This article first appeared in the Earth Island Journal.
In Vietnam’s Red River, navigating the space between environmental conservation and cultural preservation can be trickier than it first appears.
On a chilly, gray January morning in Hanoi, Vietnam, a local development worker named Anh Ngoc Thi Nguyen volunteered at a river clean-up at the Red River near Chuong Duong Bridge. Keep Hanoi Clean (KHC), a nonprofit funded by USAID, had organized a crew of nearly two dozen volunteers to form a human chain, passing sack after sack of trash from the riverbank to a small parking lot beneath the bridge. KHC organizers planned to remove over 11 tons of garbage.
But when Nguyen noticed that some of the sacks contained ceramic incense bowls and urns, and waterlogged bits of wooden altars, she refused to take part. “I didn’t want to touch them,” she says. “It was scary.”
In Hanoi, almost every house and storefront has its own wooden altar. Twice a month and on special occasions, residents offer food, alcohol, and cigarettes in the altars as a gift for their ancestors. When homeowners move, tradition dictates they must discard that house altar in a large body of water. Many in Hanoi choose to throw the altar and its contents from one of the many bridges that span the Red River.
Nguyen’s family members rigorously follow the many customs and traditions passed down to them by their elders. When Nguyen’s father’s body was reinterred, for example, her mother threw the ceramics that sat on top of his former grave into the river not far from where they lived. Nguyen and her family believe that those ceramics belong to the spirits of their ancestors and the water helps to carry them away.
The altars and offerings represent just one small part of the pollution picture on the Red River. Once the lifeblood of Hanoi, the river, through years of unfettered dumping of plastic waste, illegal sand mining, and industrial runoff, has become a symbol of the degradation caused by rapid industrial development.
At the KHC cleanup site, a debate ensued among volunteers on whether or not the discarded urns and altars represented spiritual artifacts to leave alone, or if they should be disposed of alongside the trash clogging the river. Ultimately, the event’s coordinator and KHC’s founder, James Kendell, decided that these artifacts would be removed.
Watching KHC remove these artifacts from the river made Nguyen feel unsettled. “Why couldn’t they just leave them where they were?” she asked later. “They weren’t hurting anyone.”
This debate on the Red River is a microcosm of a much larger question of how we balance environmental activism and cultural traditions. A 2013 paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production estimates that each year, more than 2 million pilgrims to Mecca emit 60.5 kilograms each of carbon dioxide per day (as opposed to a global average of just under 14 kilograms per person per day) during their pilgrimage as a result of transportation and lodging.
During the Lunar New Year, the Chinese set off fireworks to ward away evil spirits. In 2018, Beijing’s air quality soared above 500 on the Air Quality Index due to this tradition. Anything over 50 is considered unsafe.
In Hanoi, Keep Hanoi Clean has been trying to figure out how to navigate its programs with consideration to cultural practices on the Red River. According to Doug Snyder, KHC’s general director, up until the January volunteer event, the nonprofit’s policy has always been to leave spiritual artifacts where they lay.
“In previous years we did not touch the urns because one of the people on our team told us not to,” he says.
But now, the organization is changing course.
Diep Ngoc Bui, chief operating officer at KHC, says complaints against river clean-ups mostly come from older people for whom the custom of immersing altars, ashes, and other sacred items in rivers is heavily ingrained. Bui says in these situations she tries to explain why the ceramics and altars should not be thrown into the river in the first place. But that tactic is not always successful.
“It’s really hard to tell the older generation you shouldn’t throw these things into the river,” she says. “[They believe] it’s going to affect their business or health of the family, the rest of the year. It’s really a delicate issue.”
“We really have to get on the education side,” says Snyder. “Unless we put out some information about giving them an alternative that’s less destructive, then they’ll just keep doing it.”
Snyder says there are plans to consult with members of the local Buddhist community to help to initiate a public education program.
Thich Tinh Giac is a Buddhist monk and reformist who runs Chua Phuc Son, a buddhist pagoda just outside of Hanoi. He says that people throwing religious artifacts into Hanoi’s waterways have got it all wrong. He says the idea that this practice brings good fortune is all superstition.
It does not, he says, have any significance in the Buddhist faith.
Giac also makes one other important observation: He notes that the Vietnamese people have historically been poor. They could not traditionally afford to make sacrifices the size and scope of those they make now.
The GDP per capita of Vietnam has increased six-fold since the year 2000. As a result, per-capita consumption has also increased, and Vietnam is now the world’s fourth largest contributor to ocean plastic waste, producing an estimated 730,000 tons each year.
Snyder has made a similar observation. At one cleanup event, he and a Vietnamese volunteer confronted two women who had been throwing plastic flowers into the river. Snyder and a Vietnamese volunteer then collected the flowers.
“It was kind of like a comedy skit,” Snyder says. “But then one of them got really upset.”
A conversation about the origins of the practice for this woman ensued.
“What did you put in the water in the past?” asked the Vietnamese volunteer.
“Well, we didn’t put this kind of stuff in,” the woman replied. “We were too poor but now we’re rich.”
In other words, a big issue that Snyder and the KHC staff are dealing with is how plastic waste has infiltrated a cultural practice.
Of course, this may seem a minor issue given the bigger problems facing the Red River. Admittedly, KHC’s work is somewhat piecemeal given the size and scope of the environmental challenges facing Vietnam, such as mining, urban and industrial runoff, and rampant corruption and top level apathy toward environmental issues that hinder any form environmental activism that goes beyond picking up rubbish.
This is particularly true when money is involved. For example, in May, a local newspaper called Phu Nu TPHCM (HCMC Women) tried to expose a local developer for damaging Vietnam’s natural heritage. As a result, the newspaper was fined and its website taken offline for a month. Advocacy can be risky when it jeopardizes profits.
So KHC is doing its best to clean up the river by picking the safer option: working with local traditions to find a solution that helps the river.
Luckily, Giac says that support for these practices is waning, particularly as Buddhist leaders occupy an important role in society.
“Because I am a monk, they believe me, they respect me,” Giac says. At his pagoda he has urns he has retrieved that he now uses to grow plants. He says repurposing rather than destroying the bowls makes a lot more sense.
In this vein, Giac says he has an important role to play in helping to save Hanoi’s waterways. He often confronts worshippers in the process of making their offerings and counters that Buddhist doctrine actually supports protecting the environment.
“In Buddhism, we say, you reap what you sow,” he says. “So the environment, you look after it and over time you get good results.”