Vietnam's public toilet problem needs serious consideration

March 12, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
My father loved spending time with his children and grandchildren, but he never joined us on visits to tourist attractions.

He had a fear of traveling long distances by car and so preferred to go to shopping centers instead. As elderly people often need to use the restroom frequently, my father was afraid of not finding a suitable toilet.

During last year's New Year, while exploring famous attractions in the Mekong Delta, my children and I had to hold our breath every time we entered the dirty, smelly toilets. Even in Ho Chi Minh City, after enduring this terrible situation many times, I had to buy a bottle of water at a café just to use the restroom.

Recently, a survey by QS Supplies in the U.K. ranked Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as 66th and 67th, respectively, out of 69 major tourist cities in terms of the number of public toilets per square kilometer. Hanoi has over 400 public toilets, while Ho Chi Minh City has only around 200, far behind cities such as Kuala Lumpur (42nd) and Bangkok (45th) in Southeast Asia. Paris tops the list with the highest density of public toilets in the world (6.72 units/km2), while HCMC and Hanoi have a density of 0.01 units/km2, which is equal to Johannesburg and slightly higher than Cairo (0.002 units/km2).

In reality, the number of public toilets in usable condition is much lower due to deterioration and damage. Although both cities have had projects to build 1,000 public toilets, these projects are only on paper due to various reasons.

On March 3, the chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Phan Van Mai issued a directive regarding the deployment of public toilets in areas where they are needed. The directive includes instructions on how to quickly build new toilets. However, certain important details need to be determined in advance before the issue can be resolved.

Firstly, no specific reports mention the current situation of the 200 public toilets in the city, the extent of the damage, and how maintenance and repairs are done. In my experience, many public toilets are damaged or, severely degraded, or have a bad smell, even in the center of District 1. Many public toilets are often closed, which makes me doubt the efficiency of operation and maintenance. So, what will be the fate of a series of public toilets that are about to be built? Will they share the same fate as the existing 200 toilets?

Secondly, the small number of public toilet in Hanoi and HCMC often raise concerns about the cities’ ability to attract foreign tourists. But to me, it is more a problem to the local residents, as it demonstrates the poor living conditions of the people in the two largest cities in the country.

Previous approaches to this problem mainly focused on building a beautiful image for the city to avoid "losing face" to international visitors. If public toilets are approached from the perspective of the people's needs, it will not "lose face" for the city.

A public restroom in Hanois Hoan Kiem District. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do

A public restroom in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem District. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do

Public toilets must be considered by authorities at all levels as an essential structure in human life, and not just a "side building." Therefore, public toilets must be given the same care and responsibility as essential works such as bridges and roads.

If public toilets are considered an essential component of community life, their operation could represent a significant market, especially in densely populated urban areas such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with populations of 8 to 10 million people. In a market economy, products compete to meet customer needs. In the nearly 40 years since Vietnam adopted the market economy system, products used by the people have become more diverse and of higher quality. Le Van Hiep, President of the Vietnam Toilet Association, suggested leveraging social capital to address the public toilet issue. Singapore, a country known for its cleanliness, has adopted a similar policy, where the government focuses on planning and regulation while leaving businesses to handle the rest.

Failing to address people's basic and essential needs would lower their quality of life. A positive image for international tourists begins with ensuring the welfare of local people, including providing basic living necessities such as public toilets.

*Vo Nhat Vinh is an R&D expert based in France.

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