American gets his hands dirty to keep Hanoi clean


Moved to do something to lighten their workload, the American took direct action. He helped them push their wheeled garbage bins and sweep trash whenever he could.

Kendall, an English teacher now, said: “For me, female garbage collectors are the city’s quiet heroes.”

On October 20 this year, Vietnamese’s Women Day, the 42-year-old and a group of volunteers put on gloves, carried pick-up sticks and pushed garbage bins around for several hours to help around 160 female garbage collectors in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District clean up streets.

At the end of the day, the group presented the collectors with flowers and gifts.

“Next time, I’d like to be able to assist more than 2,000 of the city’s female garbage collectors. They deserve more recognition,” Kendall said.

Kendall and his group of volunteers have carried out hundreds of clean-up operations over the past six years to help those who actually keep Hanoi’s streets clean.

James Joseph Kendall pushes a garbage bin in Hanoi, October 2022. Photo courtesy of Kendall

James Joseph Kendall pushes a garbage bin in Hanoi, October 2022. Photo courtesy of Kendall

Kendall, who’s from Ohio State, used to work as a physiotherapist and massage therapist at a private clinic in the U.S.

In 2011, he took a month-long trip to see his brother who worked as a college professor in Hanoi. He was taken aback by the warmth and kindness of Vietnamese people upon his first visit. He came back the next year and taught English for three months.

After he returned home, his memories of Vietnam pushed him to come and live in the country. He moved to Vietnam in 2013 with the full backing of his family.

When he moved here, he was concerned about environmental contamination caused by littering in public spaces. He decided to take action and began by picking up trash in the city.

In May 2016, Kendall and a group of more than 10 volunteers went to clean up a trash-filled sewage ditch at the end of Thanh Thai Street in the Yen Hoa Ward, Cau Giay District, something he’d never done while in the U.S.

He did not anticipate the attention that his action would attract across the country. Images of him wading through thick black sewage to collect garbage went viral and he became known as the foreigner who loved to keep Hanoi clean.

Many people have accused him of being an interfering busybody, but his response is that he does it because he feels compelled to do so, not for attention. He said he did not see it as a laborious chore or expect to be compensated for his time.

‘Keep Hanoi Clean’

Later, he started a Facebook group called “Keep Hanoi Clean” where people could learn about protecting the environment and volunteer to clean up the city during the weekends.

The group emphasizes cleaning up the dirtiest, messiest places first, like sewers, ditches, ponds, lakes, areas under bridges, and parks.

Over the years, the most difficult aspect of the work was to gather enough equipment for all the volunteers, Kendall said.

“I just can’t stand to see anyone pick up trash with their bare hands. Gloves, plastic bags and professional garbage pick-up sticks are required for all activities, and it is my responsibility to use my teaching salary to purchase these items in the absence of a sponsor.”

Kendall and Keep Hanoi Clean volunteers during a clean-up operation at the foot of the Long Bien Bridge, 2017. Photo courtesy Kendall

Kendall and Keep Hanoi Clean volunteers during a clean-up operation at the foot of the Long Bien Bridge, 2017. Photo courtesy Kendall

Six months after it was formed, the group had around 1,000 members. Kendall would organize the necessary number of volunteers, anywhere from a dozen to several hundred for large events with thousands of attendees. In order to keep up their energy, many people would bring cooked rice, fresh fruit and water to the clean-up site.

Local governments and environmental groups have consistently supported the volunteers, Kendal said.

He himself has been motivated to continue his work by seeing many people joining hands without expecting anything other than the satisfaction of doing something good for the society in general, he added.

“Seeing how hard the volunteers work to keep Hanoi clean inspires me to keep going.”

Six years on, “Keep Hanoi Clean” has attracted over 5,000 members, the vast majority (80 percent) of whom are Vietnamese, mostly in the 17-50 age group.

The organization cleans up 103 different areas throughout the city, collecting hundreds of thousands of tons of trash in the process.

It even called up volunteers to help with trash removal during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and saw encouraging results.

James and the “Keep Hanoi Clean” volunteers were honored by city officials in 2016 with the “Bui Xuan Phai – For Love of Hanoi” award.

Kendall is a full-time English instructor for an elementary school and a part-time garbage collector on the weekends. He frequently talks to his wards about the value of taking care of the planet, showing them how to recycle, compost and reuse materials.

After six years of helping keep Hanoi clean with direct action, American John Kendall says he’s happy to see that some the former trash-filled areas have become beautiful. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

After six years of helping keep Hanoi clean with direct action, American John Kendall says he’s happy to see that some the former trash-filled areas have become beautiful. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Vu Thuy Dung, 25, has been volunteering with the group since the end of 2019. She said Kendall’s drive has inspired her and a lot of other people.

“Even though he never fails to express utmost gratitude to the volunteers when each project is completed, I feel it’s important for me to express my appreciation for him as well. Despite being a foreigner, James is unafraid of the challenges that come with tackling Hanoi’s mountains of stinking garbage. He is willing to spend money on cleaning equipment and gives his all to making Hanoi a more beautiful place.”

Reflecting on the group’s six-year journey from changing perception to taking action, Kendall said he was surprised and delighted that the areas they used to clean up have become beautiful now.

In addition, many people have developed the habit of using recycled products, stopped using plastic products and plastic bags and environmental protection groups have been established in many provinces and cities.

Keep Hanoi Clean has since become Keep Vietnam Clean, extending operations to other localities. Key initiatives now include garbage management, green space development, renewable agriculture, sustainable fashion and community education.

Kendall said he has decided to stay a volunteer rather than a team leader so that he can spend more time with his Vietnamese wife.

“But in any position, I will always do everything I can to help protect the city and the country I hope to make my permanent home.”



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