Enlightened: Telling the Story of Zero Waste Vietnam

By Nicole Portley

"Better to conquer hearts than citadels." Nguyen Trai, the Vietnamese 15th century war strategist, lived by this principle. While his business was war, and he was brilliant at it (he led the successful rebellion against the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which occupied Vietnam from 1406 to 1417), he focused not on the killing, but on the peace that it would bring to his people. He furthermore sympathized with the suffering and death of enemy soldiers without allowing it to become a chink in his own armor.

He hated court intrigues and often sought refuge in nature, but his sense of obligation always prevented him from withdrawing completely from society. Dedicated to the people to the point of dying for it (jealous haters in court finally did get to him, executing him and his entire family on a false premise of regicide), he is held up by the Vietnamese as a great example of humanism.

What does this have to do with environmentalism, and with ocean trash, the topic around which I’ve been cultivating partnerships with Vietnamese environmentalists over the past year? In a sense, environmentalism is a warring profession, and environmentalists—a warring people. While it is only the most extreme vanguard of the environmentalist movement that actually "monkeywrenches" and employs violence as a tactic, more moderate individuals and groups also, at times, bring a combative mindset to their work.

The conservationists' organizing principle of the campaign points toward their inner warrior—the term’s etymological roots lie with an army taking land (in French: la campagne) from another army, while for an environmentalist a campaign may involve claiming land for another purpose (to protect it). In waging both war and an environmental campaign, anger can be a crucial fuel to keep the passion alive amidst battles that are sometimes severely skewed in the favor of the opposing force.

When I returned from my last trip to Vietnam, I recounted to my colleagues descriptions of some of the local partners there, including academic and Marine Protected Area manager Chu Manh Trinh, who resides in the Central Vietnam city of Da Nang. Over the past year he has tirelessly toured me around coastal and island communities of the Central region where people are already concerned about and taking action to limit the flow of trash into the ocean. Together we have visited Hoi An, the Cham Islands, the Ly Son islands, and Quy Nhon Marine Protected Area.

On these tours I was certainly struck by things that would typically resonate with an
environmentalist—the beauty of the coastal landscapes and coral ecosystems, the scope of the trash problem, the fishing communities in transition due to declines in catches. But what stood out to me most of all was Dr. Trinh’s great gift of his time and attention, seemingly irrespective of the class and stature of those to whom he gives. He is a man in demand, employed simultaneously by Da Nang Education University, the Cham Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA), and the Anh Doan Duong tourism company.

Trinh is also a PhD scientist, the co-creator of two Vietnamese MPAs/UNESCO biospheres, and forefather of the country’s first plastic bag ban. And yet, he is happy to devote an entire afternoon to sitting under a veranda with a family of Ly Son garlic farmers to learn about their family’s history on the island, and their current concerns about erosion and crop cycles.

Beyond the scope of his responsibilities as a university lecturer, he organizes special workshops for his students with participating experts from near and far, and painstakingly strives to ensure that every last person leaves the room more enlightened than when they came in (be it through endeavoring to explain complex subjects more simply, engaging students in dialogues, or interpreting for experts who don’t speak Vietnamese). He values lessons brought to Vietnam from across the ocean no more or no less than lessons brought from one village of Vietnam to the next. He is a man that meets the world with the widest of embraces.

In fielding questions about Dr. Trinh from my fellow Pacific Environment colleagues, I was at a loss to respond to one inquiry: "What is he angry about?" In the moment, I could not reconcile his obvious lack of anger, lack of the typical environmentalist fuel, with his obvious talent for and success with catalyzing environmental protections. But, reading an anthology of Vietnamese literature covering the 11th through 20th centuries and discovering the poetry of Nguyen Trai (war strategist and poet!) cast an illuminating light on what was an obscurity for me. Trai and Trinh share a unifying principle, that of the broad embrace, with the drive to serve the people replacing anger as the fuel.

Photos by Miko Aliño of GAIA

Having worked for much of my career in Russia, I am well aware of the danger of falling into clichés when talking about culture and behavior across the East-West divide. It is an oxymoron that is probably common to anything that society conceives of in terms of extremes or antitheses (e.g. East–West, red–blue). Amidst such landscapes, the explorer delving deeper can oddly find shrinking rather than growing space for critical thought, perhaps because only with knowledge does he realize that the seemingly expansive path is actually quite constrained by buried landmines, i.e., the thinkers who have come before and drawn distinct lines in the sand, such as Russophobe and Russophile, progressive and conservative, etc.

Perhaps my nature as an "individual embracer" (as opposed to a "broad embracer") comes in handy here. As someone who takes deeper dives on getting to know individual people, which can come at the expense of knowing the collective, my style is somewhat the opposite of Trinh's. But I am a "people person," as he is. And perhaps when your lens is focused on an individual, leaving the background a bit blurry, you can identify the traits that define someone as a human being first and foremost—traits that are shared across the dividing lines of time and nation and culture and profession. And in taking this tact, you might avoid falling into cultural tropes and trite analysis.

When it comes to the U.S. and Vietnam, though, it is impossible and wrong to deny the complex background. I think I can best honor it in working in Vietnam by intentionally focusing on what I can learn from Vietnam, and by looking in unlikely places (such as 15th century poetry!). Our countries were on a brutal collision course with one another fifty years ago, at a time when the U.S. was at its apex in terms of cultural panache tied up in our identity as a new nation with the energy and resources to bring a new and improved reality not only to ourselves, but to the world.

For many Americans, confidence in that vision began to slip fatally with our engagement in the war in Vietnam and has never recovered. Fast-forward to today, and there is a role reversal of sorts: now it is Vietnam that is energized, looking outward to the world, and growing in confidence—a trend visible both in the upward swing of its GDP and in a 5am stroll down the beachfront of Da Nang, where you find energetic early-risers engaged in their morning tai chi exercises. The U.S. is meanwhile looking inward, coming to the realization that we are no longer a young nation but lacking a unified vision for a path through our mid-life crisis to a new enlightenment. Perhaps Vietnam’s two thousand-year path to the present can tell us something about how to get there.

Nicole Portley leads Pacific Environment's marine campaigns, with a particular focus on building grassroots strength to stop ocean trash as part of the #breakfreefromplastic movement. In the past Nicole has focused on salmon conservation in the Russian Far East for the Wild Salmon Center and sustainability issues in shrimp fisheries and aquaculture for Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. Her educational background is in biology and music composition.

Take Action to stop plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition.