Wipe the slate clean: Saigoneer gives dumped toilets new start

In the past two decades, Nguyen Dac Dung has lent many second hand toilets a new lease on life.

On a hot summer day in Ho Chi Minh City, Dung sat under a tree on Vo Van Kiet cleaning used toilets collected from old houses across town. The chemicals, leaving a distinct smell in the air, burnt into his naked hands, occasionally rinsed with little more than water.

"When hearing about used toilets, people think they are filthy. But this job has been supporting my family for over 20 years," Dung, 58, maintained.

Among the five stores refurbishing toilets in the area, Dung's is the largest and boasts the most experience.

Years ago, Dung and his wife used to be woodcutters. With their small truck, they also bought and sold waste, once coming across an old house where people were buying up the old toilets.

Dung later discovered many people in Districts 5 and 8 refurbished used toilets and sold them to those who could not afford new ones. In no time, he joined the "industry."

Hammers, sandpaper, detergent and brushes are essential to Dung's line of work. 

At first, Dung sold uncleaned toilets, making little profit, before opting to give them a brand new makeover. Refurbishing dirty finds often made him gag, in fear of contracting some type.

He is always careful when removing the layer of cement at the bottom of each toilet or sink, prone to cracking under too much pressure, a lesson mostly learnt by trial and error.

Dung cleans his chemical stained hands with water. 

Once, Dung decided to hire experienced toilet refurbishers, noting carefully what tools and detergents they used while working in his store, learning fine-grit sandpaper could remove stains caused by alum.

"The most important thing is to be patient, and accept the dirt," Dung commented.

After one year of close observation, Dung and his wife can now remove any kind of stain, aware welding sparks can easily destroy coated enamel and reduce toilet prices.

Normally, Dung earns hundreds of thousands of dong for each refurbished toilet or sink. For good brands, he can make up to VND1 million ($43). Depending on supply, he usually cleans 5-6 toilets and sinks per day.

This job has supported his family financially, helping his four children pursue further education after finishing high school.

A variety of toilets and sinks adorn Dung’s store. 

"In the 2000s, we could earn up to VND100,000 ($4.3)," said Nguyen Thi Minh, 56, Dung's wife.

Neighbor Phan Thi Thao, 80, always thought Dung and Minh sold new toilets, unaware of the nature of their business.

"They removed pieces of cement every day, cleaning them carefully, leaving no trash," Thao commented.

Dung's patrons include landlords, hotels, and restaurant owners, who want toilets or sinks from good brands at affordable prices.

Now, used toilets are specially delivered to his store, priced after a mere quick glance.

At 58, Dung sometimes struggles to lift a heavy toilet, but remains rooted to his profession.

"Turning a dirty, seemingly useless object into something brand new makes me happy," he said.