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On a Smoggy Sunday, Saigon's Climate March Draws Small, Devoted Crowd

This past Sunday, two days after millions marched in cities around the world demanding action against climate change, about 50 people gathered at Reunification Palace for Saigon's own Climate Strike.

The group, roughly an even mix of Vietnamese and foreigners, walked on a police-approved route from the palace to Nguyen Hue Walking Street before finishing at the Bitexco Financial Tower. With the Air Quality Index (AQI) pushing above an unhealthy 160, it was an appropriately hazy day for a public gathering regarding the climate.

Some held signs, others simply joined to show their belief in the importance of confronting climate change, an issue that poses serious threats to Vietnam, and especially southern provinces.

Alex Phan, who is originally from Hanoi and moved to Saigon from Sydney earlier this year, was one of the event's lead organizers.

"Since the day I returned to Vietnam, I noticed there is so much change," she told Saigoneer in an email. "There is so much construction happening in Hanoi and Saigon. Where I was born, we can barely breath, we wake up wondering if it is fog or pollution."

When she saw news early last week of climate strikes being planned around the world, she tried to find one here in Saigon, but nothing was being organized. "So I decided to create one," she said.

At first, Phan was greeted with silence. Then, people started responding on Facebook and, to her elation, the police approved the gathering as well.

"I have to say it surprised me that the police were so nice," she shared. "They even said to let them know if we want to do it again in the future!"

Despite the relatively low turnout compared to other major cities, Phan was so pleased that she and her co-organizers are planning another climate walk this Friday at 5pm. They hope this may become a regular occurrence, in line with the Fridays for Future movement begun by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Tiffany Tran, a Vietnamese-Australian woman who co-organized the walk, shared her rationale for participating in an email: "300,000 people marched in my home country, and I didn't want to be on the other side of the ocean doing nothing. Even our neighbors Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines got involved."

Unsurprisingly, given the divisive discourse around climate change, the organizers faced some skepticism.

"We had mixed responses from both locals and expats - 'locals don't care,' 'this is dangerous,' 'families can lose livelihoods and worse,'...'this event is not in our culture so it won't work,'" Tran shared. "We needed to come from a place of it being a 'peaceful parade,' not a 'protest' or 'demonstration,' and certainly not a 'riot'."

And a peaceful parade is exactly what transpired.

"There was no chanting, no shouting, no angry faces," she said. "But it was still exhilarating. These are the people who showed up, amid uncertainty and fear, with trust."

The walk drew plenty of curious passersby, particularly on Nguyen Hue, where a number of people approached participants and asked what was going on. Along the way, municipal security guards even took photos of the proceedings on their phones.

For Tran, the fact that the walk occurred in the first place felt like a victory.

"However minor that seems compared to the millions across the world, this is still a big thing," she said. "The climate crisis is the zeitgeist of our times. We're doing something global, and we're putting Vietnam on the map with over 150 countries."

As a reminder of just how salient such discussions are, on Monday, the United Nations Climate Action Summit yielded few concrete results. According to the New York Times, China and the United States, the world's two largest carbon emitters, pledged no new efforts to blunt the increasingly savage impacts of climate change.

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