by Nguyen Khanh Chi
My fourth-grade son recently struck me dumb when he said "Mum, I hate living here!" for a single reason: "Lots of adults litter on the outdoor playground downstairs."
He had been so excited when we moved to an apartment in a modern 31-storey building in Ha Noi several months ago. It has many public facilities, including a playground for children, sports fields and green spaces.
Considered one of the city's most convenient residential areas, the 12-building complex has maintained its luxury look after three years in operation. It has a strong contingent of sanitation workers. Whenever I play with my children on the playground, I notice that even the security guards say food is not allowed on the playground, and ask us to keep our eyes open for anyone who leaves litter around.
Frankly speaking, during recent weeks I have started recognising that "a man can do no more than he can", as public places like parking lots, paths between buildings, lobbies and playgrounds around the complex are no longer clean.
No matter how well it is managed, the environment will remain polluted without locals' self-awareness and self-discipline.
"Generally speaking, the level of environmental awareness of residents here is relatively high, so we do not have to work hard like those working in other residential areas," said Nguyen Thi Diu, a sanitation worker. "However, not all of them have good attitudes. Some still throw rubbish away randomly, even right by the dustbins. Rubbish bins are everywhere, but it seems opening the lids is too hard for some.
"Some even make a mess in lifts or let kids have a quick pee in public places. They have to keep the environment hygienic for themselves. We are unable to do so without the self-consciousness of those around us."
Despite efforts by the public and authorities, and even legal regulations, I bet strewn-about rubbish can be spotted anywhere in Viet Nam.
Pham Thi Khuyen, a mother of two, said she felt annoyed seeing parents driving motorbikes with their children and throwing away paper or plastic water bottles, cans, candy wrappers or gum on the streets.
"Sometimes we do not leave litter intentionally, but there is a lack of dustbins in the city's parks and we often feel too lazy to put rubbish in dustbins that are far from where we're sitting," a student in HCM City said. "We know that if we leave litter here or there, there will be public sanitation workers to clean it later."
Southern Institute of Ecology Director Vu Ngoc Long said types of rubbish such as medical waste, plastic bags and batteries were extremely dangerous.
"These varieties must be dealt with properly," Long said. "It is unacceptable to throw them freely into the environment. If plastic bags are thrown into canals or the sea, they will hurt sea creatures."
The Mien Tay Bus Station in HCM City's Binh Tan District fined 153 individuals so far this year who were caught littering at the station. The practice improved the station's environment. Many have asked if similar punishments should be imposed in other public places, and if they would make the city cleaner.
Some other localities also take severe acts towards this ugly behaviour.
Ahead of the national holidays on April 30 and May 1 this year, Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province in the south publicised fines for littering on the beach. In July, the Da Nang Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism placed "no rubbish" signs on beaches and issued fines from VND50,000 to VND200,000 (US$2.30 to $9) for littering in public places.
The Ha Noi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism said the city would wait and see how effective the experimental fines in Da Nang were before using them in the capital.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is drafting a decree dealing with environmental pollution.
"One of the new points of the draft decree is to increase fines for the act of throwing rubbish into the environment," said lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, deputy head of HCM City's Bar Association. "Leaving a cigarette in a public place can result in a VND200,000 fine, and leaving rubbish in certain areas could result in a fine between VND200,000 and VND500,000."
The country has created certain decrees in the past to punish the act of contaminating public places including pavements, streets, and parks.
Many people have recommended installing cameras in public places to spot those who litter.
Nevertheless, none of these measures seem to work well, as the key to reversing this trend is the mindsets of the individuals.
Not long ago, social networks were overwhelmed with pictures of foreign tourists in swimsuits picking up pieces of rubbish on Do Son and Cat Ba beaches.
As a Vietnamese person, I feel ashamed seeing foreign tourists doing this. It should be Vietnamese people who clean up their environment, particularly at tourism sites where we should be welcoming foreigners into the country.
"The ‘Sense of responsibility' is a common phrase in public, the family and the education system, but many still don't apply this virtue in their everyday lives.
Viet Nam Centre for Research and Conversation on Culture and Belief Director Ngo Duc Thinh, said many Vietnamese still think in a very local way.
"We always clean our houses, but we still feel free to spit and throw rubbish away in pubic places," Thinh said. "Our community awareness is poor, and management and punishment by competent authorities remains limited.
"Besides creating more severe punishments, we should work to build a civilised society by increasing the awareness of each individual. We must ensure that each person is well aware that keeping the environment hygienic is not just an act for the civilisation but an act to protect our surroundings." — VNS