Nguyen Thi Huong was rudely woken up at around midnight by ear-splitting sounds.
The din emanated from a nearby pub in Saigon’s Binh Tan District on a Friday. She tried to rest again after wearing earplugs, but sleep eluded her until after 3 a.m., when the pub closed.
“I cannot watch TV or even close my eyes and think when the noise reaches torturous levels,” said the sophomore at a Saigon-based university. Studying at home has become impossible at times, she added. Unable to focus, she would go to a coffee shop to buy “some luxurious quiet.”
Millions of Saigonese join Huong in yearning for some respite from the excessive noise almost constantly generated by road traffic, construction sites, mobile karaoke services and other places like restaurants and pubs.
A street karaoke loudspeaker on Saigon’s Pham Van Dong Street. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Bich.
Huong recalled her experience when her neighbors rebuilt their homes last year.
“The sound of machines and metal woke me up every morning, even on the weekend, quiet was something next to impossible.”
Not surprisingly, traffic is also a noise pollution culprit, with the sounds of motorbikes, cars and honking, especially during rush hour, hurting the ears of residents in the vicinity.
There are around 9 million motorbikes in Saigon, Vietnam’s most densely populated city with a population of 9 million, creating a high level of noise in many locations.
Measurements taken by the HCM City University of Natural Resources and Environment at 150 spots in the city in 2018 showed excessive noise levels reported at streets with a high density of vehicles. The pollution surpassed permissible levels even between 10 p.m. and 6a.m.
Similar results were found in examinations conducted by the HCM City Environmental Protection Agency. The noise levels at the Hang Xanh Intersection, An Suong Intersection in District 12 and Go Vap roundabout were measured at over 85 decibels, much higher than the 70 decibel limit promulgated by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
But the most prominent “enemy” is the sound from mobile karaoke service in local bars and restaurants.
The mobile karaoke phenomenon has become a common sight at street restaurants or cafes, typically operated by a pair pushing a large speaker. One person would sing songs as the other sells snacks to the drinkers and diners. They also rent out the equipment to some patrons to sing karaoke on the spot.
In Go Vap District’s No. 10 Street, the loud noise from a mobile karaoke service offered at a street side beer restaurant has tortured Nguyen Hoang Linh and her family for years.
“They start that awful singing from dinner time until midnight. What kind of ear can suffer that loud noise for hours? We cannot sleep or even keep ourselves awake,” Linh said, adding her parents had to move to her sister’s house last year as they could not stand the noise.
The “chorus” from all these sound generators are having physical and mental impacts
Luong Thi Quynh, a resident of District 12, said that her family members suffer from sleeping disorders and her children cannot focus on their homework due to excessive noise from local pubs and sometimes, from her neighbors’ karaoke.
“It gives me and others headaches, no matter how many earplugs we wear or how many times we beg them to turn down the volumes,” Quynh said.
Doan Ngoc Hai, director of the Institute of Occupational Health and the Environment, said noise pollution can have long-term impacts including loss of hearing.
It can also lead to sleeping disorders and high blood pressure, while children can suffer cognitive impairment, he said.
Earlier this month, Nguyen Huu Hung, deputy head of the city’s health department, confirmed that people hearing more noise tend to use more sedatives as their mental health is severely influenced.
Front view of a restaurant on HCMC’s Pham Van Dong Street which was fined for producing excessive noise, March 7, 2021. Photo courtesy of the Binh Thanh District People’s Committee.
“I will go mad living in this noise every day, I will surely go mad,” Quynh stated.
The madness can kill, sometimes.
Last October, a man in the southern province of Dong Nai was stabbed to death by his neighbor after singing karaoke loudly until near midnight and reacting aggressively when asked to stop. Violence has become less uncommon in such situations.
HCMC Chairman Nguyen Thanh Phong said at a February meeting that he has received numerous complaints about the noise caused by the portable loudspeakers and wireless microphone, especially after 10 p.m.
“People work hard all day and it is unacceptable that they come home only to be tormented by such noise. Local authorities and related agencies should take responsibility for this situation, which should not be considered a normal occurrence.”
Many people, especially old people and children, try to escape the noise by moving out of an area.
In Binh Thanh District, 58-year-old Le Thi Kim moved to her son’s house in Go Vap District to get away from the noise of the Hang Xanh intersection.
“I could not get a single second of quiet during the day, so I quit that area,” Kim said.
Many people have actually moved several times due to the noise pollution at different locations in the city.
Nguyen Hoang Anh, a Hanoian living in District 2, said he has moved three times in the last two years, from District 4 to 10, and then to 2.
“If it not from a bar or beer parlor, it is from a neighbor who loves to sing karaoke all day. Many neighborhoods were cursed by the noisy nightmare and I kept escaping,” Anh said.
Many who cannot afford to move, keep asking those creating the noise to tone it down, but their pleas generally fall on deaf ears.
“I tell them every day, but they say it is none of my business,” said Tran Trong Hoang, residing in Go Vap District’s Pham Van Dong Street, home to many bars and pubs.
Local authorities respond to complaints, but fines have not proven an effective deterrent. Dealing with excessive noise is a challenge because of a lack of strict and resolute action by local authorities, according to To Thi Bich Chau, president of the HCMC Fatherland Front Committee unit that monitors the city administration’s activities and policies on behalf of the public.
Le Hung Anh, a Go Vap District resident, said that after complaints are filed, ward officials and local police would check out the source, but they would only issue a verbal warning to the offending household. The culprits would agree to lower their volume, but only while law enforcement personnel were within earshot.
According to the city’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment, it issued fines of more than VND818 million ($35,356) in 141 cases of noise pollution in 17 districts in 2019 and 2020.
The government issued a decree in 2013 that imposes a fine for causing “loud noises, making noises, or commotions in residential areas or public places between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m,” but fines of VND100,000-300,000 ($4.33-13) have been criticized as being paltry.
Officials have pointed out another hurdle – the lack of equipment to measure noise levels.
Phan Dinh An, a ward official in Go Vap District, said the authorities can’t determine how much noise “the karaoke is making.” He said municipal inspectors should install third-party apps to measure noise levels, generating concrete proof that neighborhood singers are violating the law.
Recently, the HCMC government ordered relevant authorities to crack down on mobile karaoke services, but noise caused by traffic and construction was not mentioned.
Huong is hoping for some respite from this order.
“Those businesses and people don’t care about anyone living around them. This is a society, not their living room.”
Huong is hoping that she will not have to keep going to a coffee shop to buy some “luxurious quiet” she can’t get at home.