Hanoi’s Air: The Invisible Killer (Part 1)

Air is everywhere and everything. It is the most essential element for human life to exist, what Canetti (1987 in Graham 2015) terms ‘the defenselessness of breathing’. Despite the fact that it constitutes an “implicit condition of existence” (Sloterdijk 2009: 32), the UPE of air (more specifically, of bad air) remains peripheral to the field.  At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels across the world and increase in transport and agricultural emissions is leading to ‘life or death’ air, reproducing existing unequal socio-ecological processes. Hanoi is also somewhat neglected as a ‘famous’ case of bad air. Yet, at the end of 2018 Hanoi had only 38 days of clean air in total, with air-pollution levels on a par with Beijing (VN Express 2019).

But why the ‘airmageddon’? The city has over five million motorbikes and 550,000 cars, with private car ownership increasing by 4.6% annually (VN Express 2019). The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) found that transport causes about 70% of air pollution (Vietnam Investment Review 2018). In this way, humans are increasingly manufacturing their own air (Graham 2015) through everyday urban flows – indicating how environmental and social changes codetermine each other.

Figure 1: A typical scene on Hanoi’s busy roads. Source

But how can nature become transformed into a political entity?

“WHO figures show that six out of the 10 diseases with the highest mortality rates in Vietnam are related to air pollution” 

– Health Environment Management Agency (Vietnam Investment Review 2018).

Vulnerable populations have a higher risk of health problems from air pollution. In particular, young children have greater levels of exposure to toxic particles, illustrating the need for a UPE perspective that moves away from an ‘adult-centric’ geography. Worryingly, studies have found a positive correlation between air pollution and daily hospital admission for respiratory diseases among Hanoi’s 0-5 year olds (Luong et al. 2017). The video below illustrates how an air pollution workshop was held in a school for the first time, organised by Vietnamese NGO GreenID, to promote awareness among the at-risk young.

The urban poor also lose out when it comes to health: if they cannot afford health insurance they must pay individually for every treatment, incurring large costs (Indrakesuma and Loh 2012). This poses uncomfortable political questions: why should those who make such a minimal impact on the city be at its detriment?

Therefore, Hanoi’s polluted air is also economic. Estimates of financial losses incurred from air pollution in the city could be up to $13 billion a year, according to the National Economics University, equal to around 5% of national GDP (VN Express 2020). Such losses are tied to anything from Vietnam’s polluted image in the geopolitical community, to decreased work productivity or to purchasing air pollution monitors (VN Express 2020). Low wages and increasing FDI investments mean Hanoi is bearing the brunt of industries ‘exporting their pollution’ from across the world. Such questions of injustice are complicated by global economic-political landscapes and globalised urban-nature relations. As a business consultant in the below video notes, “we don’t want to be the paradise for the world to discharge waste”.

Yet of course, on a local scale, economic factors can also distort the impacts of air pollution, mapping onto existing social inequalities (read more here). The PM2.5 particulate level in Hanoi reached a record high in 2019, causing detrimental health issues, particularly amongst vulnerable groups who have been urged from even stepping outside (VN Express 2019). This illustrates how economic growth – and uptake in private transport and industry – becomes entangled with ecological processes, reproducing a ‘political – economic geography of air’ (Choy 2010 in Graham 2015: 202).

Figure 2: Air pollution in Hanoi. Source: VN Express 2019.

An expat’s guide to dealing with air pollution in Hanoi details one way of coping: private air purifiers for his home (Nonstop Newcomer 2017). Such a ‘privatisation of air’ illustrates the ‘capsularisation’ of the climate, leading to environmental injustices. Conversely, rapid urbanisation mean Hanoi’s urban poor are increasingly forced to reside near main roads and factories. This illustrates how bad air unevenly creates ‘enabling’ and ‘disabling’ metabolic conditions (Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003). Urban air in Hanoi illustrates the complex hybridisation of nature and culture, building on a Latourian (1993) perspective that the two are not separate poles, but hybridised assemblages, indicating the agency of non-human as well as human processes in the urban landscape (Zimmer 2010). 

(710 words)


Arcadis (2018) ‘Citizen Centric Cities The Sustainable Cities Index 2018’ (WWW) Arcadis (https://www.arcadis.com/media/1/D/5/%7B1D5AE7E2-A348-4B6E-B1D7-6D94FA7D7567%7DSustainable_Cities_Index_2018_Arcadis.pdf; accessed Feb 2020). 

Graham, S. (2015) ‘Life support: The political ecology of urban air,’ City, 19, 2-3, 192-215.

Indrakesuma, T. and Loh, J. (2012) ‘Urban Poor’s ‘Everyday Struggle’ in Vietnam’ (WWW) The Diplomat (https://thediplomat.com/2012/10/hanoi-urban-poors-everyday-struggle/; accessed Feb 2020).

Latour, B. (1993) We have never been modern, Cambridge, Mass. 

Luong, M.T.L., Dung, P., Sly, P.D., Morawska, L. and Thai, P.K. (2017) ‘The association between particulate air pollution and respiratory admissions among young children in Hanoi, Vietnam’, Science of the Total Environment, 578, 249–255. 

Nonstop Newcomer (2017) ‘How This Expat Copes With Air Pollution in Hanoi’ (WWW) Nonstop Newcomer (https://nonstopnewcomer.com/air-pollution-in-hanoi/; accessed Feb 2020).

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror from the Air, Los Angeles: Semiotext.

Swyngedouw, E. and N. C. Heynen (2003) ‘Urban Political Ecology, Justice and the Politics of Scale’, Antipode, 35, 5, 898-918.

Vietnam Investment Review (2018) ‘Air pollution is Vietnam’s silent killer’ (WWW) Hanoi: Vietnam Investment Review (https://www.vir.com.vn/air-pollution-is-vietnams-silent-killer-56542.html; accessed Feb 2020).

VN Express (2019) ‘Hanoi air pollution worst in five years, says government report’ (WWW) VN Express (https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/hanoi-air-pollution-worst-in-five-years-says-government-report-3990280.html;accessed Feb 2020). 

VN Express (2020) ‘Air pollution forces Vietnam to cough up $13 billion a year’  (WWW) VN Express (https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/air-pollution-forces-vietnam-to-cough-up-13-billion-a-year-4042039.html; accessed Feb 2020). 

Zimmer, A. (2010) ‘Urban political ecology: Theoretical concepts, challenges, and suggested future directions,’ Erdkunde, 64, 4, 343-354.


  1. Maisie, I really enjoyed your post! It was incredibly thorough and informative, and I appreciated the emphasis on the subsequent inequalities associated with dealing with the ramifications of consistently high AQI. Having grown up in Beijing, I see a lot of similarity between Beijing and Hanoi in terms of those most vulnerable facing the greatest consequences of air pollution despite living incredibly honest means. In Beijing, my family had air purifiers and PM2.5 face masks to protect ourselves. Though I knew we were a small minority of Beijingers with such luxuries, I had never really considered that it is ultimately a privatisation of air, but after reading your post, I completely see that and agree wholeheartedly. You mentioned transport is the leading contributor to Hanoi’s poor air quality, transit is also the crux of Beijing’s poor air quality. Do you think if the government was to subsidise and improve public transit links, residents would opt for it despite the convenience of motorbikes or private cars?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing that Zola – I’m glad you find it relatable! So the main issue in Hanoi indeed is the sheer quantity of motorcycles and private cars: I’ve found that by 2025 the government actually seek to ban these entirely which poses a difficult situation unless public transport IS subsidised and improved. At the moment, China is providing finance, construction and workers for a 13km elevated railway through the city which started construction in 2011 (see more https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbaVvhdXa2g). It’s estimated to be completed in 2020, but it will be interesting to see the impact the pandemic has on the availability of these Chinese workers given my previous post about limiting foreign travel into Vietnam. I guess we have to wait and see the impact this does have – I’m sure the scale of the air pollution crisis now will provide an incentive for people to utilise public transport more, especially with the looming 2025 ban in mind. I can imagine it is difficult to break habit unless better alternatives are available, though.


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