The, a student at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, and some of his friends have recently changed their routine. No longer do they play online games or spend time at a café on afternoons and weekends. Instead, they go around Hanoi and collect rubbish to keep the city clean. After joining the volunteer group Keep Hanoi Clean, they are keen to help it reach its goal of giving the capital a fresh appearance.
As the sun beats down the young members of Keep Hanoi Clean wade through muddy, dirty lakes to collect rubbish. There are, sadly, many such lakes in Hanoi and the group targets cleaning up at least one every weekend.
The idea came to the founder of the group, English teacher James Kendall, a few months ago after his friend posted news on the mass fish deaths along the country’s central coast when toxic industrial waste was discharged by the Formosa Steel Plant in Ha Tinh province, followed by mass public protests. ‘I was glad to see that so many people care about the environment,’ he said, ‘I’d noticed some dirty places around Hanoi but only after my friend’s post was I inspired to do something. I’ve lived here for three years and I love the city and its people. It’s like my second home and I want to give something back.’
He quickly set up Keep Hanoi Clean and called for action to clean up dirty areas, particularly water courses. ‘There are many beautiful lakes, ponds, and canals in Hanoi but rubbish blocks the water flow,’ he said. ‘They’re also breeding grounds for mosquitos and dangerous diseases. My major goal is to get all the water courses in Hanoi flowing again, to reflect its name - “the city inside the river”.’
No one answered the call on his first clean-up. Not discouraged, he decided to do it alone. When local people saw a white foreigner splattered with mud in a canal on Yen Hoa Street many rolled up their sleeves and gave him a hand.
Photos soon appeared on Facebook and the media got hold of the story. A lot of people then joined his second clean-up. The Facebook page has nearly 9,000 members now, including about 20 regulars, both local people and expats, who come to all of the clean-ups. Other young volunteer groups have also become involved, and a volunteer team was recently sent to help out by the government.
After hearing about the group from a foreign friend, The saw how important it was so he and his friends joined in. ‘I felt embarrassed seeing foreigners collecting rubbish that local people had thrown away,’ he said. ‘If people understood the damage it causes to the environment then our country would be much cleaner. So I want to be a part of the project to help raise awareness.’
His friends, Thinh and Doanh, who study at the Hanoi University of Construction, said that after joining the group they no longer just throw rubbish away like they did before. ‘We followed what others did before, without even thinking about it. It was normal,’ Thinh said. ‘After joining the group, though, I can see how wrong it is. Everyone needs to think about it and learn to do the right thing.’
Before each weekend, the group identifies their next target and asks for help from local authorities to help with the clean-up.
The most pressing problem is a lack of equipment. Members raise money to buy the basics like gloves and boots but better equipment is needed. The group has been trying to seek support from the government and to hook up with sponsors.
Along with the clean-up, trees and gardens have also been planted along streets such as To Ngoc Van, Xuan Dieu, and Tu Hoa, funded by members’ donation and some sponsors. Building playgrounds for kids is on the agenda for the future.
Another part of their project includes holding a monthly green market, where organic food is sold and workshops are held to teach people new and creative ways to recycle rubbish, such as making natural cosmetics, planting trees in bottles, and making jewellery, and also learning about reducing the amount of rubbish they properly dispose of.
All the activities aim to not only keep Hanoi clean but to also raise awareness, according to James. ‘I hope that when people see what we’re doing they will feel inspired to do the same and establish other groups,’ he said. ‘Over the past few months I’ve been teaching all my students about the environment and they are all very concerned about the future of the world. Educating children and young adults about the environment is the key. They are the future of this world and education is extremely important for initiating change for a better and more sustainable future.’
Getting the project underway took time but James always believed it could be done. He has talked with scientists about methods to deal with pollution, such as filtering systems with advanced technology or improvements to infrastructure around water courses. He also believes that if Hanoi can control its pollution and make the air cleaner, then the future is bright.