45. Hong Hoang: The Vietnamese changemaker

Sue Stockdale talks to Hong Hoang, Founder and Executive Director of CHANGE, a dynamic Vietnamese NGO with the mission to address the country’s most critical environmental issues.  She explains the challenges faced in mobilising young people, and engaging a wider community across Vietnam to tackle climate change, pollution and wildlife trafficking.

Under Hong’s leadership, CHANGE has been coordinating nearly 200 campaigns since its establishment in 2013 to raise awareness, build capacity, engage the community and different sectors in action campaigns to protect wildlife, reduce human impacts on the environment, and provide support to the affected communities.

Hong Hoang was recognized by climateheroes.org as a Climate Hero for her contributions to building the community-led climate movement in Southeast Asia and Vietnam. Hong was one of the 12 rising civic leaders from 12 nations joining the first cohort of the Obama Scholars Program at Columbia University in New York City during 2018-2019.

Hong was listed by Forbes Vietnam among the 50 most influential Vietnamese women in 2019. She was also awarded among the Top 5 Ambassadors of Inspiration at WeChoice Awards 2019. Also in 2019, she won the Green Warrior of the Year title at Elle Style Awards ceremony.

Beyond her work at CHANGE, Hong has been a renowned environmentalist for over 20 years, after being the first Vietnamese person ever to set foot on Antarctica in 1997, in an expedition to raise attention on the global warming issue. She became a Special Junior Envoy of the UNESCO and received a Certificate of Merit from the Vietnamese Prime Minister for her achievements. Hong’s past career includes 3 years as Southeast Asia Co-Coordinator at 350.org and 7 years as Regional Communications Manager for WWF Greater Mekong.

To find out more about Hong Hoang and CHANGE.

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/hongnc

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/hong-hoang-7b44bb3/

CHANGE on Facebook www.facebook.com/ChangeVN

YouTube https://www.youtube.com/user/CHANGEvn

Connect with Access to Inspiration on social media via Twitter  and Facebook  and Instagram and LinkedIn

Key quotes in this podcast:

[04.30] I knew nothing about the world and about humanity and about how young people can really come together and do something about environment”.

[05.50] “I was the first Vietnamese person to have set foot on Antarctica

[09.20] “We are suffering from all the consequences of these years of very fast economic growth without a sustainable development mindset’.

[12.30] “All our awareness raising is around the narratives of saving nature, saving environments, actually saving people, saving humans”.

[15.00] “I think young people will be the reason for a lot of other people to take action because they want their children to live in a better and liveable place”.

[25.30] “It’s very important how we should be aware that yes, you can not change mindset of everyone using just one narrative or message“.

Hong Hoang transcription: The Vietnamese changemaker

Sue: [00:00:00] hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. The show where you can gain inspiration from people who may be unlike you. We hope there are stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what’s possible. My guest today is Hong Hoang.  She’s the founder and executive director of CHANGE a dynamic Vietnamese non-government organization with a mission to address the country’s most critical environmental issues. I first met Hong when we were both involved in Robert Swan’s one step beyond expedition to Antarctica way back in 1996. I was intrigued to discover how she has taken the inspiration gained from that experience to mobilize young people in Vietnam. So welcome to the podcast Hong.

Hong: [00:01:03] Thank you.

Sue: [00:01:04] It’s great to speak to you. I think we were working out it’s about 20 or over 20 years since we last had a conversation together. So it’s great to speak to you today. Now since then, I know that you’ve been named as one of the 50 most influential Vietnamese women back in 2019. So, I guess the first question that comes into my mind is how do you use that influence to address Vietnam’s most critical environmental issues, which I know you’re really passionate about.

Hong: [00:01:30] I dont think I am an influential person at all. I just luckily got that title. I think people liked my stories. That’s what I do in my work. But more than just like telling my stories. I think everyone in my team, in my campaign team  in my community has some things to tell. So it’s how we can share our stories of how we change our awareness and want to do something about the environment or about any other social issues that people are worried about or concerned about I tell people and convince them that yes, everyone can do something about the environment.

Sue: [00:02:10] And I know that partly that interest in the environment was sparked by where we first met down in Antarctica on the one step beyond expedition in 1996. In what way did that experience shape your interest in what you’re doing today?

Hong: [00:02:26] Oh, yeah, 24, 25 years already. Do you remember that time? I was quite young and 1996 do remember that we didn’t have internet in Vietnam. I had absolutely no idea what internet was. And when I saw the first laptop during the expedition, it was like, what the hell is it? And then during that time, there was so many first time things that I did in that expedition, not just like the first time in Antarctica the first Vietnamese to be [00:03:00] there. The first time I had seen so much ice and snow., the first time I had seen such a beautiful landscapes in the nature and beautiful like, well, all the whales and penguins that we had seen, but it was actually the first time ever. I had seen some really passionate people. The one who joined our expedition. I don’t know if you remember all of them. I just barely remember all their names, but it was really the first time when I had really thought like, wow, these people. Ah, so interesting. They have something they care about. They have some passion that really pulled them together.

And then all of us in that weird circumstance and do something that I had never done before. I had never heard of all this ozone hole and global warming, all the knowledge and everything that I learned to do. was really mindblowing  but it’s a lot more when we really saw how people were passionate about the environment, which is something I had never thought about. It was really the first time ever. I thought of the world, something that is really bigger than that. Myself. It’s really something that is larger than life. And I had realized how big the planet is and how little I knew. I knew nothing. I knew nothing about the world and about humanity and about how young people can really come together and do something about environment. So really that expedition, actually, the people who I met there including you, were the one that really changed all my perspectives and awareness about the world around me. And the environment, and  why I wanted to do something about it.

Sue: [00:04:44] It does sound like it had a massive impact on your thinking Hong. And then I know that each personal, on that  expedition was then encouraged to go back to their own country and do something there yet, as you say, you knew nothing about the environment, it was opening up your eyes to that whole new world. How did you take that passion that you develop within yourself forwards to actually make change happen? Cause that’s the name of your organization now? Of course, which is very relevant.

Hong: [00:05:10] Yeah. So, yeah, I agree that all of us had some bizarre, wonderful time together there. I thought that everyone was inspired in their own way. I think I went super crazy when I saw all this amazing nature and Robert Swan, he was such a crazy guy. But he’s totally, really, really made me think about why people would think about something else rather than their own benefit or their own life and their own personal interests. So I agree that when we got back, everyone was still pursuing their own pathway, their own career. Everyone had their own mission. While  probably because I was the first Vietnamese person to have set foot on Antarctica. So it was a little different when I went back to the country and the whole kind [00:06:00] of really the media went to the airport and welcomed me and all that, my friends, they really brought drums and they make noise at the airport, welcoming me back.

And I was like, oh my God, I have such a privilege. And I want us to share this privilege. I just cannot cheat this. For myself. I wanted to share all this excitement and all the things that I had learned from the expedition. And I wanted to share that with everyone. So I started to go around and really gave talk to all the universities and organizations, whoever who wanted to talk on TV and everyone loved my talks, but then that’s about it. I just realized that, okay. They really liked my stories. They watched the videos, but when I show that the videos are beautiful and wonderful, but then later on, when I really wanted them to organize some environmental, just simple street, kind of clean up or beach cleanup. And it was so difficult to mobilize people.

People like the stories, but that’s it. At first, I was very mad. Like, oh, how come you said, oh, your story is  so nice. But why you don’t join me when I wanted to, to do something. And I had just realized that it’s just basically me just a few months back before the expedition, I was probably like the same. I just wanted to have fun. But when I was asked to do something free volunteer, I was like, why its the job of the ministry of environment? It’s not me. So I thought that probably they, all these people that I wanted to change would need some inspiration. That’s why I started to think I had to create more of me around like really making environmental protection, more fun, more inspiring, but more important that I had to empower them to make them feel that they can do something about that.

And that’s how I started to recruit volunteers and inspire them and train them and do everything so they can just do more work with me. But again, I had to tell him that it was not easy. So 24 or 25  years ago, so few people be interested in the environment and it was such a long process that I could really turn that situation of just those people who wanted to have some fun to the situation right now, like a lot of environmental leaders in the province is really ready and empowered to do things. It’s a 24 years process. It’s not easy. I have to tell you, but yeah, I started it and I never stopped.

Sue: [00:08:32] Well, you got such enthusiasm Hong  for those listeners of the podcast that perhaps aren’t familiar with. What are some of the environmental challenges in Vietnam? Can you paint a picture for us about what the reality is for you and your,  country?

Hong: [00:08:46] Actually, Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia. Actually, we had really tough years when I was growing up. So 1980, 1990, after the war. It was really tough [00:09:00] for us. All this  subsidy time. We really suffer from poverty and really hard years. And then we quickly changed. We had like open door economy, policy, and so much better off, and we got new jobs and foreign investments coming in and they caught me. Growing up really fast. I had to admit that people are really very adaptive and we adapt quickly to new environment and economy. So right now we are in pretty good GDP and economy, not super rich, but we are okay. But going together with super fast economic growth goes with a lot of environmental and development problems that, or usually overlooked just because people were too busy and focused on really getting out of poverty and just building the GDP no matter what it costs, you know what I mean?

So really right now we are suffering from all the sequences of these years of very fast economic growth without a sustainable development mindset. So pollution is one thing that we are really suffering, not just the plastic pollution that is happening globally, but air pollution is really something that concerns And in Ho Chi Minh City are always on the top of the worst air quality in the last few years. Of course plastic pollution. We are the worst. the fourth worst around the world and climate change. So Vietnam is a long country and we had very low  land, a coastal, and we are one of the worst affected country by sea level rise and climate change. We had so many typhoons and  really worsen. Floods every year and drought and because of sea level rise, we had the worst drought and salinisation last year. So we had all these kind of very bad climate and environmental crisis. And on top of that, we have lost so much biodiversity because again, people are not really care about wildlife and forest protections. And so we’ve lost most of the wildlife and forest. So a lot of those issues to me, someone who has traveled the world and I have seen beautiful places and I saw beautiful places in Vietnam and I, now I see them really disappear so fast because of the fast economic growth.

So that’s why CHANGE I has chosen to work on the most urgent environmental problems that we think that really critical climate change, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, illegal wildlife, trade illegal wildlife consumption, and so many other unsustainable development practices, not just among the business sector, but also community daily life. So we are working on those and I believe [00:12:00] that one key thing to own this is, are awareness. And so we started out with raising awareness on these issues and make people feel that, Hey, this is not just a matter of environmental problems. It’s a problem for the people. It’s your health, it’s your future? It’s your living environment. You are the one who get affected the most. When the pollution is heating, we’re not trying just to save a few trees or a few animals. You’re trying to save people. So all our awareness raising is around the narratives of saving nature, saving environments, actually saving people, saving humans.

Sue: [00:12:39] Hi, it’s me again. And if you’re enjoying this episode, then you may be interested in our playlist featuring other guests who are also making a positive social impact in their countries. Just hop on over to the website at www.Accesstoinspiration.org, and you will find the tab  with all the playlists there. Remember, you can keep up to date with all the  news from us by connecting with us on social media. You’ll find us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, now  back to Hong. So in terms of that mobilization, what sector of society are you trying to mobilize? Is it mostly young people or are you influencing across all sectors of society to get people to change?

Hong: [00:13:25] Of course I start up with only young people.  You know, why? Right. Young people, firstly, they are young, they are fairly smart, they are tech savvy, very quick, fast learners. And they are open to new ideas and new knowledge and they would not mind changing their opinion and mindset to do something. They would try something new. So when we want to change all these bad behaviors, The things that have really cost so much impacts on the environment will require a new way of thinking new way of ideas. And also the ability to admit that, Hey, yes, I had made the mistakes and I want to do something about it. Young people have that.  Old people. Don’t, that’s why I started out with mobilizing thousands and thousands of young people in Vietnam. But more than that, I think it’s important that young people are also the one who will be the one who do startups.

We are a new economy. So right now the rates of young start up new businesses by young people who just like graduated or came back from overseas are really high. So if we can educate young people for 10 years, 10 years later, you will see a whole new. set  of leaders, business leaders, or even local government leaders who have better mindset, better awareness. And they will just make the changes that they want to see. And not only that, actually it started out when I [00:15:00] had my son. When I saw him grow up and I was like, okay, what kind of world I want him to grow into? So I think young people will be the reason for a lot of other people to take action because they want their children to live in a better and livable place.

A lot of our campaigns are targeted for young people. I see the roles of other sectors as well. And I think young people, they are great. They are innovative. They fast, they are everything, but if they don’t get support from add-ons from businesses, their passion will die down very fast. Just exactly like me. After I went back from Antarctica, I had all this passion and then after a few years spending all my savings and I was like, I don’t know what to do. So the same thing with the community groups that we’ve worked with, we trained them. We brought the project with them and we empower them. We do so many things to help them build their  projects, but after a year, if they don’t continue to get support from the local government or from the businesses or from the adults, from basically the people who have the resources. They couldn’t do anything anymore. And that’s why now we bring businesses to the local community campaigns out because the local communities and the young people are the ones who understand the local problems that businesses or scientists and so many other media. Even sometimes celebrities, they want to do something. They just don’t know what they should work on. And so it’s very important that I work with them, but also I have to connect them with all the resources and connections and other communities for them to collaborate with each other for longer.

Sue: [00:16:45] So it’s really about a bigger system. You’re influencing a bigger system by bringing people together. I know you were selected as an Obama foundation scholar in 2018 and went to New York city to do that. What did you learn from the program and what did you bring back to you?

Hong: [00:16:59] I think that was from me the most empowering 10 months of my life. Well after the Antarctica thing, but yeah, um, I was selected luckily among 12 selected from 12 countries and the other scholars who joined the same cohort with me, they came from all different continents and they work on different sectors. So health,  they work on women’s rights. Or public policy on totally different issues that I did. But when we came together   and I just realized that no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, what continent and what we are interested in, we all want to work towards some positive changes for the society and for the community. And I had started to really months living very closely with them and really chatting with them almost every night. I had realized that, Hey, they have different perspectives on a few things. [00:18:00] And I just realized how anyone of us, me included. We can easily look at an issue that we’re concerned about from our own angle. So when I’m really wanting to save the rhino, I just look at this issue from the very, from the perspective of an environmentalist.

I really didn’t look at that from the health perspective or from the transparency perspective, but being with those wonderful scholars, I have learned that I really need to have a much broader perspectives when I look at anything and I organize my campaign and projects, I would really need to have that kind of perspectives from all different angles. So that I can understand the stakeholders involved in the issue. And I can see the issue from other people’s perspectives, not just mine, and only by doing that, I can engage other people from other communities, business communities, for example, they might, might have different perspectives than  mine. And if I had learned to look at things from their perspectives, then I will be able to engage them. And so I think that is the biggest learning I got from that program. Like really see things at a much macro  inclusive level. And since then I had realized that I could engage so many more communities and get so much more support for our projects compared to before the program. I think it was amazing learning experience.

Sue: [00:19:34] As you say, it’s taken your awareness about the power of influence to a different level. As you say, it’s a long-term journey that you’re on. It’s not going to happen in a month or a year. I’m imagining that many people need to understand and be able to measure the success that’s happening to keep motivated. Can you share with us some of the successes that your organization has had, or the impact.

Hong: [00:20:00] This is difficult. I think environmental protection is a cost that is really difficult to show the results or impact in numbers because how can I prove that, Hey, the environmental performances have improved since we did this. It’s really difficult to see if the air is  better. Well, of course we can have some measure to do that, but it would take years until you see the results. It’s not like you will, for some charity organization that builds a school for 200 kids, or you can have a few families, the results can be so direct and so easy to see. And it’s also one of the challenges that I had when I come and talk. To either business partners or government, or even the community, like when they asked me, prove me that your work would work. And I really can not say that. So I have to say that many times my team and I would [00:21:00] feel really discouraged, like nothing changed because it’s still so polluted, the air is  still so bad. The rivers oceans are more and more polluted. I would feel like. We wasted all these efforts and money, but then we will have to look at the change that you’ll see over the much longer period of time. So I had to really look back 1997 when I went back from Antarctica and it was so different for me to just really mobilize 30 young people to just go and do a beach cleanup.

But now easily, I can really name easily on social media. Even the groups that I had no idea they exist. There’s so many groups, environmental groups in the community that are doing all this environmental protection organizing everywhere. So I really see the changes in people’s awareness and behavior. On one side you saw that 10 years ago, there were very few people talk about pollution. Right now when we had some really bad air two  years ago and the people in Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City both  so much on social media, so, so much that will put the  government to admit that yes its polluted. . And now they have to issue new regulations and they had to install air  sensor everywhere the city, just because of the pressure from the social media.

So it’s the change that I see when people from like, not interested at all, not realizing the problems to now, they are aware of the issues and they speak about the issue on the social media. Without even my direct involvement. So that’s the change  you see. And also, as I told you, it was so different for me to mobilize young people in the past. And now there’s so many of them and we organize annual training every year and there’s so many applications. And then after our training camp, they go back and they organize a wonderful projects on their own capacity. And. Um, when I see the results of our work and I feel more motivated to do more of this every year.

Sue: [00:23:09] So what you’re really saying is it’s about helping to change minds,  hearts and minds as a measure of success, not necessarily just the short term impact that you can see when you look out your window or go down the street. For our listeners in other countries who also may be thinking, what’s the point, nothing ever changes, what can I do to make a difference? What would your message be to them to mobilize them to just. Take some really small action.

Hong: [00:23:36] It’s not easy at first. We, sometimes we felt very de-motivated about all this. Yeah. It’s so difficult to change and awareness. It’s so difficult to change a habit. And later  we have to admit the fact that yeah, you just don’t expect to change it everywhere. It’s so difficult to change habits so you can do [00:24:00] whatever you can do. We found out that there’s no one single silver bullet  that can really change everyone’s mindset. We had to use so many different strategies. Let’s take wildlife conservation as an example. So as I told you, Vietnam is among the top consumers of illegal wildlife products, because we had for years, for decades, for generations, the habit of  eating wildlife as a symbol of like showing your strength and showing your status and showing that, Hey, I have the power over other animals.

So it was really difficult to tell them that these rhino horn doesn’t cure cancer because it’s just like a fingernail it’s not scientifically proven and all that. Some people don’t listen to that kind of thing. So we would use their belief system to change that. So those people who would not believe science. They might believe in their  religion. Then we come to their religion leaders. For example, we had campaigns in Buddhist  temples because like most of the Vietnamese are  Buddhist and they would come to the temples and they listen to their leaders explaining about things. And when we could convince the Buddhist leaders to explain all this from the Buddhist theories and principles, And we could change the mindset of so many Buddhist followers.

It’s very important how we should be aware that yes, you can not change mindset of everyone using just one narrative or message. We use medical doctors, we use Buddhist leaders, religious leaders. We use sometimes a lot of celebrities. So young people, for example, who would be so easily attracted by K-pop or just like some concert or  entertainment, they will be convinced by the celebrities.  So we had over 200 until now, local celebrities join our campaign and they have their way. And their channels and their, charisma  to send a message in their own way to their millions of fans. And that’s how we can reach out to those millions of young people or the people who don’t care much about the environment, but they want to follow the examples of the celebrities. So what I’m saying is that just like be super creative. In delivering your message and change hearts and minds by just thinking like that, looking at them and relying on this faith, believing and belief system and change the mindset from there.

Sue: [00:26:31] Well, I think what you’ve done for us today, Hong, is  given us your message very clearly. You’ve given us your enthusiasm and you’ve given us a great sense of the mission and the journey that you’re on. It’s been absolutely fantastic to speak to you today. If people want to find out more about CHANGE and about you, how might they do that on social media and the internet?

Hong: [00:26:51] CHANGE  has a Facebook page CHANGEVN, they go on Facebook and find ChangeVN and we have also YouTube channel ChangeVN. [00:27:00] We have Instagram, we have a LinkedIn, so you can just easily find us if you type ChangeVN. We are quite popular in Vietnam, but I would really like to see more international communities who have the same programs and the same initiatives working with young people and changing, making teeny tiny changes for the world to join us so that the Vietnamese people and especially the Vietnamese people see that, Hey, you’re not lonely in this journey, because it’s so important when you need to see that you’re living in a community and other people in other countries also have the same mindset and think the same way. And they would feel more encouraged to do good things for their  society. So join us.

Sue: [00:27:47] Fantastic. I’m sure that those listening in other countries will be inspired to engage in, follow up with you Hong and let you know what they’ve thought about your words today and get engaged. So thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed it.

Hong: [00:27:58] Thank you so much. So thank you.

Sue: [00:28:01] Well, I’m sure you will agree that Hong’s energy is so infectious. No wonder she has coordinated over 200 campaigns for young people within Vietnam. And I know she would love you to get in touch with her. If you are supporting environmental issues in your country, too. Next week I’ll be in conversation, but Nic Marks- a statistician whose mission is to measure happiness at a systemic level and believes that happiness is the ultimate key performance indicator in the workplace. I hope you will join me then.

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