A key to a better life

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Vuong Thanh Long makes a new key for a customer at his stall on Hanoi's Nguyen Trai Street. The 25-year-old claims never to have been beaten by any kind of lock.

Nguyen Van Kien has been a locksmith all his life.

"To learn this job, you need time, care, and patience "¦ [and] a pure conscience," said Kien.

The 75-year-old from Hanoi's Tuong Chuc Village reiterates the conscience part since he says a little greed could cause a locksmith to turn into a thief.

His village in the city's outlying district of Thanh Tri has been long famous for its tradition of locksmithing.

Once considered noble and deeply appreciated in Vietnam, the craft has gone through ups and downs over time, but remains an indispensable one.

On the streets of Hanoi, one can see many locksmiths with modest stalls on sidewalks. Most of them are from Tuong Chuc.

Kien is considered one of the most skilful locksmiths in the village. After 60 years at the job, he also has many interesting tales to tell.

"In the past, without machines, we had to depend on the skills of our hands," he says.

"For instance, when making a new key, we meticulously file a rough draft following the teeth of the old one.

"To be able to do other complicated tasks like unlocking safes and boxes or repairing locks, we need experienced and skilled artisans."

But patience and experience are not enough to make a good locksmith, he says.

"We always teach our children that honesty must be the first and most important thing we need.

"Since we are experts in all kinds of locks, we could easily become thieves if we allow ourselves to be seduced by money."

He recalls some of his fellow villagers who are now paying the price in the form of time in prison.

He also remembers many instances where locksmiths were tricked by robbers.

"I myself was in this situation a couple of times.

"One was five years ago when I was at my stand near Giap Bat Train Station. A young man came and said he lost the key to his house on Truong Dinh Street and asked me to unlock it.

"But when I was working, two police officers came along and arrested me. The young man, who turned out to be a thief, had disappeared.

"I had to explain everything to the police and finally they let me go."

The old artisan says locksmiths have learned to judge customers through such "˜accidents.'

"We refuse any suspicious customer.

"We'll also not make keys for people who bring a pattern printed on paper or embossed in clay because it is very likely that they are meant for bad things."

Though it is not an easy skill, there are no schools for training people. No one knows when Tuong Chuc villagers first became locksmiths, but it has become a hereditary vocation. Most start by helping their grandfathers and fathers with some simple work after school.

When one decides to take up the job, he has to invest VND300,000-500,000 to buy a small wooden box with tools like pliers, hammers, files, and a string of keys. He is now ready to go around crying "Sửa khoá Ä‘i" (Anyone want to repair lock or make new keys?)

These traveling locksmiths are not difficult to find in Hanoi. One of them, 19-year-old Pham Tien Thanh, says that his best bet to earn money as well as get experience is this way.

"If a locksmith is well-known, clients would come and look for him, but as a beginner, I have to look for them."

Thanh has been at it for a year since finishing high school. He learned the job from his uncle who has a stand on Nguyen Cong Tru Street.

"I want to set up my own stand and buy some tools to help in my work, so now I am saving money."

He does not have a stable income. "There are days when I earn little, but other days I make millions after helping unlock a luxury car or strongbox."

Vuong Thanh Long, 25, also got into the job after finishing high school. But he has a stand he inherited from his father on Nguyen Trai Street. It has some machines.

"Nowadays, with the help of these key-copying machines, an exact copy can be made in a few minutes.

"These machines can make all kinds of keys in a very short time."

Long claims never to have been beaten by any kind of lock.

"With the development of high technology, more and more complicated locks are being produced but we can open them all, from mechanical locks to magnetic locks, and now digital locks," he says confidently.

"We always have to update new techniques from lock makers so as to handle the most complicated and safest locks."

In fact, he says, sometimes machines cannot replace the human hand. For instance, when a key is lost and a lock has to be opened, locksmiths must use their skilful hands and experience to make a new key.

Vu Van Quy, the Party chief of Tuong Chuc, says more than 150 out of the 500 households in the village belong to the locksmith trade, but the future looks different.

"Nowadays, fewer young people take it as a career because people tend to change all the locks when they lose their keys."

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