Blacksmithing is an art I have long been enamoured with. Starting as a child, my fascination with the way medieval smiths could take iron and turn it into the most beautifully crafted weapons and armour drove me to read deeply. I even invited the Melbourne Museum to my primary school with as many pieces from history as they could bring, all so I could see them first hand. I’ve met several blacksmiths now and watching them work is absolutely mesmerising. When I found out there was a blacksmith still working in Hanoi, I had to meet him!
The Old Quarter Blacksmith
Nguyen Phuong Hung is a blacksmith in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. He took over his family business full time at age 40 and has been doing it ever since. It was not his first job, but it is the one he has done the longest. He began learning from his father and grandfather when he was just a child. These years of experience mean that even in the modern world filled with machines and automation, his skills are sought after and he is still able to make a living.
When we met, Mr. Nguyen was finishing off an order of jackhammer bits and I was able to speak with him in brief pauses as he reheated the metals. By renewing jackhammer tips, he is able to save local businesses money and do something that no factory is willing to do. This is a big part of his business these days, making and repairing things that need a human touch. He also modifies various imported products to suit the specific needs of the Vietnamese market.
Machines and Hands
When asked about mechanised metalwork, Mr. Nguyen told that he appreciates both hand-crafted and machine-made objects. He notes that both have their own unique beauties. The beauty in his work stems from knowing how things like the amount of force he applies and how the weather affects the metals. He notes that complex machines can be precise and reproduce produces easily, but that he relies on his experience to be agile and produce quality products. He has no intention to bring machinery into his process.
A hammer is the basic shaping tool for a blacksmith and Mr. Nguyen’s is so well used that the handle has shaped itself to his hand over time. He was proud to show me the indents left by his fingers and the way that the wood grain has warped to follow his blows. He smiles as he says that, traditionally, two blacksmiths would work together with one applying severe force while the other tapped more lightly. “I do both with this hammer,” he says.
The Future: “Không ai giàu ba họ, không ai khó ba đời.”
The business Mr Nguyen now runs was started by his grandfather who made screws and nails for the construction businesses in the city. By the time his father had taken over the business, the clientele had transitioned to those wanting more artisanal pieces such as the props for the Hanoi Opera. Swords and other pieces were produced for shows on order. As these things became mass-produced, the business became what it is today. Though the skills have been passed down from his father and grandfather, the art will not continue with his children.
He quotes a Vietnamese proverb and takes its literal meaning to explain why he will not train his children. Literally, the above means “No family remains rich after three generations, no family stays poor after three generations.” Since this business has been in his family for three generations, it is time for it to leave. He cites his belief that his children will fail if they try to take over this business and he doesn’t want that. He says that this belief is his culture; everything should have a balance.