by Trung Hieu-Minh Ly
We were surprised last Sunday afternoon to see a group of youths holding plastic bags and wearing gloves around Hoan Kiem (Returned Sword) Lake, looking for rubbish on the footpaths and grass plots.
One of them told us they are members of the Hoan Kiem Lake Young Volunteers Club on a "mission" to clean up the lake.
The idea came from the actions of some foreigners living in Ha Noi, the volunteer said, such as Japanese national Ninomiya, who works in the capital.
Over the past two years, Ninomiya and his friends have picked up rubbish around the lake very Sunday morning.
Another foreigner, Kim Hyo-suk, a South Korean student, says she often arrives at the lake to exercise. She joined in the collection with other students because, she says, she wants the lake surroundings to be clean.
After each rubbish collection, Kim says she feels sad because it proves that people's awareness is still low.
From this action by foreigners and the "shame" of some of the Vietnamese citizens, the group has been set up to pick up rubbish. The club was founded to protect the environment and to recycle scrap, contributing to building a green Ha Noi, a clean Returned Sword Lake, and raising people's awareness about environmental protection.
Alongside that, they are building up a charity fund from the sale of recycled products to support poor children and disadvantaged people.
Every Sunday afternoon, equipped with plastic bags and gloves, about 20 members travel around the lake to collect the rubbish, some of which they recycle during the following week.
Group volunteer Mai Thi Thuy, a final-year student of Ha Noi-based University of Social Sciences and Humanities, says: "We collected a lot of ice cream sticks. We have reused them, making them into eye-catching souvenirs to sell for charity.
"In recent years, the club has provided gifts for needy children in Lai Chau Province's ethnic areas, via the charity programme to supply ‘rice with meat' for children in Muong Te District," Thuy says.
"Not just picking up trash around Hoan Kiem Lake, our group also wants to replicate this club model at tourist sites and major festivals in Ha Noi, but this needs the support of the local authorities at these places."
It's good to know the club's activities are being supported by a lot of people, from the residents who go exercising around the lake early in the morning, or in the evening, to the tourists. They see young people picking up discarded confectionery wrappings and ice cream sticks and putting them in the rubbish bins, and this makes them more aware.
Nguyen Quang Dung, from Hang Bong Street, who practises martial arts early in the morning by the lake, says: "I admire these young people who have the sense to protect the environment. Many times I see people littering and feel annoyed. I hope they will look at these youths and follow their example in order to preserve the public environment."
A new member of the group, Van Thao, says: "When I saw the student volunteers picking up rubbish, I was curious and joined them to know how it would feel to be cleaning up.
"Since then, though, I couldn't regularly join the group, but it made me conscious to put rubbish in the right place."
This is the message the group wants to send to all people. And we believe that's why the grass areas and footpaths around Hoan Kiem Lake have seemed cleaner over the past year. But picking up trash or recycling is just the tip of the iceberg. The foreigners and young volunteers will not be able to do this job forever. It is important to get to the core of the problem: people's awareness.
The first job is to clean up the waste but then it is necessary to raise people's consciousness to stop the "free to litter" habit of people in the capital, and nationwide for that matter.
People need to get the habit of disposing of waste in rubbish bins, so there is no need for volunteers to do the job.
And it's not just protecting the environment around the lake that needs attention, people need to get the "keep it clean" habit all over the city. Maybe the Hoan Kiem Lake Young Volunteers Club's activities will prompt a change in attitude towards littering that is long overdue. Let's hope so. — VNS