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Meet the men cycling 2,500km through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand to fight single-use plastic

Thursday, July 19, 2018, 06:02 GMT+7
Meet the men cycling 2,500km through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand to fight single-use plastic
Paul Hellier (second right) and Jamie Lepre (second) are seen with the team as they cycle through Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

A group of environmental activists hoping to spread awareness of the harm caused by single-use plastics recently embarked on a 2,300km cycling journey through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

A Tuoi Tre News reporter joined the group during the last five kilometers of their ride in Ho Chi Minh City as they headed toward the Mekong Delta, where they planned to continue their journey into Cambodia and Thailand.

Among the cyclists are two Australians, Paul Hellier, founder of Fair Food Forager, and Jamie Lepre, founder of Environment To Be, both pro-environment NGOs.

Hellier and Lepre started their trip in Hanoi on June 17. Over the past month, they have made it through Mai Chau, Ninh Binh, Hue, Hoi An, Quy Nhon, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Mui Ne, Ho Chi Minh City, and the Mekong Delta.

The Vietnam leg of their journey came to an end in An Giang, where they crossed into Cambodia to cycle through Phnom Penh and Siem Riep before reaching their final destination, Bangkok, on July 12.

The team stop and play with local children in An Giang, southern Vietnam. Photo: Renae Saxby
The team stop and play with local children in An Giang, southern Vietnam. Photo: Renae Saxby

Single-use, or disposable, plastic items are products manufactured for one-time use before they are thrown away or recycled. 

The most common disposable plastic products include plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles, and food packaging.

“Think about your daily actions. Is this straw natural? Is that bag natural? Do I need a lid for my drink? All of these plastics pollute the environment that I rely on for survival. It does not make any sense to use something for five minutes if it pollutes the environment for hundreds of years,” Hellier said during his ride through Ho Chi Minh City.

Paul Hellier (left) and Jamie Lepre (second left). Photo: Tuoi Tre
Paul Hellier (left) and Jamie Lepre (middle). Photo: Tuoi Tre News

This bike trip is an amazing idea. Why did you choose to cycle through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand?

Paul Hellier: We love the people and the beautiful landscapes of Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.

These three countries are very beautiful destinations where, like many places in the world, plastic pollution is a big problem.

However, we know that there are amazing local people trying to make things better.

We would like to highlight their positive actions and help local groups and individuals solve the plastic pollution issue in these countries.

Biking in 37 degree Celsius heat or higher for a month requires a great deal of commitment. How did you manage to stay strong throughout the journey?

Paul Hellier: We started this trip with the idea that we want to do something for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. That’s a long trip in just one month.

Because we are only in town a short time, we spend all that time working. It is very tiring. It is hard to be away from home but right now it is winter in Australia and we are in beautiful Vietnam where the weather is always warm.

Jamie Lepre: I think it is too warm here. We biked a few days in 42 degrees Celsius. We did a lot of email exchanges to arrange things before we came.

The journey is sponsored by Intrepid Travel and we followed a route mapped out by Intrepid and worked with local groups along the way in each town, hearing about their projects, seeing them first-hand, and joining in.

We typically ride an average of 70 kilometers per day, but some days we’ve gone as far as 120 kilometers. We’ve only had a few rest days along the way.

We biked about 700 kilometers between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Sometimes we took trains and buses. We were constantly passing through beautiful places such as Mai Chau, Ninh Binh, the Hai Van Pass, and Nha Trang.

It could be very physically challenging at times, but the rewards were amazing landscapes and the amazing local people we met along the way.

What are some of the practical and applicable solutions to single-use plastics that your team found along the trip in Vietnam?

Paul Hellier: Groups like Live and Learn Vietnam, Let's Do It Vietnam, and Clean and Green Vietnam are doing amazing things in growing a community of locals who are concerned about the issue of plastic pollution. Their educational programs and cleanups are key to this growing movement.

We have seen products like natural drinking straws rather than plastic, reusable straw businesses, and an app that helps people recycle. The enthusiasm of the local people here is so incredibly wonderful.

The team poses in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The team poses in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre News

I have a friend who picks up trash on the beach in Phu Quoc and local people call him crazy. Do you feel hurt when people don’t get the message you’re trying to send, especially as a foreigner trying to keep Vietnam cleaner for Vietnamese people?

Paul Hellier: That man in Phu Quoc is a leader because he is doing something ahead of his time in that area. So people do think it is strange, but when education on plastic pollution and the health of our environment becomes more widespread, he will be seen as an amazing human.

We need more people like him.

Ten years ago, I used to pick up plastic from my local beach in Australia and people looked at me strangely. Nowadays, people help.

One day after returning to Australia, Paul Hellier emailed Tuoi Tre News to share that “the whole trip went mostly as planned." What’s better, the team “found ourselves meeting more and more people than we originally planned.”

“This was amazing because it showed that many local people and expats in the three countries were eager to talk about plastic solutions and hear what we had to say about our journey,” Hellier wrote.

The two activists will create a list of groups they met during their journey so that others looking to stop plastic pollution can join them or learn from what they are doing, according to Hellier.

Hellier and Lepre also plan to release an hour-long documentary early next year which promises to be different from all other plastic documentaries, alongside several short videos which include ways to reduce the use of disposable plastic, he underlined.

“We were incredibly inspired by all the amazing people we met along the way and are very hopeful that people in Southeast Asia will defeat plastic and clean up the environment," he said.

“The enthusiasm and friends we made along the way have made us incredibly happy and keen to return.

“There is already talk of making it an annual event, perhaps in other countries, before returning to Vietnam for a follow-up."

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Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

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