One of Saigon's wealthiest neighborhoods learns to live with landfill stench

By Cam Ha   November 3, 2020 | 10:45 pm PT
My aunt paid me a visit recently. The moment she set foot in my house, she could not help but get straight to the point: "How on earth have you put up with this odor for five years now?"
[Cam Ha

Cam Ha

One day last week I was woken up in the middle of the night by the stink though I have had to live with that odor every rainy season.

My story, like that of many other people living in District 7 in south HCMC, started during the rainy season of 2015.

At first my husband and I just kept wondering about a strange, uncomfortable odor that was wafting into our apartment building all of a sudden.

As someone who grew up in northern Vietnam during the subsidy era, that tough period before Doi Moi (Reform, a policy launched in 1986 to open up economy) when everyone relied on government-issue rations, I thought: "Maybe someone is sneaking a pigsty inside the building and cooking food for the pigs."

I complained about the smell to the building management. The woman who headed it personally and diligently checked every nook and corner of the building, even sniffing in suspicious areas, but the source of the smell remained elusive.

Then my neighbors started to lament about it.

It would usually begin in late afternoon, just around the time when people started to cook dinner.

But before long, during or after rains, we began to get the smell at all hours, late at night, early in the morning. It also turned into a proper stench.

The management contacted other apartment buildings nearby and found out everyone was getting the strange odor.

Rumors began to spread about the source, with most blaming the fancy Phu My Hung urban area for failing to treat its wastewater properly. But not long afterward people living there too began to complain about the stench and did not have a clue about where it might come from.

Soon the needle of suspicion began to point toward the Da Phuoc Integrated Waste Management Facility in Binh Chanh District, which gets 5,600 tons of domestic waste daily, or more than two thirds of the city’s total. It simply buries all of it.

The management of my apartment complex decided to make a petition to the city government. Since I worked in the media, I was asked to write that petition.

It was sent on September 22 and a reply arrived on October 12. All of this happened in 2015.

The reply thrilled us all: It said officials from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment would come to check on the situation.

But unlike air pollution that can be measured, there is no way to assess the severity of an odor. It can only be felt by those who suffer. On the day the delegation arrived, there was no stench at all.

The man leading the delegation told us, clearly indicating his willingness: "Well, we did not smell anything strange here. But if you have anything to report, do not hesitate to contact us."

How we wished some genie would show up and summon that odor!

Then the 2015 rainy season ended, and the odor disappeared. We got our normal life back by year-end. We started a new year, enjoyed Tet (Lunar New Year) and nothing untoward happened through the dry season of 2016.

Then came the rainy season of 2016, and the stench was back, and it had gotten worse. Every time the southwest monsoon blew in, it felt like the air was filled with the smell of pig excrement. The denizens of District 7 were an unhappy lot.

Stories of the odor were all over the news, meetings were held for the people to complain to the administration and the environment department set up a hotline for people to call whenever the stench surfaced.

The affected people created forums on social media to discuss and share their own stories about the odor: some wanted to file a lawsuit, some wanted to have a proper meeting with the operator of the Da Phuoc landfill and work for a solution.

But the forums were mostly flooded with bitter complaints. Some said they had just moved to District 7, famous for its affluent population, in the hope of living in a "civilized" community as had been advertised, but the reality was that even the rich had day-to-day problems to deal with.

Others said their parents were old and every time the odor came they found it hard to breathe and lacked oxygen and suffered health problems as a result.

As for me, responding to questions about the odor and what could have been done from relatives and friends has become routine.

The odor has been around for five years. I and almost 350,000 other residents of District 7 have been living with it.

The Da Phuoc Integrated Waste Management Facility in Binh Chanh District, the biggest landfill in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The Da Phuoc Integrated Waste Management Facility in Binh Chanh District, the biggest landfill in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

I take a look of myself, thinking what I have and have not done to resolve the situation. Haven’t I done the best I could? I wrote the very first petition on behalf of my community. From the very first days I have been a proactive member on social media groups that fight for the rights of residents not to be subject to an unrelenting stench.

I have not stopped fighting.

In October last year I wrote an email to the HCMC National Assembly delegation registering to join a constituency meeting to discuss the issue. That email never got a response, and I thought the email address, which was on the website of the delegation of lawmakers representing the city in the House, was just a non-owner mailbox.

It seems to me that these citizens’ protests do not move the people in charge. I have not visited the site but from what I have heard, the Da Phuoc landfill uses fans to blow away the odor and glasshouses to contain it.

Authorities have said the operator will shut down the landfill when it reaches full capacity in 2024. Another solution, which has been discussed several times, is to grow trees around it to filter the smell, but cannot be done for now because of obstacles faced by the land acquisition process, they said.

During this year’s rainy season residents of District 7 continue to narrate their stories of living alongside the stench.

Sometimes I am jealous of people living in Nam Son and Hong Ky communes in Hanoi’s Soc Son District.

They have been enduring the same stench that we do, but for several years now they have been protesting, preventing garbage trucks from entering the Nam Son waste treatment complex, Hanoi’s biggest, and volubly complaining about local authorities’ slow payment of compensation, which prevents them from relocating.

For us in districts 7 and Binh Chanh, living with the odor of rotting garbage seems to be the only option. No matter how hard I have fought, eventually, I find myself rushing to close the doors and windows in the house and turn on the air conditioning and hoping for 2025 to come as quickly as possible.

Hanoi and HCMC, the two economic engines of the nation, are both facing the problem of garbage disposal. When waste remains a big problem for the community, let us call a halt to the dream of building a smart city that HCMC has had since 2017 and for achieving which it has taken baby steps.

*Cam Ha is an entrepreneur and a communication specialist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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