As a local who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for more than 20 years, I have to admit that that Saigon can be a bit dirty sometimes. Like most developing cities in the world household litter and air pollution are problematic. In fact, a majority of the problems and complaints by residents in Vietnam could be solved by not littering.
Is Ho Chi Minh City Dirty? No, Saigon is kept pretty clean despite its population and the amount of littering that happens daily. Tourist attractions and the center of the city are kept extremely clean compared to more local areas of the city. The city government has been trying their best to improve the hygiene and sanitation of the whole city in recent years. The efforts include placing public trash bins at the intersections and hiring sweepers to clean the streets have been paying off.
Although littering, air pollution, and flood are the main factors making the city dirty, it is not as bad as you would think. District 1 where people are better educated is generally cleaner than District 12 for example, but market areas near the bus station at September 23 Park, which is also in District 1, is dirty. Pollution is a global problem that all major cities around the world have to deal with on a daily basis. Don’t expect Ho Chi Minh City to be as clean as Singapore, but it is comparable to Bangkok. This city isn’t dirty enough to avoid visiting like some places in the world that have a reputation for this.
District 1, 3, and the center of the city are kept clean and nice
Littering is banned at popular places and tourist attractions in the city. If you are visiting Museums, pagodas, and cathedrals around the city you can expect nice clean areas. There is some littering that is annoying around areas like the Opera House and Nguyen Hue walking street because of young vietnamese who aren’t cleaning up after their small get togethers. The city does a great job of getting these places cleaned up during the night though.
Bui Vien Street and Pham Ngu Lao Street are generally clean. The streets are crowded by heavy traffic during rush hour, which is around 5pm – 6.30pm. Also when there is a music event going on in the Park, the street will be so loud at night. It is great for partying but you should beware of the inevitable trash, littering, dust, smoke, and graffiti that comes hand in hand with partying and backpacker areas around the world.
Sanitation in the city is nice. Public toilets such as the ones on September 23rd Park near the backpacker area are kept clean. When using them, it is best to bring toilet paper yourself in case they are out and there isn’t a bum gun. You should also prepare some small money like 5000 VND for the donation box in front of most public toilets. This donation rule works for other public toilets in Ho Chi Minh City too.
Ho Chi Minh City has a beautiful skyline sitting right along the Saigon river that is very charming. The patchwork of different color houses sitting like a quilt spread out for kilometers in every direction is also breathtaking. When you get a closer look on the streets though, trash and dirt can be found in small alleys, sidewalks, canals, and parks. This sort of litter can come with the territory in certain areas of the city. The city averages a whopping 8,700 tons of household garbage everyday which can create some sanitation problems in smaller unnoticed or maintained areas.
Littering in Ho Chi Minh City, all over Vietnam for that matter, is an unfortunate problem that is very common. The government is doing a great job of educating the youth of Vietnam to be more aware of our environment but the older generation can still be seen littering with no remorse. There have been recent movement in the past few years to educate the older generation to take care about the environment which seems to be gaining some traction.
There will be a difference between someone throwing their plastic single use cup in a plastic bag into the river, when compared to the trash you see sitting under the trees when you walk along the sidewalks. The trash under the trees is actually the neighborhood spot for placing household garbage. Everynight Ho Chi Minh City sanitation workers, clean up every street collecting this trash. So placing it under the tree, electric pole, or lamp post is just a collection point for the city sanitation crew. This shouldn’t be confused with careless littering.
Recycling isn’t implement in Vietnam like other countries around the world. Even though people tried to separate waste into different trash bins, staff from environmental companies still mix them together before sending them to the city’s dump sites.
Trash in markets and vendors
Most people go shopping at markets rather than supermarkets in Ho Chi Minh City because they can find fresh ingredients with cheaper prices. However, the hygiene is not guaranteed as the waste and garbage can be found all over local markets. Most vendors do not throw rubbish into bins. They just simply throw their rubbish into the gutters or directly to the ground under their stalls. The trash includes plastic bags, food scraps, rotten veggie, cigarette butts, and tissues. Only when the sellers need to close their stall they sweep the floor, collect trash, put them in big plastic bags and throw them at a collection point at the rear of the market.
These vendors aren’t as dirty as it sounds, personally I feel most vendors are doing their best to keep things sanitary, but at the end of the day it is what it is. These markets are unique tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh City because people can enjoy local food from people peddling their wares.
Despite the fact that selling on sidewalks are banned by the government, local people still do these small businesses illegally to make a living. Sometimes you will witness vendor owners running away from police, or when you are enjoying your meal the vendor will make a quick dash down the street and you are left alone and confused.
Flooding in the city
This may be a blessing to any traveller who wants a great and unique local experience in the city, but it’s always painful for us locals. Flooding in the city during the rainy season is a nightmare to every citizen. It is annoying not just because of trash floating on the street, but it’s also an inconvenience afterwards. When the water level is above your knees, travelling around the city becomes harder than ever. The car and motorbike engines stopping in the middle of the street leads to prolonged traffic jams. Some people have to push their motorbikes by hands, while others trip and fall after riding on flooded potholes they can’t see.
Even if you are not living in the flooded area, you may deal with difficulties as well. Traffic jams usually occur in the whole city when there is flooding anywhere in the downtown area.
The main reason for flooding is uncontrollable littering by us locals. The drains are choked up with garbage, river runoff is slowed down because of household trash, giving rainwater no way to escape from the city. Therefore, if you visit the city during the rainy season which is from May to November, you should really bring a raincoat, waterproof accessories and flip flops to prevent you from getting wet
Optimism of people even in such situations may surprise you and make you want to visit the city anyway. Some visitors and citizens found this entertaining. When it rains, fish in canals swim to the streets and people try to catch them. Some travelers really enjoy this that they even go kayaking in the middle of the city.
Most cities in the world presumably face this problem. It is no doubt that the overpopulated city like Ho Chi Minh is in the same situation. Heavy traffic, smoke, dust, and air pollution is a part of citizen’s daily life. In sunny season from December to April the air pollution is even worse in the sunlight.
Trucks carrying cattle or fish sauce is another cause of air pollution, but you can only see them in the suburb areas of Ho Chi Minh City like District 12.
The mentioned factors are the reason why you should wear face masks and sunglasses when walking down the street in Ho Chi Minh City. They don’t just keep you from sneezing but also protect you from respiratory diseases and other kinds of sickness.
We hope this article answers your question about the cleanliness and safety of Ho Chi Minh City. This is my home, and it is surprisingly clean even though there are many sanitation issues that our city faces with such a large population. I feel that most travellers visiting Ho Chi Minh City will feel the same.