Working Towards A Clean, Green Vietnam

How a Vietnamese-American made his dream a reality.

The Keep Vietnam Clean & Green network, founded by Nguyen Huu Nhan, aims to educate the country’s population on the importance of environmental protection. One initiative is the annual Earth Day event where thousands of people pick up garbage.

How it began

Nguyen Huu Nhan is a tall guy who speaks with a slight Vietnamese accent. “My dad was born and raised in the coastal city of Nha Trang. When he got older, he went to the United States to study and stayed there to work. My mom, a native of Tien Giang province, followed my dad and they settled in Virginia. I was born in the U.S and grew up with American culture and education.”

He learned about the Vietnam War at school, but not much more about the country. Instead, his family taught him about Vietnamese culture. “At home, we spoke to each other in Vietnamese. My mom cooked Vietnamese dishes, and we maintained many traditional Vietnamese Tet customs,” Nhan explains. As his relatives told him about the country, he became curious about his roots.

In 1992, at the age of 32, he visited Vietnam for the first time. “My heart was laden with emotions. Words cannot describe my feelings when I first arrived in Hanoi,” says Nhan. After that trip, honouring his heritage was a priority. Seven years later, he made a life-changing decision to return to Vietnam to live and work.

Living in Vietnam

Why did he make this decision? “The events of September 11 had an effect on me. I talked to Michiko, a Japanese friend of mine, and we agreed that nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. I did not want to delay my dreams anymore,” recalls Nhan. He was running an IT startup with his friends, but was determined to quit and then check off his wish list items one by one – drive a car from the West Coast to the East Coast of the United States; then live in Vietnam.

In 2002, after spending months on his trans-America road trip, Nhan arrived in Vietnam at his cousin’s place. A few months later, he was hired by RMIT University in Saigon as an IT lecturer.

“I wanted to get a deeper insight into Vietnamese culture and lifestyle,” he says. After 16 years, that mission has been accomplished. “I really love the life here even though many people are doing the opposite, going to the U.S. to live and work. Despite having American citizenship, I want to remain in Vietnam and let my son grow up and study here.”

A zero-waste Vietnam

Vietnam has changed a lot since Nhan’s first visit in 1992. Its economy, education, infrastructure, and transport system have developed rapidly; and the demand for housing, shopping, consumption and schooling, can be met. However, efforts are needed to address existing problems, including environmental pollution and waste disposal.

The need to address Vietnam’s waste problem became apparent when Nhan and his son rented a boat to explore the Saigon River. They went into many branches in District 4 and District 8 where they observed temporary riverfront houses and a lot of trash. “What I saw made me feel very sad. I saw a server sweeping garbage directly into the river, as well as a man riding his motorbike to the middle of the bridge and dropping a bag of garbage into the water,” recalls Nhan.

Seeing debris everywhere, Nhan became concerned. Even while walking down the street, he made mental notes. “I saw garbage every three meters or more,” he says. Once he was left speechless on a ferry. Looking around to find a garbage can for his litter, the driver offered to do him a favor and quickly threw it into the river. “Vietnamese people want their homes to be clean and they love cleaning. But they only care about garbage inside their homes, not in front of their doors. Limited attention is paid to raising public awareness through education. I lived in the U.S. in the 1970s, and at that time, many Americans also littered everywhere. I know that attitude can change, so I began thinking about what to do to keep the streets and coasts of Vietnam free from litter.”

In 2008, Nhan started encouraging university students to take part in Vietnam’s Earth Day activities, for instance to pick up garbage and turn off lights when not in use. He created the website toiyeumoitruong (now known as vietnamsachvaxanh.org) in 2009 and launched a campaign called Green Ribbon in 2013. This later developed into Keep Vietnam Clean & Green, with simple, yet meaningful actions to care for the environment. Green Ribbon asked people to attach a green ribbon to their vehicle or backpack as a “No Littering” reminder. This successful campaign delivered 66,000 ribbons to 15 universities across the country.

In 2015, Keep Vietnam Clean & Green organized the first community cleanup campaign in Phu Quoc. The organization also continued partnering with environmental organizations and groups from Hanoi, Hoi An, Da Nang, Saigon and Can Tho, encouraging them to hold monthly community cleanups. Every year, the Community Cleanup campaign is launched on Earth Day, calling on Vietnamese people across the country to pick up garbage. “We have 6,000-7,000 participants every year. Lots of universities and large companies have expressed their willingness to join us. We’ll guide them and show them where they can pick up garbage and make the area clean,” said Nhan.

Now that he’s more than 50 years old, and head of the administration department of RMIT Vietnam’s School of Business and Management, Nhan wants to return to where he started. “I haven’t taught for a long time, but I want to get back to teaching and work more with students and to have more time for Keep Vietnam Clean & Green.”

Education is the key to change

One of Nhan’s ideas recently put into action by Keep Vietnam Clean & Green is the Green Turtle Army campaign, aimed at raising children’s awareness of the need for environmental protection. “Education, especially of children, is of the greatest importance. American children are no strangers to Woodsy Owl and know by heart the motto, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.” I came up with an animal that is familiar to Vietnamese children so that they can remember environmental messages more easily.”

Keep Vietnam Clean & Green recently released a short animated film about how a dragon named Kari protects the Earth with the help of the Green Turtle Army. It conveys a meaningful message, saying that if nature is protected, it will help Kari fight against evil people and save the Earth. The accompanying slogan is “Don’t litter, others have to clean up.” Currently, a mobile app Green Turtle Army game for children is being completed. Playing the role of a green turtle, a child selects his or her travel destination from the options on the list, for example Hanoi, Ha Long, Saigon or Sapa, and picks up garbage along the way to earn points. “I am nurturing the idea of writing a cute, catchy song for children that reminds them not to litter. It will be sung by a famous artist and the children can sing along. When listening to children singing the song at home, adults might be impacted, too,” Nhan explains.

 By: Vu Thuy

This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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