Notes from the Field

Vietnamese Delegation Studies Environmental Protection Strategies and Films Documentary

May 26, 2010

The four students dressed in hooded sweatshirts, faded jeans, and designer sneakers looked like any other teenagers walking along the streets of San Francisco. However, these students were part of a carefully selected delegation from Vietnam here last month to gain a sense of youth participation and awareness in environmental protection in the U.S. The delegation also included two officials from the Ministry of Education, and two reporters from Vietnam TV who were videotaping their experiences for a documentary to be shown on national TV in Vietnam. (Watch our own video featuring highlights from the visit.)

Vietnam delegation with Goldman Environmental Prize winners

The delegation participated in a special reception for the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize winners at Golden Gate Park’s Crissy Field community center.

The Bay Area’s diverse natural surroundings and strong leadership in environmental innovation made it a great place to examine environmental challenges and successes, such as solid waste management and energy conservation, in an urban setting. The delegation sat down with government officials, NGO representatives, school teachers, students, reporters, and community activists. The students joined other environmentalists to clean up public parks for Earth Day celebrations, and in weeding, composting, and planting native plants in community gardens. A highlight of their experience here, they said, was meeting the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize winners in a special reception given by young environmentalists at Golden Gate Park’s Crissy Field community environmental center. The delegates also spent a weekend around Sacramento examining water issues on the Delta. Delegates remarked that many of the water and land issues here paralleled challenges faced in the Mekong Delta.

The program was a rare opportunity for American environmentalists to learn firsthand about environmental issues in a rapidly changing Vietnam. The population growth in Vietnam has tripled since the 1950s and migration into its cities has caused crowding and water shortages. Hanoi, for example, which now has six million people, was originally designed for only a few thousand. The Americans learned that as a result of the rising economy and thus an increase in cars and consumption, air pollution and industrial pollution have become major concerns in Vietnam, as well.

When asked by a young reporter that covers local environmental issues at Youth Radio in Oakland about what Vietnam is doing to address these challenges, one of the students from Hanoi said that in her area, she has noticed that the government is showing greater concern about the environment, and that young people in universities are now becoming involved in activities to mitigate environmental degradation. However, unlike in the U.S., these efforts are not as well-organized or integrated into the local communities. Environmental studies are not yet part of the elementary to high school curriculum in Vietnam, they said. The students emphasized that Vietnam is a developing country, and although many challenges lie ahead, Vietnam’s younger generation is eager to meet those challenges. Youth Radio staff and reporters were so impressed by the students’ passion that they invited them to submit stories from Vietnam to contribute to the station’s future environmental coverage.

At times, the students’ enthusiasm and openness rubbed off on the people with whom they met. During a meeting at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one senior EPA official told a personal story of how she began her work in the environment when she attended the first Earth Day celebration 40 years ago in 1970, as an elementary school student. She was so inspired that she decided then that she wanted to pursue a career in the environment field. One of the Vietnamese students said she decided on an environmental career two years ago when she discovered Recycle City, a computer game designed by EPA.

The connection between the Vietnamese students and the Vietnamese-Americans that they met seemed to be immediate. The Americans practiced speaking Vietnamese and shared travel anecdotes from visits to Vietnam. Famed San Francisco chef Charles Phan invited the young delegation to try nouvelle Vietnamese cuisine at his internationally- renowned restaurant, Slanted Door. One Vietnamese-American, a Coro Fellow interested in a career in Environmental Management, plans to visit the students in Vietnam this summer and to collaborate with them on future projects.

Another notable moment was when Vance Fong, a Vietnamese-American  environmentalist at the EPA, described a project he was working on in Vietnam to draw dioxin, a toxic substance resulting from Agent Orange, out of the ground.

For many of the American counterparts, the delegation brought a global dimension to the work they are doing here as environmentalists. The Americans realized that their work is recognized by those in another part of the world; that environmental protection is a universal effort.

When the students return back to Vietnam and bring back lessons learned from their experiences in the U.S., what will also most likely remain are the personal connections made through the program. “Are you on Facebook?” the delegates asked the Americans as they parted.

Julia Chen is a Program Officer for The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange (AAX) unit, and designed the study tour for the Vietnamese delegation during their visit to San Francisco. She can be reached at jchen@asiafound.org.

[VIDEO] Going Green: An Observation Tour for Young Environmentalists

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