Art from stone

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Nguyen Canh Hung in his rock garden in Liem Can Commune, Thanh Liem District, Ha Nam Province

A young man guides some customers through a large collection of rockworks displayed on his 1,500-square meter yard. The works range in size from as small as an electric cooker to as large as a two-story building, and are in a dazzling array of shapes and colors.

It is difficult for someone traveling from Hanoi to Nam Dinh Town to miss the "stone town" with the ornamental rocks alongside the highway.

It stretches five kilometers on National Highway 21A in Thanh Liem District in the province of Ha Nam.

According to Nguyen Van Hai, the young man, hundreds of families in his town have been earning their livelihood for the past 20 years by making these ornamental stones.

"When choosing ornamental stones to decorate the house, one has to pay attention not just to their beauty but also their meaning," Hai told Vietweek.

"We have to know about it so as to give proper advice to our customers if need. If a family has three members, we advice them to have a rockwork with three peaks, and four for a four-member family.

"Besides, the arrangement of the stones should also be different based on whether they symbolize a husband-wife, parents-children, or sibling relationship. For instance, to symbolize a husband-wife relationship we put two stones on separate supports, while a rockwork symbolizing a sibling relationship would have all the stones sharing a single support."

Hai's father Nguyen Quang Thanh, who has been in the business for more than 10 years, said that to succeed in this, creators needed to have the skilled hands of a sculptor, fertile imagination of an artist, and precise calculation of an architect. Besides they also needed diligence and sound knowledge of culture and feng shui.

He always has to carefully inspect the area where his customers would put a rockwork so as to cut, carve and arrange it in the best way based on feng shui principles.

An artist would usually try to make a rockwork look just like real hills with mosses, clusters of climbing plants, and small brooks on it.

"Sometimes it may take a month for a group of 10 workers to complete a rock garden.

"For large rocks, many workers have to work closely with one another to attach them well together."

Life on the rocks

Interestingly, the person who first made money from the unutilized stones in Dong Town was a seriously injured solider who had felt a deep nostalgia for the stone mountains in his old battlefields.

Nguyen Canh Hung, now over 70, returned home from the Truong Son Mountain Range battlefield after the war with one of his legs amputated. He and his wife faced much difficulty in earning enough to support their six young children and his old mother. He opened a small stall at home and sold drinks and wreaths.

Gradually life became easier and Hung had more time to realize his wish of building a rock garden.

"I always remember the Truong Son Mountain Range where I spent a hard but glorious time," Hung said.

"It was so beautiful. I missed the forests and mountains there, and wished to build a rock garden in my house so that I could live among the stones again."

With this in mind, Hung went to a small forest called Bong Lang in his home district to look for rocks and plants. He displayed his first works at his small shop and soon began to attract lots of people. Many ornamental stone aficionados asked to buy them.

This opened a new chapter his life, and Hung spent much of his time looking for the stones and they started bringing him lots of money. That was in the early 1990s.

Thanh Liem District is one of the few places in the country with a kind of stone called "Da mo coi" ("orphan rocks" or rocks standing independently and away from others). The stones have unusual, eye-catching shapes and colors and are the best materials for Hung to produce his beautiful works.

He would bring the stones home and normally only needed to clean them, retaining their original shapes. But for some he needed to carve, polish, or attach to other ones. Thanks to his house's ideal location just beside the road, he found it easy to advertise his products by just displaying them.

Hung's reputation grew far and wide and he has been invited to many provinces around the country to build rock gardens for hotels, offices, tourism sites, and others.

His works can be found at Hoang Gia and Sai Gon hotels in Ha Long, the Lao Cai Post Office, Phu Giay Tourist park in Nam Dinh Province, and other places.

He has also been exporting his works to other countries like Japan, Korea, Germany, and Laos.

Seeing his success, many people in the area followed suit. Hung himself helped by lending money and training 50 other families to make ornamental rocks. He has also got them to form an association and cooperate with each other.

"In the past it took Hung and the first workers like me a lot of time and energy to find good stones for our works," Thanh said.

"But now we are buying the stones from more than 10 cement plants operating in the area, so we have a stable source."

The once-poor Dong Town, where most people subsisted on farming, has now become a wealthy, beautiful town with ornamental works scattered everywhere. Hung and other members in the association now own thousands of rockworks costing from a few million to hundreds of millions of dong each.

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