Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

Green Youth Collective’s Hanh Vu: “I don’t only do advocacy, I run the solution at the same time”

Around the Mekong Sub-Region, all hands are needed to solve escalating environmental problems. For Hanh Vu, director of Green Youth Collective (GYC) based in Hoi An, Viet Nam, addressing the diversity and complexity of the journey to sustainable development, along with establishing partnerships with the local authorities, has been key to the many accomplishments she and her team have achieved, raising awareness and changing behaviors for sustainability and resilience in Quang Nam Province. 

Image courtesy of Green Youth Collective Ms Hnah Vu (Towards the left of the image)

The collaborative spirit fostered by Hanh has succeeded in reaching out to local people and families, while inviting government cooperation by showing what is possible. She has involved in the creation and implementation of a wide range of sustainability initiatives (from GYC’s compost production and food circularity model to Refillables Dong Day’s  first refill stations in central markets), “We show that everybody can be a part of the solution,” Hanh explains.

We recently talked to Hanh to find out about her initiatives, her partnerships with grassroots and authorities alike, and what lies ahead for sustainability and resilience in one of Viet Nam’s most popular tourist towns.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you give me a rundown of the projects that are keeping you busy these days?

I basically work under three main roles. I run three different social enterprises that support different aspects of environmental sustainability and the community development.

The first thing is Green Youth Collective: it’s focused on sustainable gardening and sustainable skills education, on home and community waste management. We were originally established in Ho Chi Minh City, with the purpose of training disadvantaged youth in urban gardening and enabling them to be organic gardeners. This is to help them mentally, physically and also help them to help others in this growing your own food movement. I also co-own Refillables Dong Day with my business partner, founder Alison [Batchelor]. Currently we are a small team operating two shops and one small station based in a local market. We work in close collaboration with the government, which also requires a lot of paperwork and coordination.

Image courtesy of Refillables Hoi An

The third company I run is REED; I got it started not long before COVID. The main purpose of the company is first to operate the ecosystem and initiatives for sustainable tourism, in which we offer unique experiences in zero waste projects and carbon offset actions with visitors and tourists who want to understand more of the work we and our sustainability partners are doing in town.

With REED (which stands for Regenerate Ecological Diversity), I also hope to explore different tools and methods that enable the regenerative living culture. Another key thing that REED does is to provide consultancy service, working with government and NGOs in implementing solid waste management and sustainability projects.

Although they play different roles, all three give me the working platform to approach the beneficiaries of the projects and work with important stakeholders. Each of these social enterprises  play a unique role in facilitating what I call the network of solutions, because I believe there’s no one solution that can solve our problems. We need a lot of different solutions, different approaches and different entities.

The multi-stakeholder aspect of our work is one of the reasons that keeps me on high alert and busy. I work daily with farmers, with grassroots people and with youth trainees, on things as concrete as, “what can we do exactly with so much buffet waste coming from a restaurant in town?”.

At the same time, I also work with government authority, donors and non-governmental organizations, scientists and professional activists on things as abstract as “how can we develop a roadmap to reuse evolution?” or “how can we address the narrative in this campaign?” It’s actually a very wide range.

Image courtesy of Green Youth Collective

How did you get started on your mission in the first place?

When running Green Youth Collective in the big city. The price for renting a place to demonstrate urban gardening at the time was so expensive for a small organization like ours. More importantly, I wanted to bring a more comprehensive training program for the youngsters I worked with whose family background are usually involved with violence, or alcoholism. Something like a real life-integrated experience. So I decided to move to Hoi An, and established our base here.

We lived in a very small village along the Thu Bon River. For years the riverbank’s been eroding; every year in this region, the rainy season and then the flooding season takes soil away. The issue has been deepened by illegal sand cultivation, related to the need for more construction. 

Even before we came to the village, the villagers have been moving away, or only focus on the annual cropping, which has become more dependent on chemical fertilizer. When the dry season comes, some tried to work on their small scale home gardens or they did not want to farm on the land anymore, or the younger generation would go and work in the hotels, construction and in shops selling souvenirs .

To me, they’ve lost the connection to the traditional knowledge and skills that the older generation used to live in harmony in their homeland.

Image courtesy of Green Youth Collective

So what were trying to do since the beginning is to understand the conditions in which local villagers have been living in. Learn how people live with their land, how they use natural plants and medicinal plants as food and medicine.

We cultivate relationships with the village, by interacting and working with the local farmers. Our strategy is to learn from the methods which are still working, while flexibly adopting new ones to deal with new emerging challenges of this generation. Despite challenges such as droughts and floods, we keep working with the land. Our experiences grow together with the gardens we create.

GYC’s gardens demonstrate the focus on soil’s health and building resilience of the land (therefore, of local villagers) by applying principles of bio diversity and natural nutrient recycling process. Our gardens are home for many useful and resilient plant species that are introduced to and shared with local farmers and villagers. We involve our learners, especially young people throughout this process.  

We hope to present all of these experiences in a living model. Green Youth Collective and Refillables Dong Day both run the Hoi An Eco Hub: it’s a space that everybody can visit, a physical space that represents our projects. And it’s the first of its kind to provide information and education on environmental sustainability in Hoi An city.

Image courtesy of Green Youth Collective

Is the Hoi An Eco Hub targeted towards tourists or locals?

It’s first and foremost for local people. By involving them in daily practices of sustainable lifestyle, for their own well-being and for the natural environment’s well-being, we want to strengthen the resilience and capacity of the place’s owners in taking care of their life, their children’s life and their home land. That’s what we welcome the tourists and visitors to come and see. As a destination, what we do is not only the things we inherit from our parents, but also the things that we do to overcome the challenge of the modern times, like environmental and plastic pollution, chemical agriculture, and so on.

It’s important for local people to understand why we need to change our ways if they result in negative impacts to the living environment or indirectly, to vulnerable groups of people.

At Eco Hub, For example, our staff demonstrates the different things that you can do with your kitchen waste – the eco enzyme liquids you can produce to use it at home, or the different useful products you can use for growing your own food, or feeding livestock, all can be made by working on your vegetative scraps or food waste. Practicing these methods in real life and giving people the easy access to these solutions is more powerful and makes a more direct impact than just talking.

We do it, we let people see it, and then let that interaction and lifestyle become embedded in the local life. It’s not just talking; not just pointing fingers. We show it’s possible that everybody can be a part of the solution.

Image courtesy of Green Youth Collective

Government outreach is a major part of your mission: you started working with the authorities when they announced that Hoi An would become an eco-town by 2030. Can you tell me about how your advocacy goes hand-in-hand with your government partnerships?

Hoi An has become a place that nurtures sustainability and collective actions, since the local government stated their commitment in moving towards an eco city. They emphasize that it will not be going towards the industrial way, but to keep it cultural and keep it environmental and ecological as possible.

On the way to get the desired goal, the political will may need to adapt to different focuses over time.  Therefore in turn, it’s us activists who remind the government, or bring suggestions and solutions for them to see that, “okay, this is possible.”

I don’t only do the advocacy using communications, I run the solution at the same time. In my opinion, the heart of advocacy work is activism. So operating the social businesses and working with the grassroots community is so important to me, because it can show what is possible in real life. I don’t want to wait for others to show it; I show it myself.

And then when the government or other stakeholders see the example, then we can talk them into, okay, how about replication of the good things? How about getting people to work more with one another? How about using these resources more effectively? And then they see the connection, right? Because they see, “okay, this is possible. So the next step is possible too.”

Image courtesy of Green Youth Collective

What successes have you racked up through Green Youth Collective thanks to your collaborative approach with local government?

I started Green Youth Collective in Hoi An as a learner about nature; I was always interested in gardening and composting. On the tourist side of Hoi An, there are more restaurants, hotels and more food waste. While just across the river, in the village that I live in, the farmers, the knowledge and skills, tools and land are there – but they don’t want to farm anymore becausethe annual cropping costs so much and becomes so challenging under the context of climate change.

I saw a gap, the connection and the potential: how about a composting facility based in the village, using biowaste and food waste coming from these tourism spots? The excess is transferred to the farmers, who know how to turn them into useful resources.

COVID made it more difficult to access restaurants’ food waste. So basically, my team went to the local markets and collect the waste ourselves, to bring back to the village, and test the different methods. We also made sure that the government is informed with every step. In the first year we had to organize everything ourselves; following year, the government saw it and gave us the go-ahead: this market can join your work, so the government can make sure that people at the market will separate their waste.

So it became easier for us. The government pays for the workers to separate the waste and transport the waste to our facility. They shared the work, and now they see the resulting compost and they want to continue it and replicate it.

Image courtesy of Refillables Hoi An

Have you been able to achieve any similar wins through Refillables Hoi An?

The very grassroots people, they are our target in Refillables Dong Day. Not only high-end customers or people who with money who want to go for an eco-friendly lifestyle. It’s really more about the social impact and the environmental impact that the model can create for the grassroots.

The hard work that started 4 years ago when my business partner opened the first shop and continued to grow by the team has been well responded. It was the government that suggested, “How about bringing your shop to the Hoi An central market, where vendors can refill their bottles because they need to buy detergent anyway?” Local people who come to buy stuff at the market can also bring their own container and refill. That happened last year; it was a success. Slowly yet steady, We become well-received by the vendors and the government. Now this year they want to continue, with more refillable stations around town!

Oh, good. Congratulations!

Thank you! It’s really hard work, but it’s the work of everyone in the team. It’s really required a lot of awareness, a lot of work to train our pioneer staff so that they become change agents in our community.

Image courtesy of Green Youth Collective

How do you feel sustainable tourism in Hoi An should look like, and how close are you to helping achieve that goal?

A very interesting question! I myself cannot speak for the whole industry, to be honest. I always introduce myself as an environmental and sustainability activist, not as part of the tourism industry. It just happens that Hoi An is a tourist attraction, so my stakeholders care about tourism.

A lot of aware tourists and tour operators come to me and say, “we visit Hoi An, we know your work, and we want to visit you.” There are high-end tours or educational tours who want to bring our stories to their customers. That also makes me more familiar with tourists and tourism work.

So my approach to my tourism sector partners is: you want to do tourism, so how can you do it more environmentally friendly ethically? Or, how can you sustain the well-being of the natural surroundings on which your tourism products are based?

My vision is each business, restaurant, hotel and tourism staff helps Hoi An become an educational place that shows tourists: “Hoi An is beautiful, we want to enhance this beauty and protect it – this is what we do to protect it, and we want your collaboration in protecting it.”

I think it is important that travelers are equipped with this mindset, being low impact when visiting and bring home inspirations to do something. Throughout my traveling and professional experiences, I see that wherever we are in this world, we all share the commons in problems and in solutions.

I work to really equip the tourism industry stakeholders in having a voice, skills, knowledge. Together with government and with the grassroots community, we all take a part in maintaining Hoi An’s biodiversity, maintain its cultural heritage.

For more on Green Youth Collective’s and Refillables Dong Day Hoi AN’s respective initiatives, visit their Facebook pages here: Green Youth Collective, Refillables Hoi An.

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