Poor air quality scares away foreigners

Created 09 October 2019
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Concerned about the worsening pollution, many expats in Hanoi and HCMC plan to leave the country.
Two axpats wearing masks in Hanoi. Photo by Shuttlestock/Jaem Prungeangwet.

On October 3, when Hanoi’s AQI index fell to 43, Luke Evans, 38, an English teacher, had mixed feelings: excitement because he could go out and have some fresh air and sadness because he was leaving soon.

Settling down in the capital of Vietnam 12 years ago, the British man got married to a Vietnamese woman and has a 2-year-old son.

Luke has never thought about relocating, but the air quality in the metropolis changed his mind.

He says he was a "pollution innocent" when he moved to Vietnam from his native U.K., and started to obsessively check the air quality index (AQI) daily and wear a masks whenever he went out.

"The air pollution has been getting worse here, I don’t think this kind of air is for human’s lungs, so I have to leave."

Two axpats wearing masks in Hanoi. Photo by Shuttlestock/Jaem Prungeangwet.

Two expats wear masks in Hanoi. Photo by Shuttlestock/Jaem Prungeangwet.

After tying the knot three years ago he and his wife, Huong, rented an apartment near Hanoi's West Lake thinking of green space and fresh air from the city’s largest lake.

But it has been disastrous recently.

At 9 a.m. on October 1 the AQI at West Lake was 323, according to AirVisual. The PM2.5 level was 273 µg/m3, 10 times the Vietnamese safety level and 27 times the WHO safety level.

It was the most polluted area in the entire city.

Evans says: "We decided to go to the gym instead of going out and run. I hate the fact that I have to check the AQI whenever I want to go out for a run."

In the last five years he and his wife did several things to cope with the dirty air. They bought air purifiers for the living room and bedroom, which have been running almost every day since the beginning of this year.

On days the AQI falls below 50, few and far between, the couple take their baby out.

"Huong was not keen on the idea of leaving Vietnam but she had to because of our son. We will leave during Christmas after the semester ends."

Wearing masks, checking the AQI, reducing outdoor activities, using air purifiers ... these are what Claire Holmes, an American recruitment consultant, has been doing for the last several months. She admits she was not serious about the air until last winter, when it became unbreathable.

Hanoi skyline at twilight with smog in the air. Photo by Shuttlestock/Mikhail Gnatkovskiy. 

Hanoi skyline at twilight with smog in the air. Photo by Shuttlestock/Mikhail Gnatkovskiy. 

In love with Vietnam because of its low living costs and great coffee places, Claire has never thought about moving out of Hanoi for the last three years until it become unbearable.

"I was coughing and had chest pain sometimes, my throat felt scratchy and the doctor said these were all because of the particles in the air. The air quality stays the same, so I think I have to make a move, I will relocate to Australia next year."

The smog is like a massive dark cloud on people’s minds. Claire says: "I can tell that the grey, thick air affects my mood. I often go for a short trip outside the city, but then people burn straw in the fields and I can no longer go."

In Ho Chi Minh City, things are not much better.

Daniel, an American tourist, realizing the situation last week, decided to leave Vietnam with his wife and four-year-old son after three days in the city.

"I love Saigon, but I don't want my kid to walk and breathe in this kind of air." At 9 a.m. on October 1 HCMC's AQI measured at an ‘unhealthy’ 159. 

The businessman has also told his sister's family to cancel their Vietnam travel plans for Christmas because "no one can enjoy things when the city looks like it is filled with smoke from a giant cigarette."

When the city was covered in a blanket of smog last month, one of his friends coming from Japan had also cut short her business trip in HCMC because she had asthma, which made her afraid of dirty air.

"Vietnam has attracted more and more expats and visitors, but I think the rising environmental issues, especially the air quality, can now be a concern for them," he says.

International arrivals numbered 15.5 million last year, 2.7 million more than in 2017. Tourism is booming, but the pollution can become a spoiler.

Nostalgia for clean air

Last week, several diplomatic missions in Vietnam warned their citizens about severe air pollution in Hanoi and HCMC, advising them to check the AQI index and protect themselves when travelling to both cities. 

"High levels of air pollution, up to and including hazardous levels, occur in Vietnam, particularly in the biggest cities and may aggravate heart, lung or respiratory conditions," the British Embassy in Hanoi cautioned. It also advised citizens to check the AQI index of these metropolises on the internet. 

Air quality monitor at the German Embassy in Hanoi also indicated that the air quality was in the "unhealthy" category. The air quality website of the diplomatic mission warned that long-term exposure to air pollution mainly affects the respiratory and inflammatory systems and can also lead to more serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

The WHO maintains that more than 60,000 deaths in 2016 from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia in Vietnam were linked to air pollution. 

According to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, the number of foreigners living in Vietnam rose from 12,600 in 2004 to 83,500 in 2015, a quarter of them in HCMC.

Many of them came to Vietnam when the urbanization and traffic snarls were just starting.

Daniel once visited Saigon in 2007, when the air was much better. "At that time, I usually opened the windows in my room to get some cool." 

He is yearning to open his windows because he hates living with air-conditioners. Evans misses strolls in the park and a breath of fresh air in the morning.

He says: "Hanoi was greener before. The number of trees and plants here used to surprise me until they started to cut them down. The metropolis is coughing now."

As a man who grew up playing in fields and cruising on bikes, he wants his son to grow up appreciating the outdoors and not having his physical education lessons inside the school gymnasium.

A woman riding a bicycle in Hanoi sunset. Photo by Shuttlestock/Raphael Rivest.

A woman riding a bicycle in Hanoi sunset. Photo by Shuttlestock/Raphael Rivest.

"Walking in a park, feeling the smell of the grass are all good because they remind people that they are a part of a more significant thing: Earth."

For both locals and expats in Hanoi and HCMC, staying inside, some with expensive air purifiers, is a better option at the moment.

There is little they can do about the air except check its quality on their phones and look out from behind closed windows, shaking their heads and believing that someone will do something to make it better.

Evans, running around West Lake on October 3, says: "Sometimes I wish people would say to me that it is safe to go out without a mask, and I can open my windows. I miss the air."

Source: VNE

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