result in excessive cooling.

• Consider using an interior fan along with your window air conditioner to spread the cooled air through your home without greatly increasing your power use.

• Avoid placing appliances that give off heat such as lamps or TVs near a thermostat.