Holding the traces of time in his hands

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Antiques border on obsession for Vietnam's number one collector


Antique collector Nguyen Huu Hoang with a Hue-style blue enamelled ceramic dish

As Vietnam pushes "modernization" at breakneck speed, collecting historical artifacts from the past can be a lonely road.

History and preservation appear the last priority for a society moving full-steam into the technological age as youngsters in even provincial towns ride around on imported motorbikes, ipods in their ears, iPhones in their hands and iPads in their backpacks.

But Nguyen Huu Hoang values not only the pace at which his country is "developing," but also its rich history and culture, even if this is not at the forefront of Vietnam's new found image, one that is trying to shed the stigma of its war-torn past and compete with Thailand for tourist dollars and with Singapore for business investment.

"Finding a precious antique is like groping for a needle on the sea bed," he said, evoking the isolation of his trade.

But when he finds one, he wakes up, and the adrenaline rushes his "legs become motionless."

With 20 years of collecting under his belt, his home-based museum now houses more than 1,000 items he deems "precious" out of thousands and thousands of historical artifacts.

Hoang, 38, who lives in Phu Vang District's Phu My Commune in Thua Thien-Hue Province, boasts ownership of what is possibly the country's most diverse compendium of old wares, from ethnic minority community axes to ceramics and court costumes of Vietnam's imperial past.

"This is my museum," Hoang said. "It is the biggest property of my life. Since my childhood, I have loved things that bear the trace of time."

The call of the past

Hoang said he decided to pursue his passion for collecting antiques 20 years ago when he was in 11th grade. The decision surprised his family, who thought it strange that while much of the country was still scouring for food, Hoang would spend his time looking for objects no one could really use.

With an old bike and a fistful of small bills, he began traveling the rural areas around Hue Vietnam's historic former capital city to buy whatever antique items he could find.

No one close to him supported the idea and books about antiques were very rare. To learn his trade, he had to visit museums and meet other antique collectors, a rare breed on the margins of society, particularly at that time.

Hoang eventually expanded his trips to the whole of the central region, visiting the most remote areas he could find to discover the most rare and forgotten of the area's historical treasures.

Expertise

According to Hoang, no one, especially beginners, can avoid misjudging the era and value of an antique item.

"Sometimes a heap of money is spent on an item of no value. But sometimes a precious, rare antique falls into one's hand unexpectedly," he said.

Once Hoang arrived at a Van Kieu ethnic minority village near the Vietnam-Laos border in Quang Tri Province to unexpectedly find a Hue-style blue enameled ceramic bowl made nearly 2,000 years ago.

It lay uncared for in a family garden.

Villagers hadn't sold it or given it away because they believed it was the property of a local ghost.

But after Hoang spoke with community leaders, they soon offered it to him as a free gift.

Court costumes

Hoang has a panoply of court costumes from the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), Vietnam's last feudal rulers. This collection of nearly 50 sets of clothing is possibly the most valuable in the country.

A king's gown in the collection remains in question for many and researchers still argue about who wore it.

According to Hoang, he found the fading gown with broken stitches in the Quang Tri town of Cua, Cam Lo District.

The gown is embroidered with 20 five-claw dragons and on the chest of the gown is the embroidered Chinese word for "longevity."

Hoang said he knew for sure by its design that it was a Nguyen Dynasty gown. And because it is so short, only 1.07 meters long, he argues it must have been the property of King Ham Nghi, the 8th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, who ruled as a child.

At Festival Hue 2012, which took place in Hue from April 7-15, Hoang exhibited 12 items, including a king's gown, a queen's gown, three gowns for theatrical artists, a prince's gown, and some gowns worn by mandarins and other members of the royal family.

Hoang said he had found court gowns in remote areas where locals had kept the royal clothes for their beauty but did not know they were previously used at the court. Others knew their value but kept them as souvenirs and didn't want to sell them. It took Hoang several years to buy several of the items.

"Every time I found a gown, I was so delighted that I could not sleep and I just sat there motionless, admiring it for a long time," Hoang said.

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