James Kendall simply wants to clean up Hanoi. He hasn’t been doing anything revolutionary — just picking up trash — but this action has gotten the world’s attention. The chairman of Hanoi’s Municipal People’s Committee has already honoured him with an official city pin, and he was even featured in the Wall Street Journal last month.
Like most modern movements, Keep Hanoi Clean got its start after going viral. In May, Hanoi’s citizens shared images of the group cleaning up a canal in Yen Hoa ward across their social media. At first, local authorities were offended, and insisted they’d already cleaned the same area some months earlier. But James says he’s not trying to criticise the government’s work.
“I’m just here to do something with my life,” he says. “It’s about getting the government and the people to work together to fix this problem.”
Inspired by the mass fish deaths that recently plagued Vietnam’s central coast, James decided to take action to clean the waters in his own backyard. “The name Hanoi means the city among rivers, but it’s so sad that a lot of them are going nowhere.”
We all see the trash floating by, but how many people would actually put on rubber boots and jump into dark water to fish it out? James has found everything from snakes to spiders to carcasses while wading through Hanoi’s waterways; even a nail through the foot couldn’t deter him. “I’m going back in!” he insisted, as someone tended his wound at a recent Sunday afternoon clean-up.
He’s so committed, some might call him crazy. This guy would go just about anywhere in the name of the environment. He recently posted a GoPro video from inside a blocked storm drain. He was looking for a way to get the water flowing again, but instead he found a massive cockroach lair.
“I told my teenage classes about it, and I asked, what if I gave you money [to go in there]? How much money would I have to give you? And some of the kids were like, oh, 100 million, or you’d have to give me a billion. I say, guess how much I did it for? Zero!” James has been teaching in the capital for three years, but lately has begun to push his work aside to focus on cleaning up the city instead.
Awareness and Enforcement
The group’s strategy is simple; they pick a problem area and work every weekend until it’s clean, then move onto another. James hopes to expand by organising the group into districts that can divide and conquer the massive task ahead of them. He also has plans to create a website and smartphone app that can pinpoint dumping grounds across Hanoi, and may even take to the road to do small projects in other cities across Vietnam.
“I think change can happen if enough people are involved, and I think the Vietnamese people are ready for change,” he says. “It’s possible. It’s going to be really difficult, though. If I can get more expats involved, I will have a lot more support from the government.”
With over 7,000 members on Facebook, the group has a serious following. But James worries about their longevity. “Right at the get-go, we had all these people watching us. But are they all still paying attention?”
To affect real change, James thinks the city needs more laws against burning and dumping trash, plus enforcement and penalties. Awareness is spreading, slowly but surely. Authorities are now actively encouraging environmental protection through ‘practical action’, and it doesn’t get more practical than putting on a pair of gloves and cleaning up the city yourself.
For more information, check out Keep Hanoi Clean on Facebook