Selling culture on the street

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For a roadside antique seller in Hue, the value of the items for sale isn't monetary

Nguyen Van Lap (R), 45, talks with one of his regular customers at his antique stall on Tran Hung Dao Street near Dong Ba Market in Hue.

Jofae Honeyleen Adefuin, a 23-year-old aerospace engineer from the Philippines, stood for more than ten minutes holding a bronze cigarette-lighter, supposedly the former property of a US soldier who inscribed it with the words "Lai Khe 69."

At her feet were hundreds of antiques on display along the concrete wall surrounding Thuong Bac Park. This is just one of Hue's many street-side antique stalls hawking everything from 500-year-old stone axes and pottery to items used by American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Adefuin was looking for the owner of the antique stall to ask about the price and the origin of the lighter, but there was no trace of the owner despite the existence of a red plastic chair standing againts the wall and a few sticks of burning incense.

After a few more minutes, an old man with a crew-cut and bushy beard tied in a pony tail arrived on his motorbike.

He sat down in the red chair and said nothing to Adefuin until she figured out he was who she was waiting for.

"Is it authentic?" she asked.

The man looks like he's in his mid sixties with an artists' vest and baggy pants, a little disheveled, looking almost like a rambler.

"No, it is fake, so are my other metal bronze cigarette-lighters," replied Lap.

"But the rest of my goods are real," Lap told the Filippino tourist, who was visiting town for the Hue Festival April 7-15.

"How can we tell if a certain thing here is authentic or not?" Adefuin asked Lap.

"It is based on your experience and knowledge in the field. If you have no background in antiques, then, you will be easily cheated," he said.

And Lap's experience? He's been in the same business as his father for the past 20 years , after spending years before that selling cheap roadside noodles in the southern beach town of Vung Tau. And he's actually only 45.

"I have no certificates, in this case, my business is built on honesty and trust only," Lap told Vietweek, "for if I tell you the truth, next time you will come back and come back with your friends."

In years past, Lap's stall and others' were confiscated by the local government, especially during festivals, as public nuisances.

But this year, Lap said things were different.

"They have changed their mind since many local officials are antique collectors and culturists, who consider our stalls neither a threat to the town's beauty nor an encroachment of the pavement, but part of Hue's culture," he said.

Lap often leaves his "shop" unattended while he runs errands, unafraid of theft and confident his business will be respected.

"I also don't like approaching my customers unless they have something to ask me, because I don't want to distract them from their shopping."

Lap said that antique trading and collecting is a great job and hobby for curious people like him.

"The job does not only offer me good income, but a knowledge that I am confident to talk to everyone even though I have just finished 9th grade," he said.

"My knowledge of history, culture and the background of each artifact is enriched not only by reading books, but also through exchanges and experiences with my customers, who are from all over the world."

For Lap, it's a people thing.

"When we look at an artifact, we learn not only about a certain period in history, but also the development of the art, culture, habit and personality of people who created it."

And the best part about buying an antique?

"The longer you keep it, the more expensive it is," he said.

"And the value of the antique depends on how much the owner appreciates it."

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