A silver lining shines bright

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Amid dark clouds of uncertainty, a traditional vocation holds its own in Hanoi

Artisan Nguyen Chi Thanh at 83 Hang Bac Street. His family has five generations following silversmith, and his shop is now popular with tourists in Hanoi. (Photo by Kim Nga)

It flourished long before the capital was formed, and a millennia and a half later, the silversmith's craft in Hanoi has lost none of its polish.

Out of the 36 guild streets in Hanoi's famous Old Quarter, it is not surprising that one was dedicated to this vocation, and that the street was appropriately named Hang Bac (Silver Street).

From the days of the Le Dynasty (in 15th century), Hang Bac hosted famous silversmiths whose talents were evidenced by countless pieces of sophisticated jewelry found in Thang Long (old name of Hanoi) city.

Hang Bac is no longer an exclusive preserve of silversmiths and goldsmiths today, but it retains some very precious living vestiges of the time-honored profession that are tucked away, but not too hard to find, among the numerous jewelry shops, shops selling watches, counterfeit branded T-shirts and other items like other streets in the Old Quarter.

Trong Cuong, local , 70, says Hang Bac's gold and silver craftsmen originally came from Hai Duong Province's Chau Khe and Dinh Cong villages, located in Hanoi's Hoang Mai District.

"There used to be some clans like the Mai, Le, Quach, Tran and Nguyen that were famous for their silver craft. In fact, each of them specialized in one aspect of the work. So the Quach family was expert in silver carving while the Tran or Mai families are better called goldsmith, for they diversified their craft in gold also.

"However, now, there's just Nguyen Chi Thanh, Quach Van Truong and Quach Van Hieu who are upholding the old trade," said Cuong.

Although Hang Bac these days is mostly a place where silver and gold products are traded, there are still places where the traditional manufacturing process can be viewed, like the workshop of Nguyen Chi Thanh.

According to the 60-year-old artisan, whose family boasts five generations of skillful craftsmen, Hang Bac has just three families following the traditional silversmith profession. Thanh has spent 40 years as a silversmith, and his son Nguyen Anh Duc is following in his footsteps at their Hong Chau shop on Hang Bac Street, which is also their house.

Their products, primarily silver or gold jewelry, reflect the premium they demand as well as a commitment to quality maintained through generations.

Thanh says the true silversmith's job is making things as the customer wants them. Not only making new ones, the artisans remake rings, bracelet or necklace based on their old shapes. Thanh said that, compared to products from other provinces or countries, Hang Bac artisans can impress customers with their original styles.

"The products are always pure, not hybrid with Western styles or shapes. This traditional craft still lives well in the modern time because people still love to have their old things remade, instead of buying new ones," said Thanh.

According to Ha, one of Thanh's patrons, the veteran silversmith deserved to be called "golden hands." Ha said that he'd always been satisfied with Thanh's products and services. "Sometimes, I could not recognize my own jewelry, because Thanh had given it a whole new, beautiful coat" said Ha.

One very interesting feature of the traditional silversmiths in the capital is the skill of spinning slender but hard silver threads to create various shapes. The final products - ornaments and even paintings are works of art.

Uncertain future

Thanh, Truong and Hieu all hail from the Dinh Cong Village, the cradle of Hanoi's silversmith trade.

Through the four generations his family has been silversmiths, Hieu has observed the rise and fall of the trade, which he said has had it tough during both the hard, pre doi moi times as well as during the developing period.

"During the hard times, we had no materials to make things with and sell in the market. In the doi moi period, young people are turning their back on this old trade, focusing instead on finding high-salary jobs," said Hieu.

"Dinh Cong's silversmith work is a kind of handicraft, so it requires the craftsman's skills. They must be proficient in specific techniques to create a perfect product. The skill is only passed through families because it is hard to trust newcomers. We are entrusted with precious things by our customers every day. So the craft is facing the risk of being lost," said Thanh.

The inheritors

In Dinh Cong, there are now training courses offered by the Quach family. Apprentices aged 15 to 20 say they love the old craft.

Now it is not only at Dinh Cong or Hang Bac that you can find silversmiths. A new tourist area called "Thien duong Bao Son" (Bao Son Heaven Theme Park) also hosts a new branch of Dinh Cong artisans.

Giang Van Binh, who became Hieu's student and later the designer for the Dinh Cong stall in the tourist area, is credited with coming up with a wax mould that would help artisans create more complicated forms and styles.

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