It was in the middle of the night when I was woken by a noise that kept thumping into my ears. Someone was playing music somewhere down the street, and it was understandably annoying. Everyone in the neighborhood started calling each other to find out who did it. As for me, there went my peaceful slumber.
Eventually, it was discovered that a café down the street was responsible for the noise. The music continued for about 20 minutes before dying out.
The next morning I asked the café owner why he played loud music when everyone was asleep. “It’s the World Cup!” he said, as if that explained everything. He thought that way he could attract more customers to watch the game.
The other week I and my friends were hanging out at Saigon’s Le Van Tam Park at around 7 p.m. It was quiet, away from the urban cacophony and the traffic. We were having fun until we heard music being blasted at maximum volume from the center of the park. A man was carrying a huge loudspeaker and cranked it all the way up, much to the dismay of passersby. I asked him to turn it down, and he said no. We had to move to another place in the park, as far away from the source of the noise as possible, but it kept ringing in our ears so much we couldn’t hold a proper conversation.
Ironically, we were discussing how a society where people cooperate with each other in public is healthier than one whose citizens keep dragging each other down through distractions. Having lived in Saigon for many years, I realized two problems that its administration kept ignoring: waste and noise pollution.
A loudspeaker is placed in front of a shop in District 1, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Son Hoa.
According to the broken windows theory by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, and vice versa.
One thing I noticed about Vietnam is how people have so little respect for each other’s ears. They don’t stop to consider if their playing music and singing loudly affects others, and the concept of noise pollution is simply lost to some. Every night I could hear the sound of people singing karaoke and eating and screaming during their nights out until 2 or 3 a.m. It’s almost lawless. Mind you, there’s an entire neighborhood here. Everyone’s trying to get some downtime after a long day at work or school. So please keep it down. I insist.
How can we let them know how much noise pollution impacts our health? Just 85 decibels (dB), the noise level commonly heard in cafes, are enough to harm your ears. For reference, normal conversations are at 40 dB while car engines are at 20-80 dB and planes taking off are at around 120-140 dB.
At the higher end of the spectrum, noise can mentally scar you.
Most countries manage noise pollution levels for safety reasons. The noise exposure threshold should be limited at 85 dB for around eight hours, according to Australian initiative Hearsmart that promotes hearing health. In Vietnam, noise levels in some cafes can reach 100 dB, enough to permanently damage the ears with just 15 minutes of daily exposure.
The Japanese have a word for noisiness, “urusai,” which says how much one’s noise is bothering them.
“It’s always been like this,” a Vietnamese I know said to justify the attitude. Equally, Vietnamese are surprisingly accepting of loud noise even if it bothers them. They just put up with it.
I know that in the U.K. there is a specific division to manage noise pollution and resolve noise-related incidents. I heard that Vietnam does have laws to punish public disruption through excessive noise. So where’s the noise police when we need them?
*Jesse Peterson is a teacher based in HCMC. The opinions expressed are personal.