Trash to treasure: Vietnam man sees waste differently

By Thao Vi, Thanh Nien News

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Tong Van Thom and a new clock he made from a broken clock, a wooden decorative item, a wine bottle, and a metal food container. Photo: Thao Vi Tong Van Thom and a new clock he made from a broken clock, a wooden decorative item, a wine bottle, and a metal food container. Photo: Thao Vi


As a sanitation worker in Ho Chi Minh City, Tong Van Thom goes out at 6 am and returns home at 3 pm every day.
But the 64-year-old man doesn’t stop working with garbage until 9 pm as he turns waste from the trash into fans, lamps, clocks, toys, and decorative items.
Stepping into Thom’s house on Monday, I felt as if I had entered an art museum. After apologizing to me for not being able to provide a comfortable seat in his house, which is filled with his works, Thom spoke excitedly about them.
“See the ceiling fan? That is my most beloved work. I can sell all the others, except this fan,” he said, face lighting up.
“I collected discarded plastic car windows, cut them into eight pieces and bent them with a machine before turning them into a ceiling fan.
“Now, I’ll unplug the fan and you can see that it looks like a flower bud.”

 The ceiling fan, made from discarded car windows, is Thom's favorite work. Photos: Thao Vi

The fan looks like a flower bud when unplugged.

Thom continued with his story, telling me how he makes lighters from bullet cartridges and miniature boats from beverage cans and combines many waste materials to make night lamps, clocks, and toys.
Each piece of work is unique and shows there is no such thing as waste.

Thom shows a lighter he made from a gun cartridge.

Thom used discarded metal hangers to make a model that depicts a man riding his bicycle. The model is attached to a night-lamp Thom made from some plastic items.

Born in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre, Thom moved to Saigon, which renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, and in 1979 set up a private group of garbage collectors in District 5 where he was based.
Seeing residents throwing away more and more things, including broken radios and TVs, in 1998 he started to take discarded electronic appliances home and tried to repair and sell them.
“I then chose other things, from bicycle spokes to wooden alcohol barrels, from trash as I thought I could make useful and decorative items from them,” Thom, who has only studied up to third grade, said.

Thom's house is filled with his works.

Thom said his wife Nguyen Thi Ngoc Dao initially protested, complaining that he was turning their small house into “a garbage dump” without earning any money.
“I told my wife, ‘If you don’t let me do that, I’ll be very sad and go drinking.”
She reluctantly accepted her husband’s hobby of collecting discarded things for reuse.
But now she is proud of him as his work is useful and appreciated.
Thom has received a number of certificates from authorities and environmental NGOs, including Enda Vietnam, for contributing to environmental protection.
Nguyen Thi Sinh, an Enda project officer, told Thanh Nien News: “I really admire his creativeness, patience, and passion for his works. He turns waste into unique and useful items.”
“Thom’s story may encourage others to reuse and recycle old and broken objects, thus reducing the disposal of trash into the environment,” Sinh said. 

Thom crafted some trash into a beautiful decorative item and gifted it to his wife for International Women's Day last month.

Thom repaired a warrior model and now it can move and play music.

He repaired an old, broken radio and it works again.

Thom said he gifts some items to neighbors and friends and sells others at low prices to clear the place.
“But I don’t sell my special works, like the self-made accordion or decades-old radio. I may sell them after retiring so that I can manage my life.”
He currently lives with his wife in a rented house in a small alley off Le Van Khuong Street in District 12.

Thom's portrait a student gifted him last year to show his gratitude for the things Thom gave him for free.

A view of Thom's house in Ho Chi Minh City's District 12.

Asked why he lives so far away from his workplace in District 5, Thom said his family used to live in District 5 but then had to sell their house to pay for his three children’s education.
“We then bought another house in Hoc Mon District but had to sell it again when my children did higher studies. Now my wife and I live in District 12 but continue to work in District 5 since we are so familiar with that place.”

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