A Lone Blacksmith, Where Hammers Rang
Justin Mott for The New York Times
The son and grandson of blacksmiths, Nguyen Phuong Hung said he is the last one in business on Blacksmith Street in Hanoi.
By SETH MYDANS Published: November 24, 2010 NY TIMES
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/25/world/asia/25blacksmith.html?tntemail0=y&emc=tnt&pagewanted=allHANOI, Vietnam — He is the last blacksmith on Blacksmith Street, dark with soot, his arms dappled with burns, sweating and hammering at his little roadside forge as a new world courses past him.
“Once I am gone the street will have no meaning anymore,” Mr. Hung said at his shop. “Blacksmith Street will be only a name.”
The son and grandson of blacksmiths, Nguyen Phuong Hung grew up when the street still rang with the sounds of the smithies, producing farm equipment, horseshoes and hand tools, before modern commerce and industrial production made them obsolete.
“I still remember, when it was raining lightly, the streets were empty and that was all you could hear was the sounds of the hammers,” said Mr. Hung, 49. “It created a special atmosphere for blacksmiths. Every shop had a fire going. All you could hear was the hammers.”
That seems a very long time ago in this city rushing ahead into the future, buzzing with motorcycles and business. The sound of Mr. Hung’s hammer and anvil are a small echo of a less hurried past.
The other smithies nearby have been replaced by clothing shops, a cosmetics boutique, a bank, welding shops and two showrooms selling jade carvings.
The men who worked there left for lighter, better-paying work, and because the word was out that no modern woman would marry a blacksmith, Mr. Hung said. There may be other blacksmiths working in Vietnam, he said, but not here in the capital.
“Now it’s only me,” he said, forging heavy iron goods like crowbars, hammer heads, files and drill bits. “I’m proud to be the last one. I’m unique, like if I speak an African language. Just a few people know it and you are special.”
He has not passed on the family trade to his son, who is in college and who in any case does not have what Mr. Hung calls the sensitive hands of a blacksmith. His daughter is in college too, and cannot even recognize a forge and bellows.
“Once I am gone the street will have no meaning anymore,” he said. “Blacksmith Street will be only a name.”
That has been the fate of almost all the 36 narrow streets in Hanoi’s tree-shaded Ancient Quarter, each of them named for the guilds that once controlled them — Fan Street, China Bowl Street, Sweet Potato Street, Conical Hat Street.
There is nothing like this little corner of the urban past anywhere else in Vietnam. Only four of the streets have retained something of their original businesses, said Nguyen Vinh Phuc, a leading historian of Hanoi.
There are still jewelry shops on Silver Street, sweets and pastries on Sugar Street, votive papers and toys on Votive Paper Street and pots and pans on Tin Street.
“Of course, when nobody sells the product any more, then all this history will disappear,” said Mr. Phuc, 84. “I’m an old man. I feel sad to see us lose these ancient streets.”
Traders have done business on this spot since the ninth century, Mr. Phuc said. The 36 guilds established themselves at the end of the 19th century.
The outside world first made an impact when traders began arriving from around Europe and other parts of Asia, bringing with them gemstones, telescopes, clocks and weapons. They took home sugar, silk, spices, precious wood, rice and ceramics.
Today in the Ancient Quarter the outside world means tourists, and this new trade has brought hostels, restaurants, silk shops and travel agencies to the 36 streets.
Blacksmith Street got its name at the end of the 19th century, Mr. Phuc said, when French colonial administrators sent out a call for metal workers to help build the Long Bien bridge over the Red River. It was designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel and became a target of American bombing raids during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Hung’s family has been here from the start, and like his father and grandfather he was called to help out around the forge when he was just a boy, as young as 6. But he rebelled and left for jobs as a driver and factory worker until, when he was 35, his father called him back.
“My father told me this is the family trade and I’m the only one left to do it,” Mr. Hung said. “He said, ‘Just watch me work and you’ll learn what to do.’ ” Mr. Hung discovered that he loved the work, and that it was his destiny to be a blacksmith.
He remembered his father’s words: “When the iron glows red, you earn your money. That is your life.”
As the other forges have closed, Mr. Hung has found more than enough work among the people who tear down, rebuild and renovate the buildings in the Ancient Quarter — part of the process that is destroying the world he knew.
“I worry about him stopping,” said Do Thi Nguyet, who owns a wrecking business and comes every week with worn jackhammer bits to be reshaped on the forge.
“We ask him to please find someone to follow him,” she said, but he says there is no one to replace him. “Without him, how will we manage?”
Ms. Nguyet is part of what might be called Mr. Hung’s salon, a running conversation with customers and neighbors who shout over the sound of the hammer and the forge.
Mr. Hung has set up a little tea table on the sidewalk, refilling a thermos from a huge iron kettle that swings gently above the hot coals. A giant bamboo pipe leans against the table, and passersby are welcome to stop for a lungful of strong tobacco.
Most mornings his father, Nguyen Huu Thinh, who is 88, visits on his bicycle and sits silently for a while, reading a newspaper and looking on as his son hammers the red-hot iron.
Mr. Hung hammers with the confidence of a master, bare-handed as he works because he says gloves would dull his touch.
Wearing a pair of plastic sandals, he ignores the sparks that sting his feet and pepper his shirt with holes. Flames and smoke gush from the hot metal as he tempers it in a bucket of oil. By the end of the day, his arms and face are black with soot.
It is not a glamorous look, and Mr. Hung said his wife told him she never would have married him if she had known he would become a blacksmith.
So he does what he has to do when he leaves his forge and plunges back into the modern world.
“I wash and change clothes at the end of every day,” he said. “A clean and handsome man comes home, and my wife is happy.”
He pulled back one sleeve to show his upper arm.
“Look how white I am, whiter than you,” he said. “You wouldn’t know that I’m a blacksmith.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 29, 2010
The Hanoi Journal article on Thursday, about Nguyen Phuong Hung, the last blacksmith working in Hanoi, on Blacksmith Street, misstated the time period in which Blacksmith Street got its name. It was at the end of the 19th century, when Vietnam’s French colonial administrators recruited metal workers to help build the Long Bien Bridge over the Red River; it did not get its name at the beginning of the 19th century. (The bridge was built from 1898 to 1902.)