Sadly this is my last post on Vietnam, but in the next article we will travel across to Cambodia and see the ancient carvings of the Khmer empire. I absolutely loved Vietnam, it was an exciting country to explore, not only for it’s rich history in woodcarving, but also its friendly people, beautiful scenery and delicious food! The quality of the carvings I found throughout the country and in particular their finishing, was some of the highest I had seen in the whole of my journey. It was fitting, therefore, that I end my exploration into Vietnamese carving with a trip through the carpentry village of Kim Bong. Located on a tiny island just south of Hoi An, the village has an incredible history of woodcarving that dates back to the 15th century!
Using some great connections I had made through the social enterprise Backstreet Academy, I met up with Vo Thi, who had kindly agreed to be my guide and translator for the day. Vo Thi was incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about Vietnam and Hoi An. However, she knew very little about woodcarving and therefore did an amazing job at understanding my strange questions about carving angles, types of wood and methods of carving. We met outside Hoi An’s Museum of Folklore located right next to the river and from where we would get the boat over to Kim Bong village.
As you can see in the photo above, these boats are fully packed, not just with people, but with motor bikes too! Luckily the journey over to the island was a fairly quick one, just 20 minutes and costing under 50p. We had the whole day to explore the village and so spent the first few hours meandering around the quiet lanes, exploring the workshops that were abuzz with a hive of activity. We arrived at the village just in time – a day or so later and it would have been the Vietnamese national holiday of Tet, and the workshops would have been closed.
The village was said to be founded in the 15th century by four soldiers of King Lei Loi’s army. All skilled at carpentry, they established successful workshops and became the four main craftsmen families in the village (Huynh, Nguyen, Truong and Phan). Incredibly, many of these families still exist today and continue to preserve the skills their ancestors have passed down to them.
Carpentry continued to thrive in the village and, over the centuries, the craftsmen became renowned not only in Vietnam but throughout the world. It is said that in the 17th century carpenters from the village helped to build one of the Spanish warships for their Navy. At its peak, it is believed that up to 85% of the village were involved in woodwork in some shape or form. This success continued and in the 18th century woodcarvers and carpenters from the village did an incredible amount of the detailed work on the former imperial capital of Hue City.
The village received a significant boost in 1999 when the town of Hoi An, just across the river, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has resulted in a huge amount of restoration work, not to mention the huge increase in tourism to the area, bringing a huge number of jobs to the village.
Today, there are four main types of carpentry and woodcarving carried out in the village; traditional houses, boats, souvenirs and furniture. Throughout the morning, I had repeatedly been told to visit the famous woodcarver Huynh Suong. You may already notice that the name Huynh comes from one of the four soldiers who founded the village way back in the 15th century, and that is because Huynh Suong is a direct decedent. Visiting his workshop, Huynh Suong very kindly allowed us to chat with him for what turned out to be an incredible few hours.
It turns out that Huynh Suong is a 14th generation woodcarver, and is extremely humble and proud of his heritage. He began carving at the age of 5, taught by his father Huynh Ri, who is now 76 years old and continues to carve. Huynh Suong employs a number of carvers in his workshop, producing an array of tourist items and larger commissions. He tells us that tourist souvenirs bring in only around 20% of his income, with most of it coming from bigger commissions, such as the headboards you see in the photos above. These are for a large hotel, with the commission reaching into the billion dong figure, around £30,000. Realising this was too much work for himself alone, Huynh has shared much of the work around the village.
As part of a successful UNESCO project, Huynh Suong has been funded to teach over 100 young woodcarvers in the last three years alone. Alongside these projects, Huynh Suong continues to carve an array of sculptures, with sandal wood being his preferred material and animals and nature his favourite subjects. He tells me that most people in the area use either sandal wood, jack fruit or teak for their carvings. The bigger work, such as traditional house and boat building, uses iron wood, which is hard and extremely strong.
The photos above are of the piece Huynh carved as part of the Tang Long Ha Noi festival in 2010. As part of the celebration, he carved over 1000 dragons into this piece alone and came 3rd in the competition. There must have been some incredible carvings to beat his one! For those interested in Huynh Suong’s work, his details are as follows: Traditional Kimbong Furinture and Woodwork, Moc Truyen Thong, Kim Bong, Cam Kim, Hoi An, Quang Nam. Tel: 05103934670, email: email@example.com – firstname.lastname@example.org
The village streets of Kim Bong are lined with woodcarving and carpentry workshops as well as an array of painting studios. Noticing four carvers feverishly carving away in a workshop nearby Huynh, we stopped to watch. The carvers were in fact former students of Huynh Suong. They explained that due to the Tet holiday coming up, they only had a matter of hours to finish their work in time for their client. The speed at which they were carving and how they coped with the time pressure was amazing, not to mention their carving positions!
It was a special day spent walking around Kim Bong. If you are ever in Vietnam and anywhere near Hoi An I highly recommend a visit to the village! It was a brilliant end to what was a wonderful two weeks exploring Vietnamese woodcarving. I can’t speak highly enough of the carvers I met and the quality of their work. Leaving Hoi An, we travelled south to Ho Chi Minh where we cut across into Cambodia. I was excited to explore the carving of the Ancient Khmer Empire and look around the famous temple of Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world! Here are a few snap shots from the next article:
The cycle touring site Pannier.cc has kindly published an article about the Carving Countries journey on their site. It includes a summary of the whole trip and some incredible photos of Kyrgyzstan taken by my friend Tom Gegg. Check it out here: www.pannier.cc/journal
Spoiler alert! The Autumn edition of British Woodcarvers Magazine is out, and it includes the final series of articles in my Carving Countries journey. You can buy it now here, or wait until the winter edition is out to download it as a free pdf. Find the Spring and Summer editions here.