Tuesday, 3 November 2009


For some reason, the things that are the most important to us are the things we don't usually give much thought to. Most of us have a place to live, can afford three meals a day, have caring family and/or friends, and are healthy most of the time - and most of us take these things for granted. You don't realise how precious they are until you are confronted with the possibility of losing them. Of some things you don't even realise the importance until you actually lose them.

I never really knew what it is like to have little freedom, to feel restricted in what you say and do, or to have family put pressure on you to do what they want you to do. I never really knew what it is like to be discriminated against, and insulted, because you are in a mixed relationship or have a different skin colour. I never really knew the importance of having the freedom to make your own choices, to be who you want to be, to express opinions and affection. Until I settled in a small town in central Vietnam, and fell in love with a young Vietnamese woman.

I guess the realisation of the importance of these things was the main reason why we chose to leave, and live in the capital city instead. We felt restricted, and we wanted the freedom and independence to live our own lives, free from pressure and gossip. And by focusing on these things we may have underestimated the importance of some other things - things we had taken for granted perhaps a little bit too much.

Hanoi is a charming city, at first sight at least. Its old town is lively and bustling, there are quite a few pretty temples scattered around the city, the draft beer and street food are cheap and tasty, and there is a number of interesting nationalist memorial sites and museums. Sure, the traffic is busy, but when you're just visiting you don't really mind. I didn't, at least, as I had gotten used to the insanity of the traffic in Southeast Asian cities. Besides, there are more job opportunities here than in central Vietnam. In sum, the city appealed to us.

I have lived in big cities before. Both London and Tokyo can be very hectic and crowded at times, and have their fair share of pollution. But at least both cities have some quiet neighbourhoods, where you can enjoy a nice stroll, as well as a few decent parks. And if you need to really get away from it all, you just get on a train and go for a day walk (neatly marked) somewhere in the green countryside or mountains, far removed from the sound of motorised vehicles.

Hanoi doesn't have any of that. There are hardly any parks. In fact, there are virtually no patches of green to be found. Pretty old neigbourhoods have turned into traffic hells. There may be some nice countryside around the city, but in order to get there you need to drive your motorcycle on dusty roads with heavy traffic for at least an hour and a half. And the really beautiful places are too far removed to be visited as a day trip (alas, I don't have two days off in a row).

It's not like I never realised the importance of a clean environment. In fact, I was one of those kids who walked around in a Greenpeace t-shirt with a picture of a footprint, saying 'The only thing you should ever leave on the beach', and a baseball cap saying 'Hiro-Chirac' (to protest against France's nuclear tests in the Pacific). I have always loved nature - forests, in particular - and I got (and get) very angry when I see people litter. I have supported the Dutch green party for as long as I can remember. But even though they partly defined my identity, environmental issues always remained a little abstract. 'Sure, they are important, but they don't affect us directly' - I'm sure you know the feeling.

That has changed. If there's one thing I've learned since I came to Hanoi, it is the importance of a clean environment - not only as an abstract concept, but as a real concern, right here and now. Serious pollution really does influence the way you feel, physically as well as mentally. Since moving here, I have suffered from a burning feeling in my eyes, a sore throat, chest pains and headaches, which I all contribute to the polluted air. A face mask doesn't really stop you from inhaling dirty fumes, especially if you have to commute during rush hour. After a couple of weeks driving around here, you notice the effect on your health.

In addition to air pollution, there's the problem of noise pollution. I've lived in noisy places before, and I'm not extremely sensitive when it comes to noise. I wasn't, at least. But I simply can't stand the constant sound of traffic permeating our living room anymore. The horns in particular are annoying. My reaction is physical: even when I don't pay any attention to it, the noise makes me extra alert and nervous, and makes my blood pressure rise. Needless to say that when I go out on the street, it gets even worse.

Of course, I am to blame as well. I also commute by motorcycle, use gas, and blow my horn when needed. I could justify this by saying that commuting by bus would only make things worse, as those old Hanoian buses are highly polluting second-hand Korean crap. More importantly, they are extremely slow - commuting by bus would take me twice to three times as long as commuting by bike. I could also get a bicycle, but the problem is that cyclists are exposed to pollution longer than motorcyclists as they go much slower. Besides, it is not exactly the savest way to get around the city. Despite all this, it is an undeniable fact that during the past couple of months, my carbon footprint has increased quite dramatically, and I have made a small but real contribution to environmental pollution.

I've suffered from a sore throat and headaches for most of the past three weeks. I didn't really get sick, but I didn't really feel well, either. Fortunately, today, I felt slightly better. This afternoon, I wanted to go to the supermarket to buy a few things. As the supermarket is only ten minutes by foot, I thought I might as well walk there, in stead of going by bike. A leisurely stroll, or so I thought. I hadn't really thought about the big road I had to cross in order to go there though. Well, by the time I had finally made it to the supermarket, I felt dizzy, my head was thumping and I was coughing - thanks to the insanely heavy traffic.

When I walked back, I noticed a small canal near my house. The water was dark gray, and smelled of rotten eggs. The canal turned out to be an open sewer. It was one of the dirtiest things I had ever seen. I felt like I had to vomit, and quickly walked on. Children were playing on the pavement, oblivious to the smell. This must be one of the unhealthiest cities in the world, I thought.

Clean air is one of those things that you don't appreciate until you lose it. So is silence. But who would have thought that happiness, a good health and peace of mind are so largely dependent on such basal things, and that air and noise pollution affect our physical and mental wellbeing so directly and strongly. It's one thing to read about it, it's quite another thing to personally experience it. The environment really does concern us, it turns out - more so, even, than I had ever imagined.

I am longing for mountains, forests and deserted beaches. I am longing for a place without any motorbikes or cars. I can't wait to get out of here: out of this apartment, out of this city, and eventually, out of this country. I want to inhale some fresh air.

I learned my lesson.


  1. I am sad to hear that your life quality is so bad up there.

    KL might not have been as bad as Hanoi but imagine its carbon footprint, considering that public transport is so bad everyone is using a car like people use a bicycle elsewhere - usually one person per vehicle! And already there the car fumes were smellable to most of expat's noses.

    You write about trading one evil for another evil, the expectation that moving to the capital would make a lot of things better. It's a very typical thing for many Southeast Asian countries that qualities of the city vs. the countryside differ so much, it is hard to be satisfied in either if you live there.

    As for the environmental consciousness, there is yet a lot to be done - anywhere in the world. My flatmate tends to buy a three-pack of Domestos because it is on offer (it should be made illegal to sell chemical bleach for less than £5!), use light-saving bulbs, use the timer on the central heating, buy recycled paper only to not make an effort about a leaking water tap - because water comes on a fixed bill so there is nothing to be "saved"!!!

    Oxfam is doing ads in the Tube: "People in developing countries don't wonder how climate change will affect them - they already know". And when I once tried to get the issue to some middle-aged Filipinos I was staying with for a while, all I heard was - silence (we're speaking about usually rather chatty people) and then, upon probing, eventually: "I have other problems" In most cases, they would refer to money. But in focusing on household economics only people ignore that nature will be back with a vengeance and they will have to bear the long-term costs of that.

  2. At least in the UK, environmentally friendly products are sort of trendy, and climate change is an issue. Much more so than in the Netherlands, at least. Despite the fact that it's one of the countries that will be seriously affected by the rising sea level, the percentage of the population that is worried about environmental issues and climate change (10-15%) hasn't increased at all during the past years. Accordingly, whereas ten years ago they were a frontrunner, the Netherlands are now far behind neighbouring countries when it comes to sustainability and environmental protection. So I understand and share your concern about the lack of environmental awareness in the UK (on which you also wrote on your blog) - but at least there it's an issue, and people seem to care (a bit). In many other European countries (not only the Netherlands; most South- and East-European countries as well) it is simply ignored by the vast majority of the population, as well as mainstream political parties and enterprises.

  3. As for the ads on the tube: of course they are misleading, because part of the problem is that people in developing countries do NOT know how climate change affects them. Or, at least, they do not WANT to know. That is, they don't seem to see a causal relationship between consumer behaviour, rapid economic growth, climate change, and natural disasters. People in Southeast Asia suffer from floods and typhoons, but when things are back to normal they continue using huge quantities of plastic bags, eating factory farmed chicken and pork every day, driving around in their highly polluting motorbikes and cars (Hanoi anno 2009 is full of big, dirty and completely unpractical SUVs, just because people want to show off), and flying around for 30 ringgit by Air Asia or Cebu Pacific. Local governments build high skyscrapers and huge business centres, but refuse to spend a small percentage of the money they spend on buildings and roads on new, clean buses. Whenever I try to have a discussion with my students about climate change or the environment, it gets quiet - nobody has an opinion, nobody cares. I mean, they live in one of the dirtiest cities in the world, yet the only thing most Hanoian people care about is becoming rich. Literally: it's what they all mention, when you ask them about plans for the future. Very few people here actually care about environmental issues. Policy makers in particular couldn't care less, it seems.

    Oxfam et al should stop referring to 'developing countries' as the victims of 'us', westerners, and our lifestyle, and stop denying them their own responsibility. Frankly, I think these ads are offensive - they portray 'those poor people out there' as passive victims, desperately in need of the rich white man's benevolence. Sure, that's how Oxfam gets its money, that's its raison d'être - guilt feelings are big business, after all - but they simply employ the classic neo-colonial worldview that 'they need us', thus denying people in 'developing' countries their own agency. Of course the emerging economies in Asia (China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia) share a responsibility, and let's stop denying them that responsibility. 'China can pollute as much as it wants, as it has to catch up with the West' was the argument employed by China and its allies to legitimise their rapid increase of carbon emissions. Bullocks. As long as these countries allow highly polluting industries to operate within their territories (and bribe officials whenever they violate laws), use polluting energy resources on a grand scale (coal, in particular), don't implement any taxes to influence consumer behaviour, and, overall, completely remain oblivious to environmental issues, the problem of climate change will not be solved.