• William Steel

Vietnams Trash - A waste epidemic

Rubbish washed up on Phu Quoc Island.

This year Boracay and Phi Phi (islands in the Philippines and Thailand) have both been closed to tourism to fight the ever-increasing rubbish polluting its beaches and seas. They are engaging in a large scale project in an attempt to eradicate their waste problem. The uncomfortable truth is unless every one of South East Asia’s governments gets on board they will be fighting a never-ending problem.

Philippines and Thailand have identified that unless they solve this problem now, it will be at the cost of the countries tourism identity. I worry that Vietnam is already being judged for its waste problem.

Over the last 10 years, Vietnam has made a point to highlight that the future of Vietnams growth lies in its tourism and foreign investment into the country. As a result, the future of this vision lies in the value of its industry. With an average GDP of over 6 percent growth a year since the 2000s, Vietnam has been burdened with the mounting pressure of its growing waste products left behind. Increasing consumerisms and disposable incomes have been the leading cause of this growth.

Trash in the Mekong Delta.

Already some of Vietnams attractions such as Ha Long Bay, the Mekong delta and the Island of Phu Quoc are gaining a negative reputation for trash-filled beaches, tributaries, and islands. In 2017 Tran Quoc Minh, the director of Ha Long Bay public works office, stated that their clean up team remove around 2 tones of trash every day from Ha Long's waters.

Vietnams tourism industry, on the surface at least, is attempting to move with the times. Many of its hotels, resorts, and hostels are jumping on the plastic straw bandwagon, recycling their glass and plastic waste, and trying to reduce its plastic bottle waste with water "refill stations". While I was thrilled to see this move in the right direction I couldn't help but think that this is not even scraping the surface of the problem.

"In 2014, the country threw out 12 million tons of solid waste, and it is estimated that urban areas alone will be dumping 22 million tons per year by 2020, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment." - VN Express

While tourism industry attitudes to waste are changing, it took a short break to Cai Be in the Mekong Delta to see that cultural understanding is lagging. Watching trash bins being directly emptied into the Mekong from houses and boats. This is also a Vietnamese problem, and not a population/tourism growth problem.

A woman empties her rubbish in the Mekong Delta.

A collection of rubbish washes up on the edge of a tributary of the Mekong Delta.

Five days later we would find ourselves on the island of Phu Quoc, after weeks of research in the hope to discover the perfect place to escape the imposing tourism boom on the Island. We found a place on the northwest tip of the island. Looking back across to Cambodia, and the Mekong delta. The first morning we discovered the impact of the Mekong pollution tragedy. 100s of plastic bottles (dotted between, plastic bags, shoes, etc) litter every small stretch of the beach. Every day a member of staff would go down to the homestay's 30mm stretch of beach and fill at least 2 bin bags full of rubbish. It's a never-ending bombardment of trash.

"Phu Quoc has continued to experience exponential tourism growth, with international visitor rates up 72% last year compared to 2016. The total number of domestic and international visitors last year reached just under 2 million." - Urbanist Hanoi.

With travellers becoming more and more Eco-conscious, Vietnam has to make a stand in reversing this problem before tourism is affected. Reputations are hard to shake.

As always there is no quick fix to this growing problem, but maybe more than ever, the power is in the hands of the traveller. The more we highlight the problem the faster Vietnam and the rest of South East Asia have to step up their efforts to reduce waste.

While there is a growing problem, there are also companies that are increasing their efforts to clean up Vietnam. below are a list of a few companies heading the fight.

- Zero waste Saigon 

- Clean up Vietnam 

- The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)

- Indochina junk company 


The problem began for south-east Asia in early 2018. In 2018 China stopped accepting any plastic and recycling waste from outside of the country, largely due to environmental concerns. The outright ban on exporting waste was extremely problematic for most international governments ill equipt to deal with this waste internally. In 2016, China was responsible with processed over half of the world’s export of plastic, metal and paper waste.

The implementation of China's ban was detrimental for southeast Asia, as governments had to find somewhere to move the waste to. South East Asia's lax regulation, made them the unfortunate destination of choice for the rubbish. Burdening them with the impossible task of disposing of the waste and recyclable products. As a result, most of South East Asia is now battling to tread water in a sea of waste.

"Only 9% of the world’s plastics are recycled, with the rest mostly ending up rotting in landfills across south-east Asia or illegally incinerated, releasing highly poisonous fumes." - The Guardian

A Vietnames kid in Phu Quoc plays with rubbish that has washed up on the island.


As a born and bred South African, I've grown up along many coastal towns across the Western and Eastern Cape (Yes, this means I eat pineapple on my pizza). I have always had a niggling sense that I was born to explore and travel but up until now,have constantly squished that feeling. Mainly due to getting caught up in the ''rat race;'' university, move to a big city and work, work, work. For the first time in a long time, I'll be fully focusing on my passion for writing, designing,photography and of course, travelling. 



From a young age I was captivated by the wildlife that surrounded me. Raised in Botswana, I was able to explore and discover the beauty of untamed wilderness, and it sparked in me a love for nature and travel. That is where my photographic journey began. As my hobby blossomed into a passion, and then became an income. ​I am fortunate enough to call photography my career, but first and foremost it is my passion. 


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