Vietnam is struggling with alarming air pollution. Its two biggest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, are now among the top 15 polluted cities in Southeast Asia. Finer particles are particularly harmful to human health as they can penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and respiratory infections. Up to 60,000 deaths in Vietnam in 2016 were related to air pollution

In general, industrial enterprises in Vietnam have a poor environmental record. Many factories use old equipment, which is less efficient and more polluting. Many are without systems to control and treat wastewater and air emissions, and are in urban and near-urban areas. Although the Government has introduced tools and policies for pollution prevention and control (such as fees on wastewater through Decision 67/2003/NDCP and reducing pollution through Prime Minister Decision 64/2003/QD-TTg), their implementation is slow and additional tools and remedies for pollution prevention and clean up are needed. 

In relation to plastic pollution, between 1990 and 2015, per capita plastic consumption in Vietnam increased from 3.8 kg per year to 41 kg per year. This has created over 1.8 million tonnes of annual plastic waste. Unfortunately, proper disposal, collection, and recycling has been limited. According to the Ocean Conservancy, 60% of all plastic waste found in the ocean comes from only five Asian countries, including Vietnam.

In addition, mining is also contaminating rivers with cyanide waste and sediment, which local residents refer to as “dead rivers”.


Urbanization and strong economic and population growth are causing increasing waste management and pollution challenges. Solid waste generation in Vietnam is growing on pace with its urbanizing population. However, most solid waste is still inadequately managed. According to MONRE, most of the country’s solid waste (73.5%) is deposited in open dump sites. Over 23 million tons of household waste and seven million tons of industrial solid waste are discharged into the environment each day in Vietnam. There are presently 458 dump sites and 337 of them do not meet sanitation standards.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is the most concerning air pollutant in Vietnam. In 2019, Hanoi had only eight days with PM2.5 lower than the national standard of 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3).  Meanwhile, the air quality in Ho Chi Minh City only experienced 36 days below the standard. For the remaining days of the year, over ten million people in these cities were exposed to heavily polluted air.

According to MONRE, the primary sources of urban air pollution are transportation, industrial activities, construction, agriculture and handicraft production, and poor waste management practices. Vietnam now has 3.6 million automobiles and 58 million motorbikes, mostly concentrated in big cities. Many of them are old vehicles, with limited emission control technology. Vietnam’s transportation issues are exacerbated by poor urban planning.

Mining operations cause water pollution, dust and noise affecting the quality of life of rural residents.


Key policies and governance approach

A number of new strategies, plans and action programs continue to be promulgated by the Government to address the challenge of pollution, including the Resolution No. 35/NQ-CP; National Environmental Protection Strategy to 2020, a vision to 2030; National Strategy on Biodiversity to 2020, a vision to 2030; National Strategy on Green Growth; among many others. Recently, a new Law on Environmental Protection 2020 has also been promulgated by the Government.

Vietnam passed a National Action Plan on Air Quality Management in 2016 to manage and minimize air pollution. The Plan includes stricter regulations on new vehicle emission standards, better traffic control, enforcement of dust management measures for construction sites and transporting trucks, enhanced monitoring of industrial emissions, and bans on charcoal stove use in cities.

In addition, in 2020, the Government created a National Action Plan on ocean plastic waste and has an upcoming nationwide ban on single-use plastics by 2025.


Successes and Remaining Challenges

While these measures could help to partially address Vietnam’s pollution, long-term national policies and stronger enforcement of existing policies are urgently needed. In addition, investment in environmental protection in Vietnam is still at a modest level, and the use of environmental funds by a number of ministries and central agencies is still scattered and not really effective.

For example, investments in waste treatment are still low and unbalanced, and waste management structure has not been consistent at the central and local levels with specific tailored models for each municipality. Further, institutions and policies on wastewater management and support, are incomplete, overlapping and not fully implemented.  

In Ho Chi Minh City and in Da Nang, city officials passed laws that required households to properly separate their waste. Unfortunately, both cities struggled with weak enforcement mechanisms and a lack of infrastructure to support the new regulations.


Initiatives and Development Plans

To deal with the growing problems of congestion and air pollution in the capital, Hanoi, Vietnam opened its first ever urban railway line in November 2021, ending a 10-year project. Vu Hong Son, an official at the Ministry of Transport, said the Hanoi metro would “ease traffic congestion, limit private vehicles, reduce environmental pollution and contribute to the change of inner-city movements”. The 13km elevated line runs between Cat Linh in north-central Hanoi and Ha Dong in the southwestern suburbs. A second railway line, to be called the Van Mieu Line, is expected to open in 2023.


Goals and Ambitions

Over the next few decades, Vietnam plans to effectively manage and control key pollution sources, address emerging environmental problems, and gradually reduce and solve the problems related to environmental pollution in key areas.

In addition to monitoring environmental conditions in Vietnam, the Government is also monitoring transboundary environmental pollution issues, particularly in relation to the deteriorating condition of the Mekong River and environmental damage in the delta.


Pollution is a complex problem which requires coordination, cooperation, and innovation from a range of stakeholders.

  • There is a need to mainstream air quality and urban development interactions at sub-national levels.
  • Sector-specific policies are critical to make timely progress in each sector.
  • Strong partnerships are required between governments, academia, industry, and community groups. This is critical for implementing and supporting social and behavioural based solutions.
  • Provincial/City scale regulatory action with a comprehensive strategy is needed.
  • Let local experts tell their own stories. Involving local experts in the evidence gathering process will help provide a better understanding of the problem to political leaders.
  • Preferential taxation for clean energy related technology can create a favourable environment for its promotion. For example, market-based instruments like preferential taxation for clean vehicles and higher taxation for polluting vehicles can drive demand favourably. The tax revenue has potential to be reinvested in cleaner solutions or mitigation actions.
  • To improve air quality, the focus of transport for cities in the region needs to change from reliance on private vehicles to public mass transport systems.
  • To improve air quality, Vietnam needs to invest in clean technologies, e.g., in the transport, power generation and agriculture sectors (such as moving to solar or low sulphur fuels). Changes need to ensure solutions for improving air quality have economic benefits, along with health benefits. Co-beneficial incentives need to penetrate in the private sector as well as at the regional and local levels. For example, street vendors, small foundries or similar informal economic activities need to be provided with incentives so they can both take ownership of issues and contribute to cleaner air.
  • Monitoring networks for air and water pollution must be dense enough and appropriately sensitive to meet the minimum requirement for optimum spatial coverage so that accurate area activity representative information can be generated, analysed, and disseminated. Monitoring is needed to create robust scientific evidence and an accurate set of measurements and data to enable clear messaging for policy and decision makers.
  • It is needed to develop central initiative or online platform for interaction and networking on plastics pollution to empower local communities to reduce plastics pollution by creating networks and uniting and providing support to communities and individuals.
  • Strictly control large sources of wastes, strengthen measures to prevent the risk of environmental incidents, actively monitor objects and projects with potential risks of causing environmental pollution and environmental incidents, such as treatment of pollution in seriously polluted craft villages in the "Master Project on Environmental Protection of Craft Villages to 2020 toward 2030".

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