Seas' witnesses

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Vietnamese boat maker woos collectors and connoisseurs with expert craftsmanship

A small sailboat built by Old Modern Handicraftscan is tested in a man-made pond in Binh Thuan Province.

The sails of a solitary white yacht flutter proudly in the blue waters of the coastal province of Binh Thuan.

Canoes and kayaks make way for the 8-meter long boat, sailing out from a man-made pond to the seaport nearby.

Espien, the Norwegian owner of the boat, is testing one of his four yachts, custom-built by a Vietnamese boat building company, Old Modern Handicraftscan JSC (OMH).

"It is perfect," said Espien, who has been building model ships in his workshop in Norway for many years now.

Espien is not the first to sail Vietnamese boats. Ever since OMH opened its second factory next to the seashore two years ago, several foreign clients have ordered custom-built boats and model ships.

Inside the factory, a 6.3-meter v6 speedboat occupies center stage. The large hull and outstanding design of the speed boat received a lot of attention at the October 2010 International Furniture and Handicrafts Expo in Ho Chi Minh City.

In the showroom in HCMC, a scale model of the Sovereign of the Seas, dating back to 17th century, recalls fierce battles between European countries, whereas a pirate ship nearby evokes scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbean. Also on display are models of a Viking ship, speed boats and aircraft carriers used in Hollywood films.

Vuong Dinh Can, the director of OMH, spent his childhood near La River in Ha Tinh Province in northern Vietnam. He began building boats at the age of 17. He says that among his proudest achievements is an 8.7-meter speedboat he built for a Brazilian client along with his partners in 2009.

"We receive a lot of inquiries and orders from different countries every day. Most of these are from connoisseurs and experts of wooden boats," said Can, who established OMH in 1999 with five artisans and workers. Now, the company has more than 250 boat builders.

Can says a boat builder must first be an artist with a deep knowledge of history and culture, and an understanding of the differences of boats built in different countries.

"Artisans from Vietnam face a big challenge due to the language barrier and insufficient knowledge. We are also quite new to the field of ship building," he said. "We learn a lot from clients like Espien, who not only give us detailed drawings but also work in the factory during their visits to Vietnam."

Apart from being Vietnam's sole manufacturer of wooden boats, kayaks, canoes, yachts, and speed boats, OMH is also a leading producer of model ships.

Replica ships built by the company have found a place in museums and galleries around the world, including at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, the Venetian and Caesar Palace in Las Vegas.

According to Vuong Thi Ngoc Chi, general director at OMH, collectors from all over the world buy their ship replicas. A lot of people also order models of their real boats to display on mantles in their homes.

Can said that it takes around 20 days for an artisan to build a model ship with intricate detailing using the "plank on frame" method. Ships are crafted from rosewood, mahogany, teak. Chrome and brass are used to make fittings and ornaments.

The ship builders are working on a scale model of the Titanic to celebrate the centenary of the most famous cruise liner of all time. The original passenger ship was launched in Ireland.

Le Minh Luan, who ordered a replica of the Skomvaer, the largest Norwegian-built sail ship, said he was impressed with the craftsmanship. "Though the Vietnamese artisans had never seen the ship before, they could scale it with high accuracy," he said.

The showroom has replicas of ships dating back to 16th century, and of modern classics like the world-famous Riva Aquarama. Also on display are full-size kayaks, canoes and yachts.

"We build replicas of ships from all over the world, but unfortunately, Vietnam doesn't have any famous ships of its own. Despite our long beaches and network of rivers and streams webbing the whole country, we have failed to build cruise ships of international renown," said Ngoc Chi.

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