In Vietnam, I made memories to last a life time. I spent 6 months teaching English in Hanoi, the Northern capital, and spent my weekends exploring ancient cities, beaches untouched by tourists and drinking cheap beer. But whilst I was “finding myself” in Asia, my acne (that I’d previously managed to control) found me again. I can only attribute this to the dangerously high levels of pollution I experienced in Hanoi and I firmly believe my experience is something we can come to expect in Western cities if we continue to pollute our environment.
When we hear the word pollution, we tend to think of cities covered in a shroud of smog, overpopulated India, polluted rivers, cities dominated with traffic congestion. I never once considered acne and hair loss to be a side effect of pollution. But after a month of living in Hanoi, I began to experience just that. Before I left for Asia, I was sleepwalking through pollution. I frequently saw pleas from Greenpeace in my emails, articles about pollution on Facebook, but it was always happening somewhere else, not at home. When I read an article about pollution I would be angry, but five minutes later my mind would trail off to other things, I forgot about it. Of course I think differently now as I’ve experienced firsthand what pollution does to our bodies, not just the environment.
The first things I noticed when I landed in Hanoi after a 17 hour flight were the humidity and pollution. The burning of plastic on the street, the smell of oil in street vendor’s woks, the constant hum of engines and honks of horns signalled a population dependant on economically inefficient motorbikes with exhaust fumes that choked you. I often wondered whether Hanoi’s population were even aware of what pollution was as they openly burnt their piles of rubbish on the street with their children dancing around their feet. Mothers and their babies would ride round with flimsy dentist masks, as if they could prevent the toxic fumes from entering their system. There was no underground to ease congestion and the tram system is still a work in progress. Whilst living in Hanoi, the news broke that F1 would be hosting the 2020 Grand Prix there and whilst this is great news for their economy, do globally influential companies such as F1 have a duty to host their events in cities that recognise the detrimental effects pollution has on our health and the environment?
I ran three, four times a week before I went to teach in Vietnam and I wanted to keep this up. Once I’d settled into the crazy, chaotic city, I began to run around Cau Giay, the urban district I inhabited. Originally I ran round the local park and I loved seeing people of all ages do their exercises round the park, they’d have aerobics, board games, martial arts and dance classes. Everyone looked so happy whilst blissfully unaware that they were breathing in deadly amounts of fumes from the nearby traffic. The mopeds often cut through the park, narrowly dodging dogs and pedestrians. I often found myself leaping out of the way of the mopeds as if my feet were being shot at. So I abandoned the park and decided to run laps around the block instead.
Looking back now I must have been crazy to think that it was a good idea to run for 30 minutes solid whilst sucking in exhaust fumes, but then pollution has been linked to cognitive performance… I’d left for Vietnam with clear skin but gradually my acne flared up and my hair started falling out in alarming amounts every time I washed my hair, and the only comfort I had was knowing most of the girls I was living with experienced the same. I knew it couldn’t have been my diet as I ate as much fruit and vegetables as possible (which all came wrapped up in plastic and then individually wrapped in plastic bags, which would later be burnt on the street). It was a good job internet data was so cheap in Vietnam (£3 a month for 2GB a day) as I spent most of my time googling foods and supplements to prevent hair fall and acne.
Before Vietnam, I was so happy and confident in my own skin for the first time in years, and then whilst I was having this amazing adventure, my acne came back and stopped me having the fun I should have had. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, on particularly bad days after being stuck in a hot stuffy classroom all day, I’d be glad to be back in my room and hide my spotty face away instead of drinking at the bia hois.
Sometimes on weekend getaways, my skin would improve with the strong sunlight. But now I realise I was only ageing my skin and masking my spots with a tan. As soon as I got back to Hanoi, the spots would came back. And they were often painful. Whilst it was hot in Hanoi, the pollution often hid the sun, so I was trapped in a cycle of waiting for sun at the weekend and then watching my skin flare up when I returned.
Whilst travel agencies sell Asia as a go to destination, we have a duty to ourselves and the next generation to educate ourselves and the rest of the world of the effects pollution has on our bodies, not just environment, and realise where our plastic waste ends up. We condone Asia for its archaic approach to tackling pollution, yet we pump and overload our seas with plastic which drifts to the continent we are so desperate to explore. With these countries becoming increasingly more accessible, how will Asia’s pollution problem ever get better when we as tourists are fuelling it.
Economically and industrially, we have advanced Asia for so long, but are we about to be catapulted back in an environmental crisis?