A local worker prepares before moving the 1,500 ton Van Linh Pagoda on Cam Mountain in An Giang Province 20 meters backward and simultaneously turning it 90 degrees.
They call him a genie, but Do Quoc Khanh waves it off, saying there is no magic to his work.
"As soon as all the procedures and techniques are described and revealed in detail, it is no longer considered a mystery, but an industry and service," said the cybernetic engineer, who graduated cybernetics from the Czech Republic and has worked for the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology since 1984.
Khanh, who helped found the Vietnam structural moving industry, was one of three Vietnamese experts who worked in 1985 to prevent the La Thanh Hotel in Hanoi from sinking. In 1998, he founded the somewhat oddly-named Vietnam Company for Drooping, Sloping, and Falling. His company actually saves structures from the behavior described in its name.
But Khanh is not the only genie around. There are several structural movers in business across the country, with some whose reputations even surpass that of Khanh.
Nguyen Cam Luy, who would readily agree with Khanh about the absence of magic in their work, is a bit of a natural wonder, though. He has more than 250 structural moves to his credit without having any engineering degree to boast of. In fact, he did not even finish primary school, his education having stopped at the fourth grade.
Luy has worked on houses, temples, construction projects and even a century-old tree. The 60-year-old mover from the southern province of Dong Thap said that of all the structures he has relocated to new sites without damage since 1990, the 120-ton three-door gate of the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City is the most famous.
Luy, who founded his construction relocating company in the city in 2002, successfully moved the gate four meters backward from Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street to save it from being destroyed by the city's plans to widen the street.
At the site, Luy instructed his men, using rudimentary tools, including jacks, massive rollers and cables. They placed the heavy gate on a sliding system on pulley wheels, then the men dug up the gate's foundation to expose and cut through the steel. Then they used jacks to lift the gate to rejoin the steel with concrete. The work, done in 2005, took two weeks to complete.
In 2007, Luy, who has been invited to move houses in Italy and the Philippines, was hired to move a 1,500-ton house at the Vietnam-France Tourism Complex in Phan Thiet Town's Ham Thuan Nam District, 11 meters away from the beach.
The two-story house covered an area of 960 square meters and it took Luy four months to successfully relocate to its new site. Because the building was heavier than the pagoda gate, he used a hydraulic pump instead of a manual pulley system.
Another Luy, Luong Thanh Luy, is famous for removing hundreds of buildings and relics in southern Vietnam. After his success with the 150-year-old Vinh Trang Pagoda's gate in Tien Giang Province, the province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism asked him to work on Long Hung Temple, another national relic in Chau Thanh District.
Thanh Luy died at the age of 55 early this year when he was working on the 1,500-ton Van Linh Pagoda on Cam Mountain in An Giang, his native province. However, his nephew, Luong Van Phu, 32, continued the project using what he had learned from his mentor and successfully moved the site 20 meters backward and simultaneously turned it 90 degrees.
Workers used 100 jacks, hundreds of stakes made of coconut wood, and wooden levers to move the building centimeter by centimeter over one month.
Nam Tan, an elderly man from Cho Moi District in An Giang Province, hometown of most "genies" in the south, says the movers have saved thousands of houses and people from floods in the flood-prone Mekong Delta region.
Several years ago, most local houses were made of wood and built on stilts. But thousands of them were damaged and sank in the floods of 1996. Urbanization projects, including the widening of roads, made the situation worse.
"Many movers from other areas were hired to move and lift our houses, some of them even moved houses to the opposite side of this canal," Tan said.
Le Van Sang, an expert mover in Long Dien A Commune with 10 years of experience, said, "It is not difficult to make a house cross a river, if the width of the river or the canal is not more than 10 meters and not more than 10 meters deep."
Moreover, "only wooden structures can be taken across the river," said Sang, a protégé of the late Thanh Luy. In fact, Luy once said, "I was a boat builder. Each boat weighs several tons, yet we are able to pull it down to the river. There's no reason I can't move a house."
Nguyen Van But of Cho Moi District added a note to the work done by the movers. "They [the movers] are really our saviors. However, when they did their work, the locals, especially carpenters, were very fast in learning the techniques from them, and started their own business doing it."
The proliferation of movers has prompted many warnings from the real "genies" about those who do not have enough knowledge, experience and skills.
Sang said there were many inexperienced structural movers who team up with other young colleagues to run their own business just a few years after working in the field.
Several serious accidents have been caused by the newcomers.
Nguyen Van Kia, after working for another experienced mover in the area, formed his own group with eight other construction workers. However, he died working on his first project when the building collapsed.
Phan Van Van has spent the last 14 years of his life confined to bed, laid low by a spinal column injury caused by an accident when he was working for a "genie" named Hai Ly. He said the accident occurred because of the carelessness of his teammates.
Van said after the accident, he has become a burden to people. His wife left him, not able to bear caring for an invalid husband. But "I am luckier than many people who died working for inexperienced genies," he said.
Khanh said rudimentary tools and methods work fine for moving structures that weigh several hundred or fewer than two thousand tons. For moving buildings weighing thousands of tons, rudimentary methods are useless "” and inexperienced structural movers may not recognize this.
Khanh received an award in 2008 from the International Association of Structural Movers (IASM) based in the United States for successfully moving the 3,000-ton Phu Cat building of the Informatics Telecommunication Hi-Tech Manufacturing Science Union in the northern province of Ha Tay (part of Hanoi nowadays) the same year.
Unlike his colleagues in the south, the northern genie, together with 40 workers and 160 students from Hanoi's University of Civil Engineering, used hydraulic machines to pull the building. Phu Cat was the heaviest structure to be moved that year, according to IASM.
Khanh has also received an award from the National Fund for Supporting Technological Creativity for his research into technologies in handling structural problems.
Khanh said most Vietnamese structural movers are not well-schooled in the field. As a result, accidents during structural moves happen every year.
According to Ngo Hoang Hieu, vice chairman of the Cho Moi District People's Committee, in Long Dien A and Long Dien B communes, the hometown of structural movers, there are at least 20 teams that are neither qualified nor registered.
"We don't know how many of them are working in the area as they are not yet under state management. As a result, when accidents take place, the project's leader and the family's victims settle with each other without the involvement of the local government," Hieu said.
According to Tran Thanh Vu, vice director of the An Giang Province's Department of Construction, the province manages 10 private structure moving enterprises. However, most of them are not qualified to work in the field, Vu said.