The net came up filled with more trash than fish. Plastic bags, string. Lots of twigs too. The researchers plucked out a handful of silver fish to sort through. The rest went back over the side.

I hadn’t been in Vietnam a week, but clearly there was a serious problem here. So many times I watched people fling a plastic bag into the river, onto the road. Houses flanked either side of the tributary where the fish researchers from Can Tho University conducted their trawl survey—houses that opened right onto the water. Trash disposal is just one toss away.  People squatted in their doorways and stared as we floated by.

The researchers were hardly better. Piece of labeling tape too long? Rip off the end and toss it over the side. Plastic bag snagged on the net? That goes back over too. I didn’t say anything at the time, since I was their guest. And of course it was awkward trying to translate through my cousin. Frankly, I was kind of at a loss for words.

"Scenic" riverfront in Saigon.

“Scenic” riverfront in Saigon.

Later, I did ask the English-speaking head scientist about it and he mused about his experience travelling to Belgium for school in the 1990s. He realized he couldn’t just throw trash on the ground anymore. It’s about changing habits, he said. With my cousin’s help, I also asked the grad student who ran the survey—why did they throw the trash back?  He sounded somewhat embarrassed and explained they didn’t want to offend the fisherman they hired by keeping piles of trash on his boat. He didn’t say this explicitly, but the feeling I got when we were on the river was, they can’t possibly clean it all (or even make a dent), so what’s the point?

Saigon is no better. The “scenic riverfront” where you can pull up a deck chair, sip drinks and admire the view harbors a thick bobbing raft of Styrofoam and plastic. At a local beach, piles of trash mix with the sand where the waves pushed it ashore. Bottle caps, lighters, shoes. And no one complains?


I remembered participating in beach cleanups in the Monterey Bay Area where hoards of volunteers scrounged for a few cigarette butts to put in their mostly empty trash bags. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that we have clean beaches. But trying to clean a beach that’s already clean, I couldn’t help but wish that I could spend my energy somewhere that really needed it. (According to this video, seems like the real trash problem in my old back yard hides in the creeks and rivers!).

Well. Vietnam certainly has trash issues worthy of my energy.  And it seems like a tantalizingly quick fix —it’s just lying there begging to be scooped up. I was itching for a plastic bag and some gloves. Trouble is, even if I blasted through like a cleaning Tasmanian devil, the trash would probably reappear in a matter of days. Without getting the problem at its source, just treating the symptom could easily sap anyone’s energy, however noble the intentions.


To me, the deeper problems are how to stop generating so much trash in the first place, and the fact that people view the environment as a garbage can. Plastic bags abound— if you get a cold drink to go, the plastic cup comes in a little plastic bag. And if the whole river or ocean is a dump, and it doesn’t matter if the trash shows up in your backyard, how will people ever care about the invisible things, like the health of the benthos or ocean acidification?  Trash is supposed to be the low-hanging fruit.

Of course, once you’ve hauled the trash out of the river or beach, the question remains of what to do with it. It has to go somewhere. In fact, many people get rid of their trash by burning it. When it comes to chemical-laden plastic, that doesn’t seem like the best solution either.

Trash burning

Trash burning.

I did play my own part in the whole mess, I’m sorry to say. During my time out with the fish researchers, the noonday sun beat down on us and our exposed boat. I drained my refillable water bottle and worked my way through a disposable one too. Not long after we raked up that net full of trash, the boat picked up speed as we traveled to our next site.  I turned and the empty plastic bottle went sailing out of my bag and over the side. As we motored away, I watched it bobbing behind us with a sinking feeling of dismay. And my cynical side thought, “Congratulations. Now you’re a true Vietnamese.”

But thankfully, thankfully, not everyone feels that way. Any cultural attitude shift has to be self-motivated to last, so thank goodness some people are making an effort. Looks like Vietnam participated in International Coastal Cleanup Day this year. Although it’s somewhat ironic to see them unloading boxes and boxes of plastic water bottles in their video. But water quality is another serious issue here. Things have gotten better from five years ago for travelers. I was able to mostly stay away from single-use plastic bottles and fill up my reusable one — from larger plastic bottles, but that’s still progress, I guess.

I hope that one of these years, coastal (and riverbank) cleanups will happen all up and down the length of Vietnam. And maybe one year I will be there to participate.

My blog post for FISHBIO on our trawl full of trash.

I love this photo of me, but you can see that damn plastic bottle in my bag... (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

I love this photo of me, but you can see that damn plastic bottle in my bag… (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

The Floating Market


Although I’ve now made it safely back home to California, I wanted to keep documenting some of the highlights of my trip.  Although the main point of my visit to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta was to learn about fish research, I did have plenty of time to play tourist. The ultimate touristy excursion—a trip to see the floating market.

At first, my cousin and I weren’t so sure about the 5:30 am departure from the hotel — at least, I wasn’t. But I still hadn’t fully adjusted to the local time during the first week of my trip, and luckily the jet lag worked in my favor. Apparently all the action at the market happens early, so no sleeping in.

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

The sun wasn’t quite up by the time we headed out on the water. Condensation clouded my camera lens after sitting in our over-air-conditioned hotel room all night. We had a boat to ourselves, and our driver was a skilled multi-tasker. She made us a variety of gifts throughout the day by folding and wrapping the leaves of a water coconut—while driving.  Sometimes it did seem like our boat was veering off on a questionable course…I guess it’s better than texting?IMG_0930

Lots for sale here...

Lots for sale here…

A lot of the activity had already quieted down by the time we reached the market around 7 am, but the piles of produce made a pretty sight in the early morning sun. A few boats sidled up alongside others, fruits and vegetables exchanged hands. For me, the most interesting part was learning about the advertising.

Each boat had a long pole attached to it, and our boat driver pointed out the produce hanging from each one —announcing what was for sale on the boat below.  That way you can make your way toward the correct floating stall from a distance. We happened to take this tour on Halloween, and I was surprised by the large number of pumpkins dangling from the poles. I didn’t even know they grew pumpkins in Vietnam.

Part of the tour included a visit to a rice paper and noodle-making factory.  We watched while the workers mixed rice flour, heated it into thin round sheets, and set those sheets out to dry or fed them through a noodle cutter. Maybe 10 people made up the whole operation. I’ve eaten so many noodles without ever wondering where they came from. IMG_0898

We then headed to a second, smaller market, where the biggest attraction wasn’t even staged for our benefit. A Vietnamese cell phone company called Mobifone had parked a huge powerboat at the edge of the market. The young employees in bright polo shirts and baseball caps made their way among the vendors in a smaller boat. They handed out to prizes like motorbike helmets, tried to get everyone ramped up to the blaring music, and (I’m assuming) extolled the virtues of their company’s products and services.  The vendors wearing their conical hats and patterned fabric shirts and pants mostly looked on. Just when you think you’ve found a tranquil backwater, here comes “the future” banging on your door…

By 10 am the sun was high and it was already hot. Our driver steered us to restaurant for lunch, where Quan and I had fun chatting with a German couple also from our hotel.  After eating, we walked around the back garden, crossing over a number of bamboo “monkey bridges,” each one looking narrower than the last. We also took a walk among some of the houses and rice fields.  Seeing the raised graves like stone houses, the burning incense offerings and papaya trees reminded me of the one kid’s book I had about Vietnam, called Ba-Nam.

Monkeying by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Monkeying around…photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

After lunch, our driver had thankfully put up a canopy on the boat for shade. We took a meandering ride back through the canals, past houses at the waters edge with laundry out to dry, trees with straw-like roots sticking out of the water, and little palm frond huts on stilts – covered “parking spaces” for boats. We got caught in a shower not far from the dock, sudden and intense, the way the rain just bursts from the clouds in Southeast Asia.  I would say thank goodness for putting up the canopy, but it somehow let loose a great splash of water all over my head. But in the Vietnam heat, it’s hard to stay wet for long.

Americans in Vietnam

IMG_0071One of the best parts of traveling is meeting other travelers.  It’s fascinating to talk to other people who have converged from all over the world to visit the foreign place you also happen to be visiting. And sometimes it feels good to meet people who remind you of home.

I didn’t meet as many travelers on this trip, since I stayed with family for the most part, not at hotels and hostels where these kinds of interactions spring up. But one of the highlights was getting to know Ashley and her husband James, thanks to the Halloween party at the hotel I stayed at in Can Tho.

The other hotel guests were mostly Europeans (Germans, Dutch, Danes), who take their world travel pretty seriously, and seem to flock to Southeast Asia in much greater numbers than Americans.  I told someone I studied fish, and he mentioned there was another researcher somewhere at the party.  Instantly, my science radar perked up, but in the midst of flip cup and apple bobbing and “Gangnam Style” blasting over the speakers, couldn’t figure out who it was.


Halloween Vietnam style! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

Then at the end of the night, I finally bumped into Ashley and learned that she’s a Ph. D. candidate in Environmental Engineering from Duke University.  She’s already done research in Haiti, and is in Vietnam on a Fulbright Grant to study wastewater treatment with researchers at Can Tho University.  Sweet.

It felt amazing to talk to someone else about the country through the lens of science. To commiserate about her challenges trying to get research supplies and navigate the university bureaucracy.  To express our mutual frustration about the things that shocked us, but that we didn’t know how to change—like the coffee shops that have monkeys tied up outside with tight chains around their necks. And to find someone who understands just how agonizing it can be trying to speak the language.


I became a regular at this cafe - ordered the mango smoothie three times in one week! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

I became a regular at this cafe – ordered the mango smoothie three times in one week! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

In Can Tho, Ashley and James took Quan and me try their favorite meal – a vegetarian dish called bun kho. It’s a version of one of my favorites, with vegetarian spring rolls, and some kind of soy protein instead of pork — I  didn’t even miss the meat! In return, Quan and I took them to Café Queen, where I have discovered what I’m pretty sure is the best mango smoothie ever.  Of course, when we got there, it turned out there was a power outage, so they couldn’t make anything that required a blender.  We ordered yogurt instead and joked that maybe we could wait it out until the power came on. And in the course of talking over a few hours, that’s exactly what we did—smoothies for all!

It’s an easy bus ride from Can Tho to Saigon, and Ashley and James sometimes come up to the city for the weekend.  I had fun meeting up with them for an afternoon.  We got some good food at Givral and visited the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. I enjoyed having some buddies to play tourist with!

So here is the super small world part: in North Carolina, these guys live in Cary, the town just west of Raleigh—where I just happened to spend the first two years of my life. I was technically born in Raleigh (where the hospital was), and I’ve never been back to either place. I may have to change that…Fancy meeting them on the other side of the world.

While my cultural immersion was short and sweet, these guys are the real deal – they’re living in Vietnam for 10 months.  You can check out Ashley’s blog to keep track of their ongoing adventures (like this interesting post on culture shock). Good luck, you two, I’ll be thinking of you!