Wearing boots and gloves, Giang Thi Kim Cuc uses a pair of tongs to collect garbage and reminds the 50 volunteers with her not to miss any trash at the Binh Hung Hoa Cemetery in Saigon’s Binh Tan District.
Later the group puts more than 100 bags of trash on a truck sent by local authorities. This was on October 11, a typical Sunday for Cuc, 32.
She says: “I want to create a community that can pick up trash. When they have the awareness of protecting the environment instead of littering, our Vietnam will be successful.”
The entrance to the Binh Hung Hoa Cemetery in Saigon’s Binh Tan District before and after Cuc’s clean-up on October 11. Photo courtesy of Giang Thi Kim Cuc.
As someone who works in real estate and travel, she has a lot of foreign partners and friends, who often tell her that “everything is good in Vietnam, except for trash.”
In 2017 she traveled to Brunei and met Tijmen Sissing, founder of Trashpackers, a community of backpackers that helps clean the environment while traveling. Cuc was inspired and decided to do the same at home.
“If foreigners can do it, why can’t I? If not now, then when?” she asked herself.
Later that year she traveled to Da Nang City with her friends and organized a clean-up program at a beach. Of the many locals and tourists around, only a few joined her initially.
But later many of them picked up the tongs and bags to collect trash from the beach.
But her efforts were barely enough: No matter how much trash she and her teams collected, there was always more. So she decided to acquire more knowledge about how to raise people’s awareness of littering and protecting their environment.
After joining programs and conferences about the environment, she spends time showing students and locals how to classify garbage and protect Mother Nature. She then assigns her teammates to stay and maintain their environmental activities at various sites, ensuring local people will take up new habits to reduce littering.
In the last two years she has created clean-up programs for people in 39 provinces in Vietnam and 11 countries.
In late September, after cleaning a beach in Phuoc Hai village in the southern Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, she worked with hundreds of volunteers to paint pictures on the coastal embankment to spread her environmental messages, thinking they would be better than wordy slogans.
Her team members were prohibited from using single-use plastic, and they used old bags to collect the garbage instead of buying new ones.
“We cannot have more litter when coming here to collect the trash,” Cuc explained when she saw local people litter near the embankment, a popular hangout spot for locals.
Cuc picks up trash at a beach. Photo courtesy of Giang Thi Kim Cuc.
Le Van Minh, secretary of the Ba Ria – Vung Tau Youth Union, said: “Cuc’s idea of painting a picture was great; it was like putting on a new outfit for the fishing village. She even persuaded people to join her. Now they do not litter like they used to, they are aware of keeping the embankment clean.”
But she also faces opposition occasionally.
Once, when her group was picking up garbage at a market in the central Ha Tinh Province, locals chased them away saying, “This is our trash and we will pick it up; we do not need you.”
Since then Cuc has learned to coordinate with local authorities and residents to gain their trust and get more support from young people.
But people keep littering after her team leaves, which discourages her.
“No matter how much we work, why is the trash still abundant?” was a question she would ask herself.
To popularize her clean-up activities and make them sustainable, she gave her team a name: Green Trips Vietnam. She describes it as a community of people who “treat the environment kindly.”
The team has gone on dozens of trips to encourage people especially students to collect trash and show their love for the environment.
“Hey Cuc, we have trash here” is a message she often receives from acquaintances and strangers, asking her team to come and help clean up.
Many of them donate tongs, gloves and food to show their support.
But for Cuc, the biggest motivation comes from her 13-year-old daughter, Gia Han.
She says with admirable clarity: “I hear people say children are the future. But I see my mother and her friends collect trash every week, I do not know how my future will be if there is trash everywhere. My mother’s efforts will be for nothing if all of us do not join hands.”