Samaritan helps strangers in need, keeps Saigon’s streets clean

By Thanh Nguyen   August 17, 2018 | 12:01 am PT
Sanitation worker Tong Van Thom prefers being a 'crazy' person who helps others to a normal one who doesn't.
Thom is on his way to work.

Thom straps a medicine kit and fire extinguisher to his old motorbike before heading for work.

Thom is part of a cleaning service group which picks up trash on streets in District 5 starting at 9:30a.m.

“Seeing garbage piling up on the streets after the Vietnam War, I bought a bullock cart in 1978 to collect trash from houses for 5 coins (Vietnam money at the time) each,” he said.

In 2003 Thom set up a cleaning service with 174 members, all of them his unemployed friends from Ben Tre, his hometown.

To this day the group contributes to keeping the city clean and its members have a regular monthly income of around VND5 million ($215) each.

Thom picks up trash on Phan Van Tri Street in District 5.

Thom picks up trash on Phan Van Tri Street in District 5.

Besides this, Thom also drives his old motorbike around the city to help anyone who seems to be in need.

“People say I am crazy,” he said.

“But I say a crazy person like me who is able to help people is better than anyone thinking they are normal.”

He said the thought of assisting strangers came to him after having an accident in a jungle three years ago when there was no one to help him.

When asked about his medicine kit, Thom said a doctor provides him with the medicines so he can help others.

“One time I drove a doctor to Nguyen Tri Phuong Hospital after he was injured with a sprain in a road accident.

“The doctor told me to come back to the hospital whenever I needed medicine. The doctor retired two years ago. That is the story of how I got the medicine kit.”

Inside the Thoms medicine kit.

Inside the Thoms' medicine kit.

“I wish there are more people like him to make our society better,” Phuong, the owner of a street food stall on Le Hong Phong Street, District 10, said.

She has known Thom for 26 years, and deeply appreciates his kindness and enthusiasm.

Thom is known as “Mr 36” for having 36 different jobs. Though he only studied up to third grade, he says he knows a bit of everything because of attending a French vocational school, which has now become Cao Thang Technical College.

He is also a craftsman who recycles the trash he collects into unique items.

Thom showcases his one of a kind collection.

Thom showcases his collection.

In his small two-storied house in District 12, Thom has a collection of more than 2,000 objects he made, including a singing box, a hat that allows you to listen to the music and a flower-shaped ceiling fan.

He thinks his collection is now worth billions of Vietnam dong (hundreds of thousands of US dollars).

Thom also has a parrot named Pig.

“Pig is a very good friend of mine,” he said. “It is a gift from a relative of mine in Germany, whom I adopted and currently studies abroad.”

Pig is a thank you gift he received from a relative.

Pig the parrot is a thank you gift he received from a relative.

“About 10 years ago I had some gold worth VND3.6 million ($154) and used it to help the kid go and study abroad. So this parrot is a thank-you gift for me.”

Thom lives with his wife, Nguyen Ngoc Dao, who is also a sanitation worker. They have three daughters.

“My daughters always tell me to stop working and stay home to rest. But my health will deteriorate if I stay home, and I am used to working anyway. I think we should continue to work if our body is still able to.”

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