Nguyen Thang is now an easily recognisable and enduring part of downtown Ho Chi Minh City’s unique character. People come from all over town to engage his talent for fine engravings of words and names on all sorts of metal and wooden objects, gifts, trophies and keepsakes.
His popularity is obvious. A Vietnamese woman waits for him to engrave a cigarette box. Thang is meticulous and careful to maintain a steady hand.
Once the name of her brother is carved into the steel box, she is delighted. “How much for it?” she asks. Thang smiles broadly, a stark contrast to the stony, impassive expression he held just before.
“Do you remember how much you paid me four years ago?” he replies. They both laugh and she introduces him to her French husband.
The customer has known Thang since she was a student. Now the student has graduated, married, moved abroad, started a family and returned to Ho Chi Minh City for a holiday. But Thang remains in the same spot on the pavement outside Fahasa Books where she had gifts engraved for her siblings as a teenager.
His handwriting is beautiful, soulful even. Thanks to those qualities and his reputation he can “live well” off this skill and passion.
Thang might now feel engraving was his destiny, but it wasn’t always that way. As a child he’d work on the family’s rice paddies by day and balance a book in one hand and a younger sibling in the other at night. Money — or rather a lack of it — forced him to give up his ambition to be a painter at an early age. His family was often short of food. So saving money for the three to four months necessary to buy paints and brushes was not an option. To draw he resorted to using pieces of coal.
“It forced me to have to give up my dream to become a painter,” he says, “but now I’m happy about that because it guided me to where I am today.”
When Thang arrived in Saigon he worked as a porter on Saigon’s wharves, then a bicycle puncture repairman on Le Loi (near where he now plies his more recent trade). He spent most of his spare income on tools for drawing and painting before trying his hand at engraving elephant tusks. And that’s where his career was born.
“I like this job and enjoy it with enthusiasm,” he continues. “My only ambition now is that my children can get the best education and have the chance to become whatever they want to be.”
Thus he stops work on the dot of 5pm every day to play xe om to his children, whisking them from one school to another and later home for the family meal at 9pm.
When you see the fineness of his work, his skill is obvious and has led to many invitations to work in the US, France and popular Vietnamese tourist areas. He declines the offers because he is “too busy driving his kids to school”.
“Money is not everything. The less you have the more you feel life. Many people still think that I’m crazy — even my Mom — to study and graduate then become an unknown engraver on the sidewalk, smug at being mediocre. Yes, I am crazy. But I’m happy, I enjoy my life and I sleep well at night.”
This Corner of the World
Hours every day spent focused on the fine print he writes has taken its toll on his eyes. He’s had two operations on them already.
Engraving is not an easy task: accuracy is paramount — you cannot make the tiniest of errors in this profession, because engraving cannot be reversed and the items he works on are often gifts and are very meaningful to his customers. Perhaps that’s why people are so loyal, bringing a constant flow of items to the patch of Saigon pavement Thang has come to ‘own’ over three decades.
“I could never leave this corner. The people, the traffic, the noise, the dirt — it’s all part of my life,” he says. “Students, workers, officers... they all bring to me small gifts to make them special. Imagine one day I’m not on this corner. They are still working, the traffic is still moving, but they will feel strange, a little empty — like this corner is missing someone — because for 31 years I have been a part of this corner.”