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The Story of Hồng Hoàng: From the 1st Vietnamese in Antarctica to a Fervent Wildlife Activist

For Hồng Hoàng, a career in environmental activism in Vietnam began with a polar expedition.

In 1996, she was working in the marketing department of Vietnam Investment Review, an English-language newspaper based in Hanoi. A childhood friend of hers happened to be working for ABN AMRO Bank, one of the funders for the first youth expedition to Antarctica led by the polar explorer Robert Swan.

“An expedition will suit someone who is as crazy as me,” Hồng said of her friend’s reason for pushing her to apply. She put in her successful application and set off to Antarctica the following year. “We had three weeks of training. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’ It was a real professional training for polar explorers. We were 35 young people from 25 different countries and we joined together in very harsh weather conditions.”

Hồng with Robert Swan in Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Hồng Hoàng.

The first Vietnamese person to visit Antarctica, she was introduced to global warming issues which would be the seed of her future activism. “We were only there in Antarctica for 16 days, but it was really a life-changing experience,” she said.

Hồng has fought an uphill battle in her work, raising awareness on environmental issues from the ground up in Vietnam, a country that has a combative relationship with its activists. Now, with international focus on wild animals spreading zoonotic diseases, Hồng has ventured into another fraught endeavor by pushing writers to report on the wildlife trade in Vietnam — an issue rarely reported on by local media and which carries risk.

Describing her foray into environmentalism, Hồng sat with her back to a large tree painted on the wall of the boardroom at the environmental NGO she founded in Saigon, CHANGE. Granted a license in 2013, CHANGE works on a wide range of environmental projects, from building climate change awareness to implementing anti-wildlife trafficking campaigns and supporting rural communities to create conservation groups.

Hồng [red dress in the middle] poses with the CHANGE team. Photo courtesy of Hồng Hoàng.

Expressive when she speaks about her work, it’s easy to understand how she has been successful in galvanizing support for environmentalism in Vietnam, a field that still gains limited traction in the country. “I moved to Saigon in 2009 and I couldn’t find a job at an environmental NGO because they didn’t exist,” she said. “So, I thought, okay I’ll establish my own if there’s none here.”

With the emergence of COVID-19, the past year has seen the government attempt to clamp down on the in-country consumption of bushmeat, the use of endangered species in traditional medicine, the exotic pet trade, and the flows of illegal wildlife passing through the country.

In March last year, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc requested that a draft be made to ban the sale and consumption of wild animals, with the government instead releasing a July directive strengthening enforcement of existing wildlife trade regulations. Given this momentum, CHANGE has focused their endeavors in this arena since the onset of the pandemic. “People are now seeing that it is not just an issue affecting animals, it’s an issue that affects the economy too,” Hồng said.

Vietnam’s economic growth saw a 30-year low in 2020 due to the pandemic, with the connection of COVID-19 as a zoonotic disease — one that is passed from animals to humans — and the economic downturn spurring the government to take action after years of dragging their heels on wildlife trafficking.

“The pressure is really on the government to take action. And, because they have done really well with controlling the pandemic, they want to show that they can lead in stopping this as well,” Hồng said.

Critically endangered grey-shanked douc langurs are photographed on display as they dry in Tuấn Ba Gấu’s winning submission for the VIEWS competition. Photo by Tuấn Ba Gấu.

Among CHANGE’s strategies to improve wildlife protection is to encourage journalists to report on the issue. They have approached this by initiating a recent environmental reporting competition — Vietnam Information on Environment-Wildlife-Sustainability (VIEWS) — with the theme, a panoramic view of the wildlife crisis.

“The whole competition was based on Covid because we have to do everything we can to stop the next pandemic by really ending wildlife consumption,” Hồng said.

But despite the currency the topic holds right now, CHANGE still has to push back against local factors which have contributed to a lack of reporting on the issue previously. Hồng says wildlife journalism in Vietnam lacks wide appeal and funding.

“I have to say, environmental journalism has never been a thing among the journalists here. Nobody cares. They like to write about sports or the economy. It makes a lot more money,” Hồng said. “Environmental journalism probably has the lowest income.”

But perhaps the most significant barrier to environmental reporting in Vietnam is the danger it can invite. Users of products like tiger byproducts and rhino horn are generally powerful and wealthy members of Vietnamese society, rendering reporting on them risky for journalists.

To avoid this threat, many of the writers who submitted their stories to VIEWS did so under a pseudonym, and one prize-winning journalist even accepted his award wearing a facemask to disguise his identity. To avoid media censorship, the competition also included a social media category to promote sensitive stories that could not be published by mainstream media. Despite these challenges, the CHANGE team continues to engage Vietnamese media on the subject to improve the wildlife situation in the country.

“I believe in the power of the media in this country,” Hồng said. “Still, the media has certain powers over what people think, what people know and what government leaders think. So, we have always wanted to engage local journalists in all our work.”

The first-place winner in the social media category, Tuấn Ba Gấu (left) and Đỗ Doãn Hoàng, first-place winner of the press category (right). Photo courtesy of CHANGE.

An awards ceremony for the competition was held at a luxury hotel in Saigon’s city center with prizes awarded to a selection of journalists with standout pieces. The winning pieces covered themes such as the threat of the spread of coronaviruses in the wildlife trade, the consumption of wild animals, the exotic pet trade, a lack of enforcement of Vietnam’s conservation legislation, and the damaging role that social media plays in the sale of wildlife.

The winning piece by journalist Đỗ Doãn Hoàng, who published with junior colleagues using pseudonyms, submitted a five-part investigative series on the illegal tiger trade in Vietnam, even following the shadowy industry to tiger farms in South Africa. “The winning entry is by one of the most senior investigative journalists [in Vietnam] who had a lot of experience and a lot of connections. So, his piece would definitely be published,” Hồng said. “But for a lot of other junior journalists, it is difficult to talk about these sensitive issues.”

With Hoàng awarded roughly US$900 for his work, the competition is intended to stimulate more journalism of this kind, said Hồng. “We have to acknowledge them and give them enough motivation,” she said. “If they need a camera, we’ll find a camera. If they need a vehicle, we’ll find a vehicle. Whatever they need for the journalism. We will try to mobilize that kind of support for journalists in Vietnam.”

The first place winnersin the press category with their prize. Photo courtesy of CHANGE.

Although Hồng has been working steadfast in creating this change for the country, it hasn’t been easy. Since the early days of CHANGE, she has received intermittent blackmail attempts, has had threats made to her safety, and been intimidated with the prospect of jail. “Doing this job, I am absolutely aware of what I might have to face and I just want people to support me and know that I am not a threat,” she said.

Despite getting used to this type of intimidation for the most part, she faced a serious case of harassment in early 2018 which left her shaken and close to giving up her work. Also at this time, she received an email that she had been nominated to join the Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia University in the US.

“I thought of this as such an opportunity to run, so I grabbed it. Really, I never would’ve thought that I would be away from work and family for 10 months,” she said. “But because at that time I was absolutely mad at this whole thing, I said okay whatever, I will just apply.” Hồng was accepted to the program, which she credits with rejuvenating her zeal towards her work.

The Obama Scholars in Hồ Chí Minh City with President Barack Obama. Hồng is center. Photo via The Obama Foundation.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life. It wasn’t about the program or an academic curriculum, but it was the experience of being there together with 11 civic leaders from other countries who all had totally different circumstances and conditions,” she said. “I learned that I am not the only one who is suffering and still trying to create an impact.”

While the picture currently looks bleak, with Vietnam ranking poorly on several global environmental indexes, Hồng avoids despair by focusing on the power that individuals have to spur change.

“We [Vietnam] are one of the most influenced by climate change, the fourth biggest plastic polluter, and the top wildlife consumers,” she said. “We are always on the top of the worst lists — we want to just step down a little bit! Don’t be the champion in these categories! But it’s a long way to go, believe me.”

This article originally appeared on Southeast Asia Globe and has been republished with permission as part of a collaboration between Saigoneer and Southeast Asia Globe.

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