Spirit Houses Everywhere

Our spirit house, decked out for a holiday

Our spirit house, decked out for a holiday

Laos is undeniably a Buddhist country, as evidenced by the abundance of golden Buddha statues, the monks draped in bright orange robes, and ornate red and gold temples on nearly every corner. But before they were Buddhist, Lao people were, and still are, predominantly animist. As I’ve had it explained to me, animism is essentially the belief that everything has a spirit – from people, to animals, to rivers and mountains and trees.  I think that’s a pretty admirable way to look at the world, especially if it makes you more in tune and appreciative of your surroundings.

Of course, at its extreme, this philosophy can foster intense superstition, and I’ve heard that Lao people may be reluctant to walk around at night for fear of spirits or ghosts. This belief system is also at the root of the heartbreaking clash of cultures in the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. From reading that book, I thought animism was limited to the Hmong culture, but elements of it are quite widespread in mainstream Lao society.



The most obvious evidence of this are the little houses seen outside almost every Lao business or residence. At first I thought these little altars were a Buddhist tradition. I wasn’t quite sure how to describe them – an altar? A shrine? The most fitting term I finally came across is “spirit house.” These structures are basically a place to make offerings to the spirit of your home or workplace – essentially, trying to appease it and keep it happy so it doesn’t wreak havoc on your life and fortunes.

...and after.

…and after.

My office has a spirit house of its own, and when I finally noticed it, it was clear that it needed some TLC. One hot afternoon, I scrubbed down the moss and mildew – a bit of a delicate operation, since the flaking paint was readily coming off in the process. Once we got it tided up and picked up the garbage that had accumulated around it, Jacque and I made a few small offerings of candles, incense, and fruit to our spirit house. I’ve also seen IMG_1544flowers, drinks, and cigarettes as common offerings.

It turns out we spruced up our spirit house just in time. A few days later, September 4, turned out to be a festival called Boun Hor Khao Padubdin. It seems to be something like “day of the dead.” Sinsamout told us that people would go to the temples early in the morning and make offerings to appease the spirits of the dead who don’t have anyone to pray for them. Vendors sell little offering “care packages” especially for the occasion, wrapped in banana leaves. The banana leaf packets contain nine offerings, including several types of fruit and a cigarette… The local temples had strung up extra flags in preparation for the holiday.

A cat enjoying the offerings.

A cat enjoying the offerings.

IMG_1579Jacuqe and I woke up around 5:30 am that day in hopes of seeing something interesting in the morning. But the dark streets were quiet. We came across a few candles burning on the ground alongside offerings at the side of one temple – and a cat who seemed quite content eating the offerings placed at his level. (A spirit incarnate, maybe?) There were more offerings clustered outside the temple gates, little boats with candles flickering beside them. Later that day, Sinsamout brought flowers for our office spirit house and some delicious offerings his mom had made for the occasion – sweet sticky rice and bananas wrapped in banana leaves. Luckily, we got to sample them after they had been offered!

Offerings for our spirit house.

Offerings for our spirit house.

As evening rolled around, Jacque and I heard a steady drumming and chanting coming from one of the temples down the road. We wandered over just in time to witness a beautiful sight – monks finishing a candlelit procession around the temple, with dozens of community members following behind. Sinsamout later told us they walk around the temple three times. People then took their candles to various parts of the temple grounds, setting them and other offerings next to trees and stupas. Everyone then crowded into the temple where the monks chanted and prayed.

Community candlelight procession.

Community candlelight procession.

Since we walk past the temple pretty much every day, it was gratifying to see it as a hub of activity, and helped me feel like a part of the larger community in our little neighborhood. It felt quite special to observe this traditional practice full of flowers and candlelight, and be able to participate to some small degree. I will have to try to keep our spirit house looking presentable in hopes of good fortune for living and working here!

Experiments in Smoothies

Didn't quite figure out the blender attachment situation...

Didn’t quite figure out the blender attachment situation…

Back home, my mom is the smoothie queen. When I’m visiting, the sound of the blender whirring in the late afternoon tips me off that I’ll soon get to sample her latest creation. Smoothies are such a delicious way to beat the heat in Southeast Asia, and they’re obligingly on pretty much every menu. I’m guilty of ordering one with essentially every meal… In Can Tho, Vietnam, I had a favorite spot for mango smoothies. Here, my hands-down favorite is the mango-passion fruit combo – although many places serve it with the passion fruit seeds included, which I’m more ambivalent about.

Dragonfruit dicin'Jacque and I recently decided to test out the small blender in our kitchen to grind up the selection of tropical fruits we bought at the market. I was surprised when she sliced open a dragonfruit to reveal dripping flesh in garish pink — I’d only ever seen the Dalmatian-esque white- with-black-seeds variety. In any case, the smoothie was an instant winner in the color department! Taste wise, it wasn’t much — the rather bland apple I threw in overpowered the more subtle taste of the tropical fruits, like mangosteen and rambutan. We didn’t quite have the blender screwed on all the way, so the end result was a fun color explosion, reminiscent of a high school chemistry lab.

Going for the gold

The second time around, I was going for the gold. I had been on a mission to buy a pineapple at the market, and I got one so ripe that in a matter of days it was turning to juice, whether I liked it or not. So into the blender it went, with some mango and banana for good measure. I’d say it was a winner!

In the Land of Golden Flowers

IMG_1268 IMG_0220I suppose it’s time I wrote about something other than food. At the end of a long day, it’s hard to wrap my brain around anything too serious. Tonight is no exception – but I figured I could write about the other thing I love to take pictures of: flowers. In Laos, it’s not flowers growing in gardens or yards that catch my eye, but the heaps and heaps of marigolds for sale for people to use as Buddhist offerings. Finally I can post some photos that do justice to how much beauty can be found here.

IMG_1261The sight just fills me with happiness on so many levels – especially seeing the flowers as offerings in the temples and on people’s personal altars and shrines. The color is one of my favorites and the idea of offering the flowers to the Buddha also makes me smile. I was just reading that, while marigolds are native to the Americas, they were introduced to South Asia in the 1500’s or so (at least according to these websites). I’ve definitely seen stunning photos of marigold-draped Buddhas in India. Gold is certainly everywhere when it comes to Buddhism here. Unlike the Tibetan, Chinese, or Vietnamese Buddhist images that I’m more familiar with, in Laos (and I’m guessing Thailand), the Buddhas and temples are all ornately carved, golden, and gleaming. The sight is like being filled with sunshine.



Monks on a cell phone

Monks on a cell phone

The bright orange that I love is also everywhere in the fabric of monk robes. With so many temples around, monks (or rather, young monks in training) are constantly passing by, often with an umbrella in hand to shade their shaved heads from the sun. Apparently it’s quite common for families to send their sons to become monks just for a few years – they aren’t necessarily becoming monks for life, just a temporary service. I’ve learned that monks aren’t allowed to drive scooters – although apparently it’s ok to ride on the back. Many ride bicycles instead.

I love the fact that our office is right between two large temples. There seems to be a temple every few blocks, and you can usually walk right through them. They often have the best trees in the city. Sinsamout and I cut through two to go to lunch last week and avoided the traffic completely. You can even drive a scooter or car through some of the temples during the day time, although I find that a bit disconcerting. Jacque and I stopped into a larger temple while we were biking around a the other week – since it was a Sunday, many families had come to make offerings and receive blessings from the monks.

The monk "dormitory." I just love the color combinations.

The monk “dormitory.” I love the color combinations.


Receiving a blessing.

Around 5:45 pm every day, I hear the faint sound of the temple bell ringing next door, low and resonant, almost somber. It reminds me of my stay at a temple in Vietnam. Sinsamout said it’s calling the monks in to pray, and anyone can join to pray or meditate with them. Jacque and I peeked in last week on our way off to aerobics and saw the monks sitting there in rows before a giant statue of the Buddha lit up with spotlights. I will have to make a point to join them at least once before I leave. I could hardly find a better spot for a meditative reflection.


The (bi-)Weekly Dish – Weeks 2 and 3

Pad thai

Well, it’s proven a little harder to get blogging in than I anticipated. Work has kept me pretty busy (see a post I wrote about the fish passage conference I attended on the FISHBIO blog). but that’s the whole reason I’m here, after all, so I can’t complain too much. I will try to get a little better about more frequent updates, or at least sharing some photos occasionally.

The biggest development of the last two weeks is that I now I have a roommate! My boss’s niece Jacque is fresh out of the Peace Corps and is staying here until December while she, among other things, diligently studies for the GRE (I’m really impressed by her focus!). She’s also been a lifesaver in helping with data checking for a big FISHBIO project that is one of my many time consuming activities here. It’s been really fun to have someone to explore Vientiane with, eat with, and of course, do dance aerobics with! Jacque even has a blog of her own.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Here is a sampling of some of the food I’ve experienced or tried to make in the last few weeks. I am quite proud of my Thai basil bruschetta, but probably one of the best dishes I’ve had recently is the pad thai above. Lots of vegetables! I’ve also given in to fried food cravings in the form of fried rice and crispy spring rolls – although I’ve tried to compensate by making a few fresh spring rolls of my own. I know many people back home who are all about making these rolls, but this is my first attempt. When the raw ingredients, especially the herbs, are so abundant, it’s hard not to give it a try!

My co-worker Sinsamout’s mom was so kind and even gave us some Vietnamese-style dumplings wrapped in banana leaves that she made herself! It’s delicious and reminds me of home – called bánh giò (thanks, Cô Khanh!) I can’t remember the name for it (banh something – someone help me out!). It has meat and mushroom filling inside. Very tasty, and I was able to decently wing the fish sauce dip that Sinsamout advised me in making! I was also thrilled to rediscover the canned drink called coconut freeze that I fell in love with during my brief visit here last year (when I won a can as a prize in a carnival game!). The drink is coconut juice with sweet chunks of coconut meat mixed in – it’s so delicious, I need to figure out where to buy it in bulk!

We’re in the Money

An assortment of Lao Kip - all together about $21.75

An assortment of Lao Kip – all together about $21.75

Now that I’ve been in Laos nearly three weeks (I’ve been a bit remiss in my updates!) I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of the currency and no longer fumbling with the bills as much, trying to add up how many thousands of Lao kip I need to pay. The color coding helps, but really all the bills that aren’t blue kind of blend together in my wallet (yet American currency is only one color and I seem to manage at home just fine!)

It doesn’t help that each bill contains excessive zeroes, and there aren’t even commas to help you discern a 5,000 from a 50,0000 in a hurry. But I can’t complain about the exchange rate. There are about 8,000 kip to $1.00, so I get daily practice at my 8 times tables. The top bills in this picture, the 50,000’s, feel like big bills, like carrying around twenties. Yet they’re only about $6.25. For some quick reference, the 20,000 = $2.50; 10,000 = $1.25; 5,000 = 63 cents, and 2,000 = 25 cents. Approximately.

I can’t help but notice that the images featured so prominently on the back of the bills are all emblems of industry and development. Buildings, hydropower, roads – it’s a telling sign of values, of priorities. This country is a hotspot of natural biodiversity, but those kinds of assets just don’t seem to hold the same kind of value here, or at least not enough. That’s a good part of the reason why my work is here – trying to help elevate discussion of the importance and value of fish.

I have to say my favorite of the bills is the lowly 1,000 kip note, a whopping 12 cents. At least it showcases a bit of cultural heritage – the three women on the front are a common icon in Vietnam as well, highlighting the customs of the north, south and central parts of the country. The 1,000 note even has animals on the back! Albeit cows. With power lines in the distance.

1,000 Lao Kip – about 12 cents

My first few days here, I was keeping a detailed record of every kip I spent, trying to keep track of my spending and get a handle on the conversion rate. I’ve pretty much given that up, since a little money can get you quite far here. It’s possible to eat out for lunch and dinner and only spend about $5.00 total, which I did today. A $10 meal is living large. My bowl of pho for lunch today was only 16,000 kip ($2). However, the box of Great Grains cereal that I splurged on: 52,000 kip ($6.50). Buying imported American goods can add up fast. But a 22-oz bottle of Beer Lao: 15,000 ($1.88) – dangerous. A bunch of Thai basil at the market: 1,000 (12 cents). And the aerobics class along the river that brings me so much joy: 3,000 kip (40 cents). Somehow I assumed that dancing around in a public space must be free, but they still charge you for the pleasure. It’s so much fun though, it’s worth every penny.

I actually had a bit of a money mishap on my first trip to Laos last fall which I have been meaning to post on this blog, so may as well recount it here. I had been in the country only a matter of hours when I visited an ATM to withdraw money. As I had done at ATMs a number of times while in Vietnam previously, I expected to see a range of withdrawl amounts displayed, and I could probably safely choose one of the middle. Instead, at this particular ATM (an ANZ Bank), I was asked to type in the number of kip I wanted to withdraw. Uh-oh, a pop math quiz. Having become accustomed to converting 20,000 Vietnamese dong to dollars, my brain froze up as I tried to multiply 8,000 into some reasonable amount – those tricky 8’s. When the ATM graciously asked me if I needed more time to complete my transaction, I hastily pushed “yes.” And then again. And then once more.

Apparently anyone who takes more than three minutes to withdraw their cash must be up to no good because with some flashing of lights, the machine sucked my card inside and admonished me with a message to the effect of “suspicious activity.” It printed me a receipt that matter-of-factly described a “card capture” and instructed me to go to the bank headquarters to retrieve my card.

Of course, this left me somewhat speechless and I finally caught the attention of my Lao coworker who had been making a call on his cell phone. He was probably stunned that I could manage to lose my card in the machine in a matter of minutes while his back was turned. (This is the same coworker that recently had to extract a piece of a new key from our office door lock that I managed to break in half while testing it out. He probably wonders how I can function on my own.)  Luckily, he took me to the bank headquarters the next day and I was able to retrieve my card a few days later after they emptied the ATM. Lesson learned – do your math ahead of time.


1,000 Lao kip can buy you a bunch of herbs!

Running in the Rain

Rain on the roofI’ve come to Southeast Asia smack in the middle of the rainy season, the period from roughly May to October when tropical monsoons roll through and drench the subcontinent. The rain held off for my first two days here. Then, late into my second night, the thunder came with a boom and a bang, and the rain pounded down.  And so it’s been every other day or so since.

I love the percussive sound of falling rain, love watching it pour off the rooftops. I’ve heard many variations on thunder since I’ve been here, mostly waking me up in the wee hours as I lie in bed. It’s quite an education for this resident of relatively thunderstorm-free California. There’s the classic low, growling rumble; the reverberating wobbly sound—like a big sheet of plastic they would shake in school plays to simulate thunder; and, most nerve-wracking of all, the metallic, crashing crescendo like cymbals exploding over my head.

So far, the rain hasn’t bothered me much. In fact, the other day I found myself wishing for rain to take the edge off the heat. Of course, if I had to ride around on a scooter, as many people do, then I might think differently. Ponchos are definitely the accessory of the season. Streets flood, and many villages too. Even the apartment below ours is prone to flooding (one of the main reasons we opted for an upstairs abode!).

Constructions workers ride home in the rain

Construction workers ride home in the rain

I also find the rain especially comforting when I have to spend time working inside. It helps me focus by reassuring me that I wouldn’t really rather be outdoors anyway. But I may have to reevaluate that notion after my experience getting caught in a downpour while running the other day. It was a faint drizzle when I started, but by the time I was nearly home, a full-on deluge had commenced. And it was exhilarating.

My mom once told me the rain in Vietnam felt like taking a shower. And I have to say, the rain was definitely stronger than the water pressure in my shower here. (Although yes, the shower does have hot water, for those who asked). The rain itself was also warm enough that it didn’t bother me that I was soaked through. The people around me barely seemed to notice either. Kids still kicked soccer balls in the street, couples walked under umbrellas, vendors doggedly set up their stalls for the night market under tarps.

Running in that movie-style downpour was something I’d always wanted to experience. There are few things better than the feeling of rain on your skin, knowing that you’re almost home, knowing that you’ll soon be dry, knowing that you’re awake and alive.

Rain on the roof of our old office across the street

Rain on the roof of our old office across the street

The Weekly Dish – Week 1

Homemade omlet with some Asian herbsIf you’ve ever eaten a meal out with me, you’ll probably know that I’m one of those people who likes to take pictures of my food. When people make fun of me I either a) blame my brother for getting me started or b) say it’s because I’m Asian (true statement?). In any case, since eating is one of the best parts of cultural exploration, I figured I would do something of a weekly roundup to share some of the highlights.

Although probably not as exciting tastewise, the top photo is an omelet I made to celebrate stocking my fridge. It does have Asian herbs on it (cilantro, lemon grass) so that makes it cultural right? The toast was also a small victory (and attempt #2) in figuring out the settings of our toaster. The rest of the photos are a bit more reflective of the region…

Finally, a bit of cultural trivia I learned today: After Sinsamout (my Lao co-worker) sneezed, he explained that the Lao saying about sneezing is that it means somebody’s complaining about him somewhere. He gave me a ride to buy some fruit today – so it definitely wasn’t me!

Back to Laos, Back to Reality

Reporting for work!

Reporting for work!

A new Dragonfish chapter is starting, so it’s time to blow a little dust off this blog! I’ve returned to Laos, this time for an 11-week stint for my work with FISHBIO.  It’s still hard to believe I’m actually able to live and work in the Mekong – something that just a few years ago I thought amounted to nothing more than a pipe dream. I feel like I have so much to learn, but that’s the reason I’m here.

My place of work and residence! (the upstairs)

My place of work and residence! (the upstairs)

So just what will be doing in Laos? My first few days were a whirlwind as I attended the Lao National Fish Passage Workshop, where researchers shared findings and strategies for improving the movement of fish past floodplain barriers, such as irrigation weirs. For the next few weeks, I’ll be trying to learn as much as I can about Mekong fish, meeting with our local collaborators, pursuing funding, and trying to help set up a pilot study for a standard fish sampling program for the Mekong Fish Network. I’ll also be working with my Lao coworker to check the data entry from one of our previous fisheries studies, and helping write a manuscript on that data.  And I’ll also be keeping up with my regular editing and writing duties for the FISHBIO website—and hopefully finally getting into some video editing.  I obviously will have plenty to keep me busy!

Hopefully in the midst of all that work, I will be able to explore my surroundings and get a taste for life in another culture. The other night, I met up with the Vientiane Foodie Group – a group of ex-pats that meets every week to eat—and of course drink plenty of Beer Lao. I only talked to a handful of the large group, but what struck me was how brief my not-even-3-month stint suddenly seemed compared to those who have been here for 9 months, 2 years, 2 and a half years. When I was preparing to depart for my trip, 3 months seemed like a long time away from my family, friends, and the new place I was finally starting to settle in to near my beloved Pacific Ocean. But now that I’m here, I feel incredibly fortunate for the chance to immerse myself in this corner of the world. I know I will be learning a great deal about the work I hope to dedicate myself too – and undoubtedly learning about myself as well. Looking forward to sharing thoughts and experiences with you on this blog!

With a few of the fish passage meeting participants.

With a few of the fish passage meeting participants.

The Brave Ones


Today marked 38 years since the Fall of Saigon, the official end of the Vietnam War. I figured it would be a fitting day to post this reflection on my trip to Vietnam last fall, which I started to write but didn’t finish…

While I was in Saigon, I was surprised that multiple people suggested I visit the War Museum. Highly recommended, they said. It’s not a tip I expected to hear coming from other Westerners. Let’s just say the museum was not high on our travel list when I visited Vietnam with my mom and aunt in 2007. Since history is written by the victors, I assumed the museum would be filled with anti-Western rhetoric. It’s heavy, people told me, but worth it.

I won’t delve too deeply into my own thoughts on the war or I’ll never finish this post. But it’s worth mentioning that I went through a phase of fixation with the Vietnam War when I was younger, around junior high.  I didn’t immerse myself in historic details, didn’t memorize any battles or dates, didn’t even watch any of the iconic movies. Instead, I plunged myself into forging some kind of emotional connection to the war – an attempt to find some connection to my culture, to define my origin story. Not too unusual for a teenager, I suppose.

I’ve since tried to direct my energy into more productive cultural pursuits, like learning language – but I don’t think I’ve yet reconciled the war’s place in my life and my family history. Move on, don’t dwell, leave the past behind. That seems to be my family’s approach.  I’ve tried to walk away from the wound, and it sits there quietly, as I at times debate the merits of opening it back up, probing deeper. In any case, it felt important to visit the museum and confront the war in some respect during my recent trip. Call it a pilgrimage of sorts – paying respects to a past idea of myself, as well as to an event that is undeniably part of my past.


The museum isn’t a big one, just three floors, and the exhibits are composed almost entirely of photos. One floor displays portraits of the victims of Agent Orange, and they are almost too heart-wrenching to bear. I can’t look at them too long, or process the enormity of what I’m seeing. I feel almost guilty taking them in, as if I’m a gawker at a sideshow exhibition. But I tell myself it is important to acknowledge what happened to these people, to affirm their existence as people, to regard them with dignity.IMG_0019

The immense human and environmental toll of the chemicals is undeniable. There is boy who must walk on his hands and a baby with no legs, whose lower body is only a stump. There are conjoined fetuses in jars and babies born with enormous heads that didn’t live a week.  The effects are so horrifically varied; it is a disease of capricious malice. And the effects of dioxin are heritable, still passed down to afflict children born decades after the last U.S. helicopter departed.

There are other photos that spotlight the civilian toll of the war. I linger at one of a mother and her four children lying on the ground, covered with a blanket up to their chins, eyes closed. The children look as if they are tucked in and sleeping.

Larry Burrows

But the exhibit that transfixes me the most is on the top floor, an exhibit called “Requiem.” It pays tribute to the photographers killed during the war. I am fresh out of my own one-year journalism boot camp, and this exhibit hits home.

The museum has not reduced me to an emotional mess as I feared it might. This is both a relief and troubling ­– I seem to have adopted a stoicism that might pass for indifference or numbness, though it is probably closer to coping. However, reading this excerpt from the introduction to “Requiem” by David Halberstam, who wrote the book on which the exhibit is based, brought tears to my eyes:

“…War correspondents always know who is real and who is not. A war zone is not a good setting for the inauthentic of spirit and heart. We, who were print people, and who dealt only in words and not images, always knew that the photographers were the brave ones, and they held in that war, which began in an era of still photography and ended with color film and videotape beamed by satellite to television stations all over the world, a special place in our esteem. We deferred to them, reporter to photographer, as we did in few other venues.”


IMG_0073The exhibit both celebrates the work of the doomed photographers and bears witness to IMG_0029their final days, hours, even minutes. Certain photos carry the haunting caption “last roll of film.” This is what the photographer saw just before the mine went off.  The image survives, its creator does not.

Halberstam writes:

“…They have given us images that have had the power to endure long after the war is over. Now that the war is past, consigned to the normal negligence accorded to history in America, those images remain powerful, a critical part of what constitutes modern memory.”

The one image that I cannot shake is the last photo of Dickey Chapelle. I had just learned about her a few months earlier in an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, DC.  The intrepid female combat photographer. This photo in the War Museum shows a chaplain administering the last rights to Chapelle after a land mine detonated and shrapnel struck her in the neck. The image makes my stomach drop – it is so jarring, deeply personal and raw. A woman lies broken, bleeding, and minutes from death.


The book I had just finished reading, The Man from Saigon, about a fictional female journalist during the war, described this very photo – how the sun glints off Chapelle’s earring and the blood pooled by her neck. The book relates her last words, as others have: “I guess it was bound to happen.” I cannot look away, until I have to.

Dickey Chapelle

Then there is the last photo taken of of four famous photographers in a helicopter that would soon crash in Cambodia. And a photo of the missing, the photographers who ventured into Cambodia and simply vanished. The museum is full of ghosts, fading into history as memory subsides. But the images they captured live on, silent but insistent reminders, windows into the past that dare us to forget.


IMG_0086Halberstam writes:

“The title says that this is a requiem for a war, but as much as anything else, this is a form of homage on the part of those who made it back from Vietnam to the memory of those who did not. The photos evoke dual images, not just those of a terrible and violent time and all of the casualties of that war, both civilian and military, but images as well for many of us of the faces of the men and women who were there, who were our friends, and who took these very photos. We are reminded of their bravery, of the terrible risks they took, and, of course, constantly, of our own good fortune.”

Tonight I reflect on my own good fortune.





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)