Reporting from: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
It was a long day of interviews, meeting new contacts, and visiting with expat entrepreneurs here in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday. After it was all over, I made a beeline for a great Indian restaurant I’d been dying to try to eat my first real meal of the day.
Ho Chi Minh City is actually a rather international place. Whatever you crave to eat or drink, they probably have it here.
After polishing off a great vegetarian dinner, I started the mile-long walk back to my home. I’ve said before that I tend to eschew taxis except when I have a tight schedule; I’d rather get a feel for the real city on foot rather than watch it at 25 miles per hour out the window of an air-conditioned tourist-mobile.
And sure enough, my desire to see the real city paid off.
As I walked close to my home late at night, I noticed one other soul sharing the sidewalk ahead. She was hovering over a large mass of stuff spread out on the sidewalk. It turns out, she was literally wading in a spread out pile of garbage.
As the stroke of midnight neared, I passed a short, slightly stalky Vietnamese women as she separated aluminum cans and plastic bottles from wrappers and discarded food.
This is the kind of thing that happens every day in places like Vietnam. In a country that encourages hard work over a social safety net, people of limited means find interesting and even dirty ways to make a living.
What she was doing wasn’t frowned upon. In fact, one of my good expat friends here said her activity of spreading out trash on the sidewalk is encouraged.
It works like this: low-income Vietnamese people go around collecting trash from the various trash cans around a particular neighborhood. (Unlike cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City has a relatively high number of trash cans).
Then, they aggregate the piles of garbage – everything from spent chopsticks to Coke bottles – onto a large patch of the sidewalk. Then they start swimming for the cash. Just like anywhere else in the world, products like plastic or aluminum have value to a recycling program.
So the people comb through the day’s trash looking for stuff they can turn in for cash.
The police know there’s not a lot of money in the activity and don’t really care anyway. And the government doesn’t care too much what old ladies do on uncrowded residential streets late at night. My friend even suggested they like the idea of private citizens doing their environmental work for them.
It’s a recycling program built entirely by the free market, motivated by self-interest and the desire to make a buck.
When I was in elementary school twenty years ago, you couldn’t turn around without seeing some propaganda poster for “protecting the environment”. Even then, I always wondered whether anybody really cared about the environment or it was just a mechanism of political control.
Yet despite all the brainwashing that western governments and their school systems pump into the classroom, countries like the United States still don’t have a perfect recycling program. Big cities like New York and literally shipping their garbage to landfills thousands of miles away.
Leave it to government to push an ill-conceived recycling program based on indoctrination rather than actual results. If only they’d let the free market intervene, the job would get done a lot better and a lot faster.
Of course, self-interest and profit motivation are dirty words to western socialist governments that seek only to grow their power base.
Maybe if these “civilized” governments took away some of their safety net – the one paid for with dollars stolen from you – people would find creative ways to support themselves when they came upon hard times.
But I suppose the average American on the dole would look down on the woman here in Vietnam. To them, she’s not a go-getter working to put food on the table, but a sucker for finding a dirty way to do so.
In a show of just how efficient the free market is, I walked along the same sidewalk on my way to a coffee shop this morning. Miraculously, the sidewalk was clean and free from trash. You would never have known an old lady was picking for buried treasure just hours earlier if you hadn’t seen it yourself.
Just more evidence that the free market and “greed” will trump ill-conceived government brainwashing any day. Even in a country where selling aluminum cans can pay the bills.