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Bring Your Own Containers, We're Going Grocery Shopping

Above a peaceful coffee shop on the quiet road of Nguyễn Khắc Nhu lies a small zero-waste refill shop trying to advocate change.

Hidden two floors above CNF coffee shop at 55 Nguyễn Khắc Nhu, Tạp hoá Lá Xanh - a zero waste shop - is one of the three most prominent zero-waste refill shops in Saigon. The other two, Lai Day Refill Station and Green Around the Corner, deal with the substitution of non-eco-friendly household appliances, like plastic razors, razor blades, plastic toothbrushes and plastic toothpaste tubes.

The hidden collage of shops in the building on 55 Nguyễn Khắc Nhu.

Looking to differ from the norm, Tạp Hóa Lá Xanh decided to specialize in selling food in sustainable ways. The store started out selling dried food and condiments such as rice, cereal, tea and pasta. As its business grew, it also moved into selling other items. Now, its stock ranges from plastic substitutes and sustainable clothes to household supplies. 

The store is a predominantly self-serve operation, and customers are asked to bring their own containers. However, thanks to donations of clean leftover glass jars and plastic containers from locals and other customers, they can provide a forgetful customer with free zero-waste packaging. The buying process is simple: you take your chosen container, place it on the scale, weigh out your desired amount of a product, note down the weight and the product name, and then simply checkout with the friendly storekeeper. This process helps to reduce excess waste — as customers buy exact amounts of products — and allows customers to buy food products waste-free.

The array of reusable containers at Tạp Hóa Lá Xanh.

Back in 2018, the store’s original founder, Phạm Ngọc Trâm Anh, a stewardess turned eco-friendly businesswoman, decided she wanted to finally do something about the issue of food wastage in Saigon.

According to Trâm Anh, young people needed to learn to look back at the simplicities of the past. She aimed to push young people to shop as waste-free as possible, and she connected with suppliers around the city to create an environment in which young people could start to do so. 

At first, it was a huge risk opening the shop, as it was a completely new concept in Viet Nam. Nonetheless, despite her worries, when it first opened at 155/11 Cống Quỳnh, environmentally conscious foreigners and Vietnamese embraced Trâm Anh and her shop.

Despite her successes, after giving birth to her first child in 2019, she decided to move to the countryside. This nearly meant the closing of the store and the disappearance of the community she had worked hard to build. Nonetheless, thanks to a customer of the store, it is still in operation today. 

The interior of Tạp Hóa Lá Xanh after redecorating at the beginning of July 2020.

Minh Trang is now the new owner of Tạp Hóa Lá Xanh. She told me that as a regular customer, she couldn’t stand by and watch it disappear, which is why she decided to take over the whole operation. She was no stranger to working with NGO organizations, as in the past, she had volunteered in environmental programs and programs which support women in the country. 

Nonetheless, she said that when she first accepted ownership of the store, she felt lonely because it was hard to connect with friends and family on the topic of the environment. Despite this, after spending time at the shop and talking with other customers, she started to feel more at home. "Customers are the backbone of this business," she said. "They come in, share their experiences and give advice, which helps improve the business."

Sauces and oils available at the shop.

Though the shop has loyal customers, changing locations four times over the past two years has made it difficult to retain shoppers. "This is why every time we move location, we see a drop in customer numbers again," Trang says sadly.

However, she aims to stay put for the foreseeable future and has big cooperative plans with the coffee shop downstairs to turn the place into a so-called "trạm xanh" (green stop), where people can come to refill, recycle their waste, and relax and drink coffee.  

The wide range of goods available at Tạp Hóa Lá Xanh.

"We try to ensure that all our products are organic and handmade," says Trang. Although most of her food products are local, items like chia seeds that are not native to Vietnam have to be sourced from Bolivia.

Living up to their name of a tạp hóa (convenience store), the shop partners with other companies to make it easier for customers to find eco-friendly products. These partners include Green Lady, which produces cotton period pads, and My Natural Beauty, which produces candles.

Products from one of the shops many partners, My Natural Beauty.

Though their prices are higher than at your average market, Trang claims that the slightly elevated costs are worth it because a customer gets organic and eco-friendly products. "No one can put a price tag on the environment," Trang says. 

She added that her customers feel more healthy when shopping here. For example, one person shops monthly, buying the basics like sugar, salt and fish sauce. "By buying exact amounts every month, she learns about her exact monthly food intake and can adjust this easily to help her have a better diet," Trang says. She believes that the world would be much healthier if everyone bought from refill shops and could see exactly how much they were eating, instead of bulk buying from big supermarkets.

Trang’s final message was that the environment can be saved by individuals, as anyone can change for the better and become an advocate for a healthier lifestyle to encourage others to do the same.

The elegant set-up of mini plant pots by the neighboring 99 Garden plant shop.

Though hidden away in a quiet corner of the city, the shop is one of the pioneers in the fight to alleviate Vietnam’s food and packaging waste problem. Despite its small size, with more and more of Vietnam’s youth turning their attention to the problems of climate change and the environment, Saigon will likely see similar businesses sprout up in the future.

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