"Scrap-iron' better than digital

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A Hanoi collector shares his passion for old musical equipment via a tiny coffee shop


  Nguyen Duy Binh, the owner of Nhạc Xưa Café, spends all his time with old record players, tape decks and amplifiers

For a moment, the café's customers stopped talking and just enjoyed the music and the cool breeze blowing in from the West Lake.

The melodies were coming from an old reel-to-reel machine, as most music does at Nhạc Xưa Café.

The tune, Mưa Ä‘êm ngoại ô (Rainy Night in the Suburbs), filled the peaceful air surrounding No. 46 Yen Hoa Street in Hanoi.

The café, the name of which translates to "Old Music Café," has become a popular hang-out for people both young and old who enjoy 60s and 70s Vietnamese pop music.

At the same time that this local Vietnamese pop was becoming popular, English and French songs were being imported into Vietnam alongside stereo systems, reel-to-reel tape decks and amplifiers.

It's called a café, but it looks more like a shop selling old second-hand electronics, music players and speakers.

With just a few small wooden stools and tables outside, a messy room with hundreds of old machines, and a tiny menu of simple drinks, most passers-by wouldn't even notice the place, let alone think to sit down for a cup of coffee.

Old-time charm

Nguyen Duy Binh, the shop owner, is as simple and old-fashioned as his machines. But he's magnetic when speaking about his collection, especially if the listener shares his love for old music and the old equipment he uses to play it.

"I've spent nearly my whole life collecting these old things," said Binh, now 57.

 
Binh's collection stacked haphazardly to the ceiling
His love for records and tapes began when he visited newly-liberated Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1976 and became fascinated by the reel-to-reel machines and record players that he saw at bars, cafés and in the homes of wealthy families.

"I immediately had a special love for them but it was hard to find anything like that in Hanoi at that time," he said.

"When I returned to Hanoi and worked at a state-owned confectionery, I saved all my money and first bought an old reel-to-reel machine."

Binh also began apprenticing under a local electronics repair man and began buying up all the books he could find on the subject to teach himself.

After eight-hour days at his office, he spent the rest of his time with the old machines.

"I remember spending all my money buying second-hand record players, magnetic recording tapes, amplifier stands, and trying to arrange them in a small apartment I rented on the old quarter's Hang Dau Street," he said.

"At that time, new machines might cost a huge sum of money and so I could only afford second-hand ones. I also bought many from scrap iron dealers and tried to restore them."

Since he retired in 1990, Binh has spent all his time with the old equipment and he has grown his collection.

Binh said his wife and children usually complain about what they call his pile of "scrap-ion," which seems to grow larger every day.

His wife was unhappy when he first began spending all his money on the hobby and on anything else.

He simply cannot resist the charm of the old machines.

"When I run out of space and money for new ones, I sell some," he said.

"Because I don't have much money, most of the things I buy actually are scrap-iron, but then I can make them work again," he said.

"More and more people now want to buy these old things, and so I'm now starting to earn a little money from this work."

Binh opened Nhạc Xưa Café in 2010 and it doubles as an old music machine buy-sell-trade and repair shop.

He said most of his customers are his age or older. They could never afford such things in the past and are now realizing their dreams of playing beautiful music on beautiful equipment.

"I feel happy that so many people are coming to share the hobby with me," Binh said.

"What's more, I'm making more money from restoring and selling old music machines." His wife is now happy about that, too.

Binh said that it is much easier to find antiques now thanks to the Internet. However, while many antique lovers are looking for more unique items from overseas via the web, he does not have time to do so as his days are filled restoring the broken-down ones he already has.

He enjoys it that way and does not regret being unattached to the computer.

Scrap-iron's special melodies

The old amplifier stands are piled up to the ceiling at Nhạc Xưa Café, and record players and magnetic recording tapes are scattered about the place.

A Sanyo television which cost as much as a house in the 1960s is a prominent fixture, and hundreds of other machines fill the small room. Most people wouldn't even know what a lot of the machines are.

They all look old and humble but some of them used to be the targets of people's hopes and dreams.

"Don't just judge them by their appearance," Binh said. "They are all still working well and some even produce better sounds than the best modern digital machines."

To prove it, Binh turned on a reel-to-reel machine and played an old tape. The sound was a little fuzzy, but very warm and we could hear everything, even the singer's breath.

"That is what makes these old machines still popular," Binh said.

Although customers are welcome to discover his shop and get free advice about any item they want to buy, there are a few things Binh said he'll never be persuaded to sell, including a record player he bought in the United States.

"I will not sell some items that were previously very valuable and I could not afford," he said.

Nguyen Quoc Phong from Son Tay Town is one of Binh's regular customers and a lover of old record players and tape decks. He has been in love with one of the machines at Binh's shop for some time now but still cannot afford it.

"A record player alone may cost some VND15 million," Phong said. "And we must have an amplifier and a loudspeaker to go with it. Right now I'm saving money for this set, and I pass the time by coming here to enjoy the music."

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