Vietnam faces environmental challenges, as well as a deficit of jobs for disadvantaged young people. The Green Youth Collective aims to solve both problems at once. By Michael Tatarski. Photos by Fred Wissink.

Their rooftop garden in District 3 may not look like much yet, but Tanya Meftah and Nguyen Ngoc Thanh are pretty excited about it. They put a month into creating this budding slice of green in a heavily urban environment.

Meftah explained that the garden, contained in a wooden frame, consists of several layers: a watertight membrane, fabric, and coconut husks. “We even used rubble collected from construction sites and empty fields around the city,” Meftah says. “It wasn’t easy to get all of this together.”

They dumped a layer of soil on top, and then recently planted the first seedlings. Meftah and Thanh are growing beans, okra, spinach, onions and other vegetables.

This garden is the first physical sign that their Green Youth Collective is bearing fruit. The two formed GYC roughly two months ago, along with Leslie Wiener, and Nguyen Thanh Duoc. The collective aims to provide sustainability training for young people. Wiener, who has years of experience working with charities and NGOs in Vietnam, realised that many of the disadvantaged youth going through those programs weren’t really being prepared for the future.

Urban gardening charity Vietnam faces environmental challenges, as well as a lack of jobs for disadvantaged young people. The Green Youth Collective“I noticed many kids were just being recycled and exploited,” she says. “They were trained to work in a factory where they’ll just repeat the cycle of poverty.”

Programs led by the GYC founders and specialists from around the world will focus on jobs such as building green roofs and walls. “The idea is to offer them an actual career that they can pursue and is sustainable and is great for the environment,” Mefta says.

Funding for these courses isn’t entirely in place yet, but Meftah and Wiener hope to resolve the issue shortly. They also point out that, unlike many organisations, the GYC will accept HIV-positive and disabled trainees.

When asked why they decided to focus on green training, Meftah says, “If you look around Ho Chi Minh City, there are a number of huge issues related to pollution and environment that need to be addressed and there is infrastructure that isn’t being used. Green roofs and walls are a simple solution to a big problem.”

Wiener, meanwhile, believes that a more environmentally-conscious movement is coming to Vietnam, and she hopes the GYC will ideally place trainees to take advantage of the trend.

Though training hasn’t begun yet, the group already has candidates from orphanages around the city. Once the program begins, participants will learn subjects including urban gardening 101, and how to build and install urban structures. Meftah is quick to point out that the training won’t be confined to the classroom, as the collective will give hands-on practice as well. Vo Truong Nghia, a prominent Vietnamese architect specialising in sustainable designs, has already agreed to take on two trainees for a school he is building in Binh Duong province.

Another important aspect of the collective is that over time it will become a social enterprise. Once trainees are up to speed they will transition into employees, and they will be sent to businesses that want green infrastructure.

“We call it a collective because it will be owned as a collective,” Wiener says. “If you are involved you have a share.”

The group believes that they are in the right place at the right time for this type of organisation. Thanh, who helped build the rooftop garden, says that many Vietnamese are used to working with the environment, so they are suited for the training.

In Meftah’s view, “This is an important time because Ho Chi Minh City is developing, so if we can integrate sustainable ideas now there will be a much larger benefit than in, say, the US, where cities are already extremely built up and it’s harder to change.”

Back at the rooftop garden, Meftah and Thanh say they are looking to the urban future. “Growing things and working with your environment is actually really old,” Mefta says, but “if we can allow disadvantaged youths to get involved in this they will be at the front of their times.”

After the vegetable plants mature, the GYC members hope to use them for food. If this experiment goes well, they plan to build two more gardens on the roof and use other types of plants. Already they have gotten requests from people who want to learn how to build their own. Once GYC trainees master the urban garden, they can spread the seed of knowledge to other Vietnamese.