Perhaps not a dying breed

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Till working at the age of 61, Le Van Chau is one of the few remaining blacksmiths in Ho Chi Minh City

Bare-chested Le Van Chau sits sad and silent in his small house, staring at the doorway as though waiting for someone.

The 61-year-old blacksmith's forge, which occupies the whole tiny front room of the house near Nhat Tao Market in Ho Chi Minh City's District 10, has been cold for a few days now.

When someone does enter the shop, Chau's eyes light up and he doesn't waste a second in approaching the visitor, expecting his first customer of the week.

"Come in please, what do you want to order? I've had nothing to do or eat recently," he exaggerates in his southern accent.

He looks a little disappointed when the visitor only orders a pair of scissors. Still, "half a loaf is better than no bread at all," as they say.

Chau is one of the few blacksmiths still practicing the old craft in the city against a backdrop of rapid industrialization.

Holding a hammer in his right hand, Chau evenly beats the ends of two iron bars flat after heating them in the fire. The process of forging, hammering, punching and bending is repeated until the bars have been turned into blades.

"I've been running this shop for 30 years," he tells Vietweek. "It has fed me and my family. At my age, I cannot imagine what I will do when I have to close it for good."

The old man once dreamed that he was selling all his tools for scrap and cried like a baby when he woke up.

He can produce five to six hefty devices in a day, but each one only fetches VND50,000, which is barely US$2.30, and his expenses include VND35,00040,000 for the iron and fuel. "And I don't get big orders like that every day," Chau says with a touch of resignation.

Golden age

Chau took over the blacksmith's shop, which he named Mười (number 10) Châu as he was born the tenth child of his parents, from his then father-in-law, who was an established blacksmith to whom Chau had been apprenticed for one year.

The father-in-law had decided to teach Chau the craft since the latter's income from construction work was insufficient for the young parents of a newborn baby girl to get by.

His son-in-law soon mastered the trade and was running his own business at the age of 31, fashioning tools of all kinds as well as devices for welding cars.

Prior to 1986, Vietnam was full of old cars and motorbikes for new ones were not allowed to be imported. Mechanics needed tools made by blacksmiths like Chau to service, repair or do up motor vehicles.

Like the father-in-law's work before him, Chau's products were much appreciated and he had to work day and night to fill the orders pouring in from the city and beyond. The first 20 years were a golden era for his career, despite divorcing his wife a few years after the wedding.

He soon found happiness again with a second wife, Nguyen Thi Minh Nguyet, who was nine years his junior. Not only did she bear Chau a daughter and a son as well as support him, she also learnt the craft so that she could work with her husband and help him run the business, which she still does.

There was plenty of competition but Muoi Chau Smithy stood out in the 1980s thanks to the quality of its products, which are still made using secret techniques the blacksmith learnt from his teacher.

"A knife with a four-centimeter-wide blade made by me will last for decades and will keep cutting well even when its half worn away," says Chau, who was an opium addict in his 20s and spent over seven years in and out of rehab until his late 30s.

But Chau's handiwork, despite its reputation, cannot compete against modern machines, which can produce hundreds or even thousands of products in a few hours.

The couple encourage each other by reminding themselves that, though the good old days are gone for good, there are some things that no machine makes like Chau can.

"That I still get orders means that hand-made products still have a market. Some cannot be replicated, especially if they are traditional or "˜tailor-made' ones," says Chau, who sometimes teaches budding blacksmiths from the countryside who want to set up shop back home once they have the skills.

Unique smithy

According to their neighbors, Chau and his wife Nguyet never work too early or late in order not to disturb others. The neighbors are used to the sound of hammer against metal and find they miss it when the shop is quiet for lack of orders.

"Chau starts working after people leave for work in the morning, and stops by five o'clock in the afternoon," says Nguyen Thi Huong, who has  been a neighbor since the 1980s. "He also puts down his hammer for his midday nap."

Not only does Chau not bother his neighbors, he even sharpens their tools for free and occasionally lends them his own.

For Sau, another neighbor, Chau's shop reminds her of childhood.
"I grew up with the smithy. Whenever I hear the sound from his house, I feel like I'm reliving my young days," says Sau, and adds that it's hard to find a blacksmith in the city nowadays.
"It's part of our culture."

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