One hand tightly clenching his nostrils, he uses the rod to fish out a white bag from the water, flies hovering above it. Inside are fish innards, spoiled food and even dead mice and their smell is capable of knocking out anyone nearby.
The 70-year-old man then carefully wraps it inside two more bags and takes it to a nearby trash bin.
“If I don’t throw it away, the smell will be unbearable,” he says.
Over the last two decades, when his family of six first moved next to the Hy Vong Canal in HCMC’s Tan Binh District, he has often heard the sound of motorbikes at 3 a.m., people talking and trash making a splash in the water.
He does not know when people first started throwing trash into the canal, but he has only seen it treated as a garbage dump. Some even come and dump two or three large bags of trash and simply drive away.
Many people live next to the canal, and dump all their laundry and food waste into it; some even let wastewater from their toilets and bathrooms flow directly into it.
Dong’s wife, Nguyen Thi Tia, 63, says: “The canal is named Hy Vong (Hope) and is so beautiful, but people often joke that it should have been named Disappointment instead.”
She has become accustomed to the smell and pollution over all the years she has lived there.
In 2019 a long spell of rain caused the water in the canal to rise and flood their house. As he sought to block the water from coming in, he saw heaps of trash enter his home along with the polluted water. He remembers looking at his bare feet soaked in the sludge and the foul water seeping into his skin, and a frisson of disgust runs through him.
Unlike Dong who is resigned to his circumstances, Tran Van Dung, 52, who runs a vermicelli shop nearby, stops people from throwing trash into the canal, mostly at night.
A section of the Hy Vong Canal in HCMC’s Tan Binh District filled with trash. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
Much delayed renovation
The trash and garbage not only affects the hundreds of families living near the canal, but also clog what is Tan Son Nhat Airport’s main channel for drainage. In October 2015 the airport’s hangars and old operation tower were under 20 cm of water. The water even got inside the facility that has generators, forcing employees to use sand bags and plastic sheets to stop the water from coming in further.
A Tan Binh District people’s committee official said every three months officials drive around the neighborhood, exhorting people not to throw trash into the canal. Cameras were installed on the four bridges along the canal, and fences were erected to stop the littering, he said.
“Despite the use of cameras to fine litterers, it has not been too effective. In future more cameras will be installed so that we can identify those littering at night.”
The canal is cleaned every quarter, but the sheer volume of trash means it is not enough, he admitted.
The city plans to renovate the entire 1.8-km canal.
Eight years ago it began a $400-million cleanup project called HCMC Regional Flood Risk Management with money borrowed from the World Bank, and Hy Vong upgrade was part of it.
But the money stopped due to certain problems and the project stalled after four years.
In 2018 the HCMC Steering Committee for Urban Flood Control proposed a VND150 billion ($6.4 million) cleanup for the canal, but it never began due to relocation issues.
Last month the HCMC Urban Infrastructure Construction Investment Project Management Unit proposed a renovation of the canal at a cost of VND1.98 trillion ($85 million). A 1.1-km section between Pham Van Bach Street and the Tham Luong canal will be renovated, sewers will be built and other infrastructure will get upgrades.
The project, expected to be completed by 2025, should stop the pollution and resolve the airport’s flooding problem, Nguyen Hoang Anh Dung, the agency’s deputy director, said.