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Industrial Growth Creates Nagging Air Pollution in Vietnam

Most Vietnamese worry about air pollution, but it's cited most highly as a concern in Hanoi, which is closer to the polluting factories of southern China.
Most Vietnamese worry about air pollution, but it's cited most highly as a concern in Hanoi, which is closer to the polluting factories of southern China.

Five years ago, a car bound for the Ho Chi Minh City airport from downtown might get stuck in a couple of quick jams, costing just an extra minute. Now big swathes of the Vietnamese financial center are congested, and not just during rush hour. That stationary traffic, with engines idling among canyons of high-rises, are contributing to the country’s first major air pollution problem.

The glut of cars reflects people's rising wealth, which is the byproduct of fast economic growth fueled by a boom in export manufacturing. Cities in Vietnam including the capital Hanoi are the latest Asian cities to become smothered in smog. Mega-cities such as Bangkok, Beijing and Jakarta have been grappling with dirtier air, and for longer, mainly because of vehicular exhaust and factory emissions.

“This is something the Vietnamese government is pretty aware of and I think policy makers and anyone who’s living here can kind of see is becoming more and more of an issue as more people start pouring into the city,” said Maxfield Brown, senior associate with Dezan Shira & Associates in Ho Chi Minh City.

Crops, fires and industrialization

Vietnamese authorities initially assumed smoke wafting north from crop burning in Indonesia had caused the dirty air. They also looked into the role of low rainfall and local crop burning, business consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates said in an October 2019 country briefing.

“If you go up in an airplane, it’s amazing,” said Frederick Burke, a partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City. “One burning from one field pollutes a whole valley or a whole series of plains. It really has a wide-reaching effect.”

Urban burning of garbage including, plastics, adds to the foul air, Brown said. Burning is illegal, he said, but enforcement hasn’t caught up to the law.

A major cause is industry, the consultancy says. Over the past decade, coal consumption tripled and oil consumption rose 70%, the country briefing says. Vietnam depends on coal-fired plants for electricity, and, because a lot of their northern locations depend on coal, they give Hanoi “deteriorating air quality,” it says.

Vietnam's $300 billion economy is forecast to grow up to 6.8% this year, SSI Research in Hanoi says. It expanded 7.1% in 2018, the fastest in 11 years.

Ho Chi Minh City smog

Humidity plus automotive pollution and “waste from industries” creates smog in the south, particularly from September into October, Dezan Shira says. Construction of urban residential buildings, shopping malls and office buildings further addles air in the south, it says.

On Monday, Ho Chi Minh City received a World Air Quality Project score of 149, which falls in the “moderately polluted” range. That means children, the elderly and people with certain diseases should avoid strenuous outdoor activities. At times of the day, the sky takes on a pasty white hue. Hanoi got a rating Monday of 129, also in the unhealthy category.

People living in Ho Chi Minh City point to a growing urban population of workers and students, meaning more vehicles on the road. The population stands at 9 million.

“It seems like we don’t have any regulations to limit the pollution from (buses), form cars, from motorbikes,” said Phuong Hong, a Ho Chi Minh City travel sector businessperson with a 30-minute daily motorcycle commute. “We even have some motor bikes from the 1980s, which means they are 30 years of working.”

Construction work also kicks up dust, and projects across the city have forced the removal of trees, she added. In their place are high-rises for housing and office-commercial space.

A year ago the Vietnamese company Vinfast began selling electric motorcycles, but few appear on the streets now. Ho Chi Minh City dwellers say the electric bikes cost more than gasoline-powered motorcycles and that the city lacks battery charging stations. Two-wheelers are staple transport for commuters.

Metro lines due to open in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City within the next two years should ease some pollution, Brown said. City officials are working toward a ban on motorcycles in central Ho Chi Minh City by 2030, local media say.

Dirtier elsewhere in Asia

Vietnamese city planners probably consider air pollution a problem to solve over the next decade as they watch more severe cases in other cities and learn from them, Brown said.

India, Bangladesh and China have the world’s dirtiest air, with Jakarta fast approaching Beijing levels, Asian media outlet Eco-Business reported in March. Cities in India and China dominated the world’s 50 dirtiest in 2018, according to the air quality monitoring service AirVisual. None were in Vietnam.