Some souvenirs are more equal than others; and those which you can make yourself always rank highest on the cool gauge.
Hanoi has workshops to suit every taste, where guests can learn how to make ceramics, jewellery, conical hats and leather accessories to name but a few.
One of the more recent crafts to don the trendy threads and step into the limelight is the art of knife making.
The class is organised by local tour guide Vu Hong Thanh, and led by master craftsman Van Chinh, who guides students through the two to four-hour lesson. The end result is a souvenir more meaningful and useful than a faded fridge magnet or tacky coaster set.
Most 12-year-olds are busy falling off their bicycles, avoiding homework or playing games, but Chinh was learning how to make knives.
Having already worked for six years doing general chores to help out around the workshop, his father then introduced him to the craft which has been in the family since the time of the French.
“We started working with metal since the arrival of the railway,” says Chinh, 48. “Our family has been doing this for the longest, out of all the crafters in Ha Dong.”
The workshop classes and majority of his business is still in knives, although he also produces other tools such as scissors and instruments for gardening or farming.
Chinh was approached by Thanh, who wanted to include his craft in a collection of workshops and activities she offers as part of Hanoi and Around with Thanh, an amateur tour company she operates.
Thanh works as both guide and translator, insuring Chinh’s instructions are followed to the letter.
In addition to the knife classes, Thanh can also arrange other workshops, including fabric dying, lacquer painting and jewellery making.
The knife class is VND400,000 per person, lasts for up to four hours and of course includes the knife you take home.
Shanks All Round
The process for making a knife with Chinh follows several steps.
First, a design for the shape of the blade is made on a sheet of metal, specially chosen for its long-lasting strength. Chinh has several example templates for students needing motivation, but is also happy to work with suggestions.
Using a hammer, cutter and anvil, the blade and tang (the metal part which extends into the handle) are cut out and then thrust into the crackling embers of the furnace.
Alternating blows with Chinh, the student will then work the blade with a hammer to continue shaping it. The blade then has any imperfections trimmed by a hydraulic cutting machine, before it heads to the grindstone to be sharpened.
Sharpening happens in several phases, including one round of being soaked in a special tar-based chemical wash, the recipe for which is a closely guarded family secret.
“All of our competitors have tried to copy it,” Chinh says. “But none of them have managed to work it out!”
The chemical mixture adds further strength to the blade, and increases the effectiveness of the whetstone in the final stage of sharpening.
The handle, formed of two wooden pieces fastened on either side of the blade by rivets, is whittled out of a fresh log. Chinh burns and soaks the wood after it’s been carved, to ensure it never moulds or warps.
The final product, tested on a pumpkin, cuts with terrifying ease.
I show Chinh a photo of a curved Elvish blade from Lord of the Rings.
“Next time?” he asks, as I nod. “No problem!”
To arrange classes, contact Thanh on 01675 767692. Alternatively, do a search on Facebook for her page: Hanoi and Around with Thanh
Photos by Sasha Arefieva