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)

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