Throughout history, humans have made various covers to protect their feet or move more easily over terrain. Everything from wooden skis to woven plant fibres have been used. For the most part, these have always been first-hand products that perished easily. Early Vietnamese entrepreneurs, however, had the bright idea of recycling used tyres to make extremely durable shoes during tough times. Mr. Pham Quan Xuan of Hanoi has dedicated his life to working with this salvaged rubber and was even invited by the Chinese government to provide his expertise on dampening their railway system with recycled tyres. He refused this job because his work and family are in Hanoi. He still lives with them and still makes his rubber sandals.
The Road to Rubber Sandals
Pham Quan Xuan’s father, originally a shoemaker, began producing rubber sandals in the 1940s. His buffalo-hide shoes were of exceptional quality and had a price to match. Mr Pham laughs as he says that people used to carry them around under their armpits and only put them on when they met someone they needed to show off to. During the First Indochina War (colloquially known as the “French War”), there was a mass exodus from the cities into the countryside. This involved a lot of walking over uncertain terrain and people were unwilling to spend the money on a nice pair of shoes for such a task, even if they could afford them. So began the new family business of making rubber sandals.
His father imported used tyres from Hong Kong and began to make sandals for those leaving the city. These were a simple design and much cheaper than his previous creations. However, they were exceptionally durable thanks to the materials used and served their purpose well. Mr Pham learnt everything he could from his father and took over the business gradually. They slowly refined the designs for various purposes as their customers’ needs changed. These days, Mr Pham sells all of his designs from the past made-to-order.
Reliance on the second-hand market for his materials means that Pham Quan Xuan has worked with many different types of tyres over the years. He notes that while aeroplane tyres are the strongest material, they are full of metal reinforcement and are difficult to reshape. The tyres from mining trucks are his favourite as they’re easy to work with, he gets a lot of material from a single tyre, and the curve is more gradual due to their size which makes them easier to flatten for his uses. Of course, this all depends on availability in the market. When he has a specific order, it can sometimes take him months to source the correct tyres for the job.
When he was young, Mr. Pham was involved in the entire process, from selecting tyres and preparing them for use all the way to chopping them and making the shoes. Now, he orders pre-chopped pieces. He says that working with a tyre that weighs a few hundred kilograms is too much for him. He laughs, “I’m too old to work. I think the government might even punish me for not retiring.”
Uncle Ho’s Sandals
One famous wearer of this style of sandal was Ho Chi Minh. During his visit to India, he wore a comfortable and durable pair. While nobody knows who actually made this pair, they definitely put Vietnam’s rubber sandals on the map. Uncle Ho was asked to remove his sandals when visiting a temple during that trip and journalists asked all sorts of questions about his unique footwear. Mr Pham believes it may have simply been an exceptionally resourceful soldier who made this pair for Ho Chi Minh but is thankful that they were made famous by him.
The American War
During the Vietnam War (known locally as the American War), soldiers took to wearing tyre sandals during their service for their durability and comfort. Pham Quan Xuan and his workers made these sandals for the officers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). These were perfect for the harsh conditions the soldiers would endure.
Tyres are a great material to make shoes from, he says. They’re designed for the stresses of a vehicle in motion. Humans simply can’t put this much stress on the material, so these last almost indefinitely. The soldiers loved these shoes not only for this, but for the modular design. If a single piece wore out or broke, it could be replaced easily in the field. Since their supplies didn’t always arrive on time during the war, being able to easily repair their footwear was a huge boon to the soldiers.
Mr. Pham is now the only remaining rubber sandal maker in Hanoi. His craftsmanship is sort after by fewer every year, but he still manages to supplement his pension with income from making his shoes. He says that affluence has mainly brought about this change. Since people are able to afford multiple pairs of factory-made shoes now, they don’t search out a reasonably-priced and long-lasting product such as his. However, those who do come truly appreciate his service and quality.
One such customer is the Minister of Education. He saw Mr. Pham in the news and contacted him with a special order. After seeing the shoes, his whole family put in an order for a unique design. Since they’re busy people who need to move around a lot, Mr. Pham textured the surface so they wouldn’t slip and made extremely comfortable straps for the long hours they would spend on their feet.