As his wife waited in line to check out, Hoan was picking a carton box to pack the goods they had bought.
It was a Sunday morning in late May, and the couple in their 50s was shopping at a MM Mega Market store in Thu Duc City.
"We did bring our own bag, but we bought more goods than planned and so now I need to get a box," Hoan says as he rifles through piles of boxes to find one of suitable size.
MM Mega Market does not provide single-use plastic bags but the empty cartons are free for customers for use.
"A customer who wants a bag will have to buy one," a cashier named Le Thi Thanh Vi says.
Made of biodegradable materials, the bags she refers to are placed near the checkout counters and cost VND15,000 (64 cents) or VND21,000 depending on the size.
Calling herself a frequent customer at MM Mega Market, Nguyen Dang Thanh Tam, 30, says she "is not bothered at all" about having to bring her own bag or buy a reusable bag at the supermarket to shop.
Only a few stores and supermarkets have the policy of not using plastic bags, including Aeon Mall and Annam Gourmet, but the government is about to change that.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced in April that supermarkets and stores inside shopping malls should not use single-use plastic bags from 2026.
"Any retailer that still gives customers single-use plastic bags will be punished," Nguyen Trung Thang, deputy head of the ministry’s Institute of Strategy and Policy on Natural Resources and Environment (ISPONRE), announced at a conference in Hanoi.
According to ISPONRE, supermarkets consume 104,000 single-use plastic bags per day on average, or 38 million bags a year.
Data released last year by the ministry showed plastic waste accounting for 7 percent of the solid wastes discharged every day, or nearly 2,500 tons. Vietnam discharges 0.28-0.73 million tons of plastic wastes into the ocean every year, it said.
Nguyen Thi Dieu Thuy, director of a plastic waste reduction program at the World Wild Fund (WWF) Vietnam, says, "If Vietnam drastically implements all the strategies and plans it has set out, then the goal of banning single-use plastic bags in supermarkets and shopping malls by 2026 is entirely possible."
In 2019 then Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc issued a national action plan for the management of plastic wastes in the ocean until 2030 that seeks to reduce the dumping and also collect all the lost and discarded fishing equipment from the ocean.
The plan targeted zero disposable plastic use in urban shops, markets and supermarkets nationwide by 2025.
In January the government issued Decree 08 to guide implementation of the 2020 Law on Environment that says single-use plastic production will stop after 2030.
"Supermarkets and retailers have been given enough time to prepare themselves for shifting to ‘saying no to plastic bags’," Thuy says.
Cao Van Anh, senior brand and communications manager at LOTTE Mart Vietnam, says her supermarket "has been ready for the policy to stop providing single-use plastic bags since 2019."
LOTTE Mart stores too have been placing reusable bags by checkout counters to encourage customers to use them, and in April the supermarket started offering bags made from lotus leaves.
In January it joined 16 other retailers to form an alliance that pledged to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags.
The alliance is an initiative by ISPONRE that was carried out on a pilot scheme from January to April in Hanoi in collaboration with the city Department of Industry and Trade.
As a member of the alliance, LOTTE Mart trialed not giving customers plastic bags and instead making them buy reusable bags and providing them with free cartons and scotch tape at several outlets in Hanoi.
Anh says: "Many customers responded favorably to the program but some were uncomfortable at not being given plastic bags.
"This is because customers have become too familiar with getting single-use plastic bags for free whenever they go shopping."
The Vietnam Plastics Association said in June last year that each household consumed one kilogram of plastic bags each month and Hanoi and Ho
Chi Minh City alone discharged 80 tons of plastic garbage every day, including plastic bags.
"I cannot picture a scenario of selling goods without using plastic bags," a vendor named Thu, who sells fish paste at a wet market in HCMC’s
District 4, says. "In most cases I have to use two bags for a customer."
She uses one to pack the fish paste and weigh it and then puts it in a second bag to pack it cleanly.
Those that sell fresh pork and chicken meat do the same, using two bags for each customer, she says.
"So that our customers will not get their hands dirty. Customers are God you know!"
She says if people bring their own bags or boxes to buy, she is happy not to use a plastic bag, but as far as she can remember, "no one has done that."
Thai, who sells fruits and vegetables in HCMC’s District 8, says if the government wants to ban vendors from using plastic bags then "it should first come up with a solution for how we can continue to sell goods without using the bags."
Eco-friendly bags cost much higher than the plastic bags that are widely used at all traditional markets and grocery stores, he says.
Whom to hold accountable?
"Do you need a bag?" a cashier at an Annam Gourmet store in downtown HCMC asks all customers checking out.
Those who want one is given a paper bag, with a small fee.
"I’m totally cool with it," a customer named Dong Nghi, 31, says.
"In order to limit the amount of garbage in the environment, I’m willing not to get any bags at all, whether plastic or paper."
She believes that both customers and businesses must do their bit to limit the use of plastic bags and says she herself is willing to bring along a bag to buy goods whenever she can.
But Thuy of the WWF says producers and retailers play a "crucial role" in eliminating plastic bags.
For the goal of no single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and shopping malls to be achieved in 2026, she says those in charge must "ensure effective implementation of all policies that have been drawn up."
The environment ministry should quickly draw up detailed guidelines to stop the use of plastic bags as stipulated by the 2020 Environment Law and Decree 08, she says.
It should also work on launching the extended producer responsibility (EPR) system, "a policy approach under which producers are given significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products," as defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, she says.
All parties in the EPR system have to develop their own plans and models, including product designs and technology solutions, to meet the target of limiting the use of plastics, she adds.
Anh of LOTTE Mart praises the retailer alliance model, which she says is a "first of its kind in gathering retailers and creating an opportunity for them to find a common voice in reducing plastic consumption."
Thanks to such initiatives, "more retailers will take part in cutting the use of single-use plastic products, especially bags, so that customers will not compare this store with that store or only visit those where they do not have to bring along their own bags."
Packing their goods in cartons after checking out at MM Mega Market, Hoan says he and his wife are just "common people playing by the rules of a supermarket."
"All it takes is for strict rules to be applied. My wife still gets plastic bags at grocery stores in our neighborhood."