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Hanoi's Climate Gathering Calls for Change After AQI Once Again World's Highest

Last Friday, mere days after millions marched in cities around the world demanding action against climate change, a group of 20 passionate Hanoians gathered from 5:30pm to 7pm in front of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral to call for change.

The group, roughly an even mix of Vietnamese and foreigners, held handmade signs or simply joined to show their belief in the importance of confronting climate change, an issue that poses serious threats to Vietnam, and especially southern provinces. Meanwhile, today Hanoi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) once again registered as the highest in the world, according to Air Visual's World AQI Ranking, which compares data from nearly 100 major cities. 

Although the event wasn’t made public on social media, people told their friends about the news and encouraged others to get involved. Most brought paint and cardboard so they could create signs themselves.

Photos by Alejandro Morales Rama

At 5:30pm, although there were only approximately 15 people standing in front of the cathedral, the group drew a lot of attention from passersby, with many in the area taking photos of the group. Some local security guards told them to go home, but they stayed. After a while, a number of local authorities turned up and kept an eye on the area.

The organizer of the strike, Giun, a 19-year-old currently studying abroad in Japan, was motivated to arrange something after witnessing the capital’s shocking levels of air pollution.

“I've always been aware of environmental issues,” he said, “but the reason why I got so motivated and made it happen in Hanoi is because when I woke up one day, the first thing I read about was that Hanoi’s Air Quality Index was (and still is) the highest in the world, surpassing the World Health Organization’s PM2.5 safety limit by 14.9 times. I was shocked and heartbroken to see my beloved city, the place where I was born, becoming increasingly polluted.”

“All I could think of at that time was that I should drop out of school. Why should I study when there is no future for me or any of us? If there is still time to keep the world’s temperature increase below 1.5°C instead of 2°C, I will devote all my time and effort to doing environmental work,” he added. “I will do it. I will quit the thing l love most — studying art and design — to create a future where we can actually exist.”


Madele Vermaak and a friend at the strike. Image by Luu Ha Anh.

Despite Giun’s determination, it was difficult for him to get help. They didn’t have enough time to organize an official license and he struggled to find anyone to help him co-organize the event. Yet after receiving advice from Climate Strike HCMC and Hong Hoang from Change VN, he decided to opt for a safer and more achievable option, which meant not marching like the group in Saigon, but instead just standing and holding handmade signs. The photos and videos of people being there, he hoped, would be enough to spread the message.

Although there were only about 20 people at the strike, the event clearly moved Giun. He constantly asked his friends and other participants to see how everything was going, or if there were any problems. Later, said he broke out in a cold sweat waiting for the team’s photos and videos. When the images finally came in, a thrill took hold of him as he once again saw this strong-minded group of individuals who came together to join the first climate strike in Hanoi.

Madele Vermaak, an expat living in Hanoi who attended the event, shared Giun’s sentiment:

“I'm excited about Hanoi being in the global movement,” she said. “I know it’s a little difficult to do this kind of thing in Hanoi, so I thought it’s very special that somebody decided to do something and I'm just... I'm here, I'm available. I care about the issue. I’m vegan and I want to be somebody in this space saying that this is beautiful and we should support each other on this issue.”

Truong Thanh Duc learning sign language at the event. Photo by Alejandro Morales Rama.

Truong Thanh Duc, the oldest member of the strike, decided to take a break from work in order to join the event.

“I was working and I saw something on the internet saying there would be a lot of foreigners and Vietnamese marching for the environment today, so I took a rest from my job and came here,” he said. “Why? I have to! People around the world are fighting for trees, why can't the Vietnamese be brave enough to stand here among our foreign friends despite the differences in our skin tones? Protect the trees! Protect the Earth! The Earth belongs to humanity, not any groups or individuals.”

When the strike ended, everyone at the square applauded, their faces filled with exhilaration. They left the space with their signs and, as one attendee remarked, renewed hope for the future if people can trust one other and collaborate as they did in this strike.

Some attendees were emotional at the event's end. Photo by Alejandro Morales Rama.

As a reminder of just how salient such events are, last Monday, the United Nations Climate Action Summit yielded few concrete results. According to the New York Times, China and the United States, the world's two largest carbon emitters, pledged no new efforts to blunt the increasingly savage impacts of climate change.

Reflecting on the event, Giun hopes this will not be a one-time gathering, but rather a regular event.

“Even though our strike didn’t have as many people participating as in other world cities,” Guin said, “the important thing is that we did it and we will continue doing it. Because this is not something that follows a trend, this is a fight for existence, for humankind, for animals and for the environment.”

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