Blaring karaoke music, both in commercial establishments and homes, has been a persistent problem in Saigon, and peace and quiet are something many people have not known for years.
Though it was 10 p.m. Tran Thi Lan could hear the ear-splittingly loud singing from her neighbors’ karaoke in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Tan District.
She says she has “gone mad” after being bombarded by the unbelievably high volume. Every time she asks them to turn down the noise, “they only lower the volume for a short period and later turn it up again”.
She had been glad to see her neighborhood grow quieter during the recent Covid-19 lockdowns when people were strictly following social distancing mandates.
But the tranquillity did not last long as her neighbors resumed their “annoying” habits of drinking and blasting loud music until midnight once the lockdowns went.
“They are stubborn and selfish, especially during the holiday season,” the 48-year-old laments, adding she has to use earplugs to sleep and sometimes wake up feeling very tired.
Lan is not alone in her plight: Many Saigonese yearn for some respite from the persistent noise pollution.
For years they have been tortured by the excessive and disruptive noise constantly generated by mobile karaoke services, whose thumping music can be heard hundreds of meters away.
The problem is exacerbated around Tet (the Lunar New Year), when people often party, drink and sing loudly into microphones.
Nguyen Huu Danh, 35, who lives in Thu Duc City’s Linh Trung industrial park, says his neighbors sometimes sing from 3 p.m. onwards on Sundays, taking away his weekends, which he needs to recover after a long week of hard work.
“It is difficult for me and my family to talk or rest”.
Others cannot work or study amid the cacophony.
Nguyen Quynh Nhi, 20, of District 10 says she is unable to focus on her homework or online lessons whenever her neighbors begin karaoke singing.
“Sometimes when I have online lessons, my voice is drowned by the sound of karaoke”.
When Tet is around the corner, her neighbors “tend to sing more and persecute others more.
“They made a scene when my dad politely told them. Since we did not want to deal with possible retaliation, we did not dare complain again”.
A study by the National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health in 2017 found that 10-15 million out of the country’s 96 million people were regularly exposed to excessive noise.
Noise levels in many spots in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the two largest cities, were significantly higher than the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s 70-decibel safe limit.
To stay or not
Unable to cope with the barrage of noise, many Saigonese relocate their place of living.
In District 10, Nhi sometimes goes to a friend’s house or a coffee shop to study.
“But sometimes when I cannot go to any friend’s house or pay for a cup of coffee I have no choice but to stay at home”.
But sometimes the constant harassment leads to violence and sometimes even death.
In January last year a group of youngsters used knives to attack three men singing karaoke in Binh Chanh District, saying their loud singing affected the neighborhood.
Last November a man was arrested in Hanoi for throwing petrol bombs at his neighbors who sang karaoke too loudly and ignored his complaints.
In October 2019 a man in the central town of Hue stabbed his neighbors for not turning down the volume.
Nguyen Thanh Tung of Saigon’s District 12 says: “I have told them to turn down the volume after 10 p.m. because people need to sleep, but they ignore it. I got angry and fought thrice with them”.
During the recent lockdown the only good thing for his family, which lives next door to a restaurant with mobile karaoke vendors, was that their ears were blessed with “some luxurious quiet” as outdoor and street venues had to shut down, allowing him to sleep properly at long last, he says.
“Now, with Tet just three weeks away, they have more reason to party and sing, and everyone in the neighborhood will be tortured again”.
Last March the city administration said it planned to end the “noise pollution” caused by karaoke services in 2021, but the recent Covid outbreak has delayed it.
Nguyen Thi Thanh My, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, says the fines for public disturbance by causing noise are too paltry to deter violators and can only be imposed for violations at certain hours.
National environmental standards allow a maximum noise threshold in normal areas like apartments, houses, offices and hotels of 70 dBA from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and 55 dBA from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following day.
It is a tricky task for authorities to catch and penalize offenders since they turn down the noise before officials make a raid.
To Thi Bich Chau, city unit president of the Fatherland Front Committee, which monitors the government’s activities and policies on behalf of the public, once said the problem persisted because of the failure of local authorities to take stringent and resolute action.
Huynh Thanh Nhan, director of the Department of Culture and Sports, said then that two inspection teams had been set up to tackle the problem, but dealing with noise pollution was ultimately the police’s responsibility, and it was their failure.
While businesses can be fined, people have to bear with their loud neighbors.
Even though many complain about these “amateur singers” to local authorities, the problem refuses to go away because officials mostly choose to issue a verbal warning rather than throw the book at them.
In Binh Tan District, Lan says she has given up trying to get her neighbors to reduce the volume and is considering moving out of there after Tet.
“I want to be able to relax at home and not have to deal with health stress such as lack of sleep”.
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