Saigon: Air Quality and Trends

Smack dab in the middle of downtown Saigon sits the U.S. Consulate. In the beginning of February 2016, right before the nation’s largest holiday of Tết (the Lunar New Year), the U.S. Consulate started broadcasting air quality index (AQI) numbers on an hourly basis. The numbers and history can be found here

The AQI numbers are a measure of small particulate matter in the air that we breathe. Specifically, the AQI numbers are related to PM2.5 (or 2.5 micrometers) particulates are so small that when humans inhale them, they are able to pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. If air pollution is getting directly into your lungs, it’s not good. High levels of PM2.5 have been linked to a whole host of nasty stuff, including asthma, cardiovascular diseases and even birth defects.

So in this city packed full of motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks, not to mention all of the dust from construction and smoke from burning wood and charcoal, it was nice to see the numbers and at least be aware of the air quality. Hell, my friend and I even set up a Twitter bot to broadcast the AQI numbers a couple of times a day

Unfortunately, it’s not looking good. I took all of the data from February 5th, 2016, through December 31st, 2016, and sifted through it, looking for peaks, valleys and trends. The slightly good news is that the AQI only hit unhealthy levels 6% of the days in 2016. The more sobering news is that on only 0.9% of the days, the AQI stayed at healthy levels.

What is even more disturbing is the trend that I saw in the data. Although the AQI numbers fluctuated over the course of the year, probably due to wind, rain and other weather patterns, the fact is that the average high AQI in February was 105 (51-100 is considered moderate), but by the end of December, the average high AQI was 126 (101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups).

Over the course of the whole of 2016, the average AQI measurement in Saigon was 85. This is squarely in the “moderate” category, but it is edging toward the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range. Standards according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say that an AQI of below 100 is generally acceptable.

However, there were a number of times that the AQI in Saigon went above 101 and remained there for 24 hours or longer. This is scary. These longer periods of time are when the health of everyone begins to be affected, and this occurred 27 times over the course of the year. Specifically, these periods were:

  1. From 10 p.m. February 7th through 7 p.m. February 10th (72 hours).
  2. From 12 a.m. February 18th through 3 a.m. February 20th (52 hours).
  3. From 8 p.m. February 20th through 8 p.m. February 21st (25 hours).
  4. From 9 p.m. February 23rd through 9 p.m. February 24th (25 hours).
  5. From 9 p.m. February 28th through 11 p.m. March 3rd (99 hours).
  6. From 1 a.m. March 26th through 4 a.m. March 27th (28 hours).
  7. From 9 a.m. March 27th through 6 a.m. March 30th (70 hours).
  8. From 4 p.m. April 14th through 11 a.m. April 16th (45 hours).
  9. From 9 a.m. May 16th through 1 p.m. May 20th (101 hours).
  10. From 10 p.m. May 20th through 5 a.m. May 22nd (32 hours).
  11. From 4 p.m. June 8th through 3 p.m. June 9th (24 hours).
  12. From 9 p.m. June 23rd through 12 p.m. June 25th (41 hours).
  13. From 9 p.m. July 22nd through 8 p.m. July 24th (48 hours).
  14. From 3 p.m. October 3rd through 5 p.m. October 5th (27 hours).
  15. From 6 p.m. October 8th through 8 p.m. October 9th (27 hours).
  16. From 8 p.m. October 10th through 5 a.m. October 16th (130 hours).
  17. From 12 a.m. October 22nd through 8 a.m. October 23rd (33 hours).
  18. From 8 a.m. October 24th through 7 p.m. October 25th (26 hours).
  19. From 7 a.m. October 31st through 8 p.m. November 1st (38 hours).
  20. From 4 a.m. November 10th through 11 p.m. November 11th (44 hours).
  21. From 7 p.m. November 14th through 3 a.m. November 18th (81 hours).
  22. From 9 p.m. November 24th through 3 a.m. November 27th (53 hours).
  23. From 3 p.m. November 27th through 3 p.m. November 29th (49 hours).
  24. From 6 p.m. December 6th through 9 p.m. December 11th (126 hours).
  25. From 1 p.m. December 16th through 6 p.m. December 17th (30 hours).
  26. From 9 p.m. December 17th through 8 p.m. December 22nd (118 hours).
  27. From 1 a.m. December 23rd through 4 a.m. December 29th (148 hours).

Keep in mind, these are only the periods of 24 hours or more when the AQI exceeded 100 for 24 hours or more. Out of a total of 7884 hours of data, 1890 of them have an AQI of 100 or more, or 24% of the time.

Here are some visualizations from the data.


AQI Monthly Ave

Levels of AQI lead to health problems and even death, yet nothing has been done to address these problems. Deaths from air pollution in Vietnam have increased recently, but no one is speaking out.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic about-face for the worse, Vietnam decided not to pursue clean nuclear energy, instead opting for more and more coal-fired plants, which in turn will lead to more deaths from air pollution. An interesting note is that Vietnam cannot even produce enough of its own coal now, so it will have to import coal to burn at these coal-fired plants.

According to Vietnamese media, there are currently 19 coal-fired power plants in the nation as of 2016. The plan is to increase this number to 31 by 2020, and 51 by 2030. And with a number of these coal-fired power plants planned for the Mekong Delta and other regions adjacent to Saigon, the AQI in town is only going to get worse.

Another huge aspect of pollution here that leaders refuse to acknowledge is that vehicle use is choking the city, literally. Even public buses, meant to reduce congestion and pollution, do not help as they occupy motorbike lanes and belch out black and putrid smoke due to poor maintenance.

I use an air filter when I sleep and a pollution mask when riding a motorbike. If Saigon continues hellbent on its current path of self destruction, I will have to use both all hours of the day.

Note: It is important to remember that all of the AQI data is from one collection point: The U.S. Consulate on Le Duan in downtown Saigon. This area is arguably much lower in pollutants than other areas due to smaller roads, fewer huge construction projects, etc. The AQI along highways and construction sites is surely much higher.

It is also worth noting that there are some brief periods of time over the year when the AQI monitor was down and there is no data available. This is most likely due to technical problems at the monitoring station itself.


In Praise of Bình Dân

I’m not really sure how to translate “bình dân” into English. I’ve heard some people translate it as “popular,” but it also implies affordable for the working class. Food and drink for the common man. In my head, “bình” is part of “bình thường”; regular or normal, and “dân” literally means person or people. I like my coffee bình dân, I like my breakfast bình dân, I like my lunch bình dân and I like to drink beer in a place that can be described as bình dân. Why? No bullshit. There are no menus, no stupid ordering flow, no discretely signalling waiters if you need something. It is food and drink done right for people who don’t have time for all the other crap.

When you go to a bình dân place, you sit down at the first available seat you can find. Most bình dân places are out on the street, so if you’re lucky there will be some protection from the sun and/or rain, and maybe a fan. You want aircon? Go downtown and waste your money on a place completely overstaffed and with a badly translated English menu.

Sit down and someone will ask you what you want. If they don’t, tell someone what you want. If they’re busy, start shouting what you want until you’re acknowledged. There is no coming over to politely present a menu for you to look over and then standing idly around while you make a decision. These people are trying to make money, damnit, and the faster they can get you served, the faster another customer can take your place.

So you’ve got your food but need some chili or fish sauce? Start asking immediately. No one is there? Start shouting again. You aren’t expected to eat unless your food is exactly the way you want it. Is there a manager that needs consulted? Nope. They just get things out to you fast and with no bullshit.

Same with the bill. If you’ve had a few things to eat when you’re out for some beers with friends, you may get someone’s messy arithmetic scribbled on a scrap of paper. For breakfast, lunch and coffee though, the staff will just remember what you had, how much everything is and do the addition in their head. Usually the people telling you the bill will hold the money too, so there’s no waiting for your change either. You pay and you’re out.

This is the beauty of bình dân and why it appeals to me. There is no pretentiousness and everyone knows it. You get your beer, or your coffee or your food quick and efficiently and the business owners don’t waste money on overhead. It’s one of the greatest things about Vietnam.

Pictures from the Saigon Tweetup on November 25th, 2014

Just a few pictures from our merry little Tweetup last night at Game On in downtown Saigon.

2014-11-25 21.03.12
The Saigon Tweetup!
@layered, @LeHaTu, @jon7b, @ericburdette and @ChristophK2003 (more active on @evecoo). Thanks to @CotterVN for snapping this pic!
2014-11-25 20.03.22
@layered, @LeHaTu, @sapuche, @dfgvietnam and @lienh.


Getting Over Another Bout of Writers’ Block

Once again I have slacked in blogging. Everything online now seems like you have to post it in order to manage your personal brand, which is exhausting to me. This is not one of those posts. I’m just going to write about a memory that I had, and how it was jogged, and how it still relates to how I feel today.

This is a powerful song by Bob Dylan when he was recording gospel music. Listen to it if you can. It’s called “Pressing On.”

Now, I’m not much of a gospel music listener, but this song is powerful and I’d grown up hearing my parents listen to it.

One day back in late 2007, my time as a volunteer was winding down. Most of my close friends had left the country. I was still there. I woke up one morning and groggily turned on my computer to check email and hit play in iTunes. And this song came on. And I started crying.

At the time, I was in the dumps about my friends not being around and soon leaving the beautiful nation that I’d come to call home. But the song was my encouragement to keep pressing on. I knew it would be tough, but as the same time, I knew I could eventually be able to get through it all.

Fast forward to today, this afternoon. Again, I find myself sitting at my computer. This time, I’m sending out job applications. I’ve been unemployed for months. Once again, I’m in the dumps. And I listen to “Pressing On.” A few tears rolled down my cheek. I know I’ll get through this bad time and on to something new and better. In the song, there’s a line that says, “Shake the dust off from your feet, don’t look back / Nothing can hold you down now, nothing you lack.”

I’ll keep pressing on. And when I’m past, I’ll shake the dust off of my feet and won’t look back.

On Being a Millennial in America

I am subscribed to Harper’s Magazine and enjoy reading it every month. One of my favorite sections of the publication, and the item that drew me to the magazine when I was a teenager, is the Harper’s Index. In the Harper’s Index, they list off a number of statistics in a manner that usually come off as surprising and humorous. For example, here are two statistics from their January 2013 issue:

Average salary earned by a full-time-employed male college graduate one year after graduation: $42,918
By a full-time-employed female graduate: $35,296

What they’re doing here is highlighting the difference pay for men and women and how women still aren’t treated as equals in the workplace.

But then I started thinking about my own situation as a member of the millennial generation, and here are some of my own statistics, presented in the Harper’s Index style:

Number of years since I’ve graduated from college: 8
Number of masters degrees I’ve obtained: 1
Highest hourly wage that I’ve earned in the U.S.: $11
Average annual salary amount this translates to: $22,000
Percent lower than the average female salary one year after graduation from college: 38
Percent lower than the average male salary one year after graduation from college: 49
Number of months that I’ve had health insurance in the U.S. since graduating from college: 3

As a person born in the early 1980s, I consider myself to be of the so-called “millennial” generation. Like many of my generation, I did everything I was supposed to do: I went to college, I got my degree, I volunteered abroad for several years, I got my MBA, I worked in a field I enjoyed, etc. Then in September 2012, I found myself looking for a job in Oregon. And I couldn’t find any full-time, stable employment. And I still can’t find any.

So what’s going on, America? I did exactly what I was supposed to do. Where is this well-paying job that I should have, according to Harper’s Index? Well, the same Index also has this item:

Rank of “attire” among the leading reasons “millennials” are unsuccessful in job interviews: 1

To which my response, in Index style, is:

Number of tailored suits I own: 2
Approximate number of ties in my closet: 20
Approximate number of tie knot styles I have memorized: 3

My qualifications are sound, I know how to dress and present myself, so what’s going on, America? Why can’t I find a job? Is it because nepotism, cronyism and corruption are just as prevalent here in the land of the free as they are in third-world countries? Is it because that, no matter what the job reports and economic forecasts say, the American economy is dying a slow death?

For such a large nation, an incredible amount of the U.S. economy is based on personal debt. You want a college degree? Here’s your debt. You want a car? Gotta take out a loan to pay for it. Want a house? Gotta get a mortgage and pay back your debt for 30 years or so. Well America, you tricked me into the college loan debt, but not the other stuff. Here, let me present it in the Harper’s Index style:

Number of cars I’ve owned in the U.S.: 0
Amount of real estate I own in the U.S.: 0
Number of cars I intend to buy in the U.S.: 0
Amount of real estate I intend to buy in the U.S.: 0

And it looks like I’m not the only one. Increasing numbers of my generation are not buying cars and owning a home is becoming a more unattainable dream. Good for us! If the American economy is suddenly faced with a generation of people who refuse to buy into these lifelong debt schemes, change might actually occur.

Allen Ginsberg wrote: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” I’d like to amend that quote for many people of my generation: “American I’ve given you all and you’ve taken more.”

As this year of 2012 draws to a close, here’s my favorite statistic, presented in Index style:

Number of years until I will go back to Vietnam: 1

Yes Vietnam, where jobs are plentiful, rents are low and you don’t need a car.

Tics of Twitter

I never really used Twitter much before moving to Saigon in 2010. Before that, Twitter was mainly my medium for updating my Facebook status from my old (and decidedly un-smart) phone via text message. Over a couple years in Saigon, however, I came to rely on Twitter as a place to get recommendations on where to find things and how to get stuff done. One specific example is this: In the midst of one workday, I felt like a turkey sandwich. Don’t know why, but I just felt like one. I posted that thought on Twitter, and a few people got back to me about where they’d found decent turkey sandwiches in Saigon, and that evening I had a turkey sandwich for dinner.

Being in another country and culture, Twitter was a way for us expatriates in the city and the nation converse with each other about our ups and downs and where to find a decent hamburger too. It was pretty nice tool for a place with no large online resources and a culture where a substantial amount of getting things done relies on who you know.

With an above average number of intelligent and tactful users, Twitter for expatriates in Vietnam was great. And when we learned that we would be moving to the U.S., I was hoping to find a place in the Twitter community in Eugene, Oregon too. I started out by following a few folks I found through searching, including a few local companies too, but there is a completely different attitude regarding Twitter in the liberal Northwest in the Land of the Free.

My takeaways so far have been this: There are a lot of people who call themselves “social media experts” and seriously just flood Twitter with posts, retweets and links so that it just clogs up my flow and I can’t stand it. Being in a university town, there are lots of college students on Twitter too. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t have Twitter when I was in college, otherwise my silly moodiness would’ve been captured forever by the Library of Congress. The local companies that I tried following just further flood Twitter with links and stupid questions in the lame attempt to “engage” people through this medium.

What was a very helpful tool in a foreign land is exactly the opposite in the land where it was invented. There seems to be a purposeful effort to not engage with others on Twitter without ulterior motives and I have yet to find a community of users even slightly like what I experienced in Vietnam. Oddly enough, I now use Twitter to keep up with people in Vietnam more that I use it to find out what is happening around me locally.

So there you have it. A common online service which became immensely helpful as I explored the largest city in Indochina has become basically a tool for keeping up with those awesome users back there who initially drew me to Twitter in the first place.

Catching up

This post has been long overdue. There have been so many tremendous changes in my life recently that I’m not sure where to begin. I’ll organize this post into a couple sections.

Current location:

We are now living in Eugene, Oregon, right next to the University of Oregon campus, where Ngân is studying her master’s in international studies. We arrived here after a 5-day road trip from Ohio and it was spectacular to see to much of the country. I’m still trying to get used to the weather here, which seems to be mainly overcast with light rain, but there are some days with sunshine, such as yesterday. There does not appear to be a substantial Vietnamese community here in town, but there are a couple restaurants. However, Ngân has been making better Vietnamese food at home anyway. There are no “quán nhậus” in the Vietnamese sense here.


Find a job is tough. I don’t know how many job applications I’ve filled out and how many resumes I’ve sent. All with barely any response or acknowledgement. It’s a bit of a downer, but I’m following up on leads and continuing to search. I’m also doing a bit of work for several Vietnamese firms. The one issue is that they really can’t send me my wages because of Vietnam’s ridiculous banking system. It guess it’s a type of forced savings for when I get back to Vietnam.


The beginning of October marked one year of me not smoking. Now, over the course of the year, there were a couple times when I had a cigar in the midst of revelry, but like Bill Clinton said, “I did not inhale.” There were times, especially in the first few months after I quit, when I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to stay away from cigarettes, but I have for a year now. And I’m proud of it.


Last June, I ran in my first race ever, the 10k challenge at the Phu Quoc Half Marathon. Well, I decided to push it up a notch and I have since registered for the Eugene Half Marathon which will happen in April. For those of you who aren’t too sure on the distance, a half marathon is 13.1 miles, or around 21km. Right now, I’m working up to that distance and then I’ll start training for it. I’ve realized that running for the sake of running doesn’t motivate me much. However, the motivation of finishing a race with a decent time motivates me to get out and run and train in all kinds of weather.


I’ve mentioned to a couple people that I am still in the honeymoon phase here in Eugene and am liking everything a lot (except for the lack of employment). However, I’ve been in the U.S. for nearly two months now, and there are times when I miss something about Vietnam, like cheap coffee on the street, constant warm weather or a good laugh with friends. I hope culture shock doesn’t hit me too hard, but I’m fully expecting that it will, sooner or later. I just have to remember that I will be back to Vietnam in the future. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Signing off.