Woodworking in Vietnam


It is impossible to visit Vietnam without being impressed by its productivity and accomplishment. The country, which was at war with France and the U.S. from 1946 - 1975, and with China and Cambodia from 1979 - 1989, shows many scars of war. But the country is vibrant and young (a large percentage of the population is too young to remember 'the American war'), and especially considering its impoverishment - Nike after all moved its factories here when Indonesia became "too expensive" - self sufficient.

It is easy to imagine that things will change soon for Vietnam. Hanoi was abuzz with talk of a proposed joint venture with Ford Motor Co. when I was there, and many other U.S. based multinationals are looking to follow. (Daewoo and other Asian conglomorates already have a presence in Vietnam.) Already popular with the French and Australians, Vietnam is becoming an increasingly popular destination for American travelers, especially returning veterans, as well. Isolation has been a mixed bag for the Vietnamese. I'm sure they could find many uses for millions of dollars in U.S. aid, but isolation has also meant that Vietnam grows rice to eat, and secondarily to export, rather than growing a cash crop like tobacco or coffee for the global marketplace.

The Vietnamese people say that respect for tradition is a fundamental Vietnamese trait, but I saw many challenges to this. I heard talk, for example, about the government's possible plans to raze the 36 Pho Phuong (36 Streets), where the city's 36 guilds set up their respective trade districts more than 600 years ago, to make way for "progress." That strikes me as a dangerous mistake, and an excessive rebuttal to those who think the Vietnamese are resistent to change.

I wouldn't mind some importing of U.S. standards in some areas, though. The Vietnamese workshops, with their shared work and sleep areas, unprotected exposure to toxic materials and ubiquitious smoking, wouldn't score high on U.S. occupational safety tests. The casual waste of tropical hardwood (no doubt because it is so plentiful) would traumatize many environmentalists. And it troubled me to see some handcrafted items (handpainted ceramics, for example) made to look as uniform and as machine-made as possible. I was saddened by the number of times I was hustled - even by people who shook my hand, woodworker-to-woodworker - though many people have also said the same thing about my beloved hometown of New York...

I realize that elsewhere in this exhibit I may have expressed disappointment in the level of woodworking craft in Vietnam. In retrospect, this seems unfair. I have had many opportunities to criticize the level of craft in the U.S. as well. Many Americans - perhaps most Americans who aren't woodworkers or crafts connoisseurs - have not seen real handcrafted wood furniture and cheaper mass market furniture in the United States isn't particularly well designed or made. In Vietnam you see a lot of cheap plastic (for shoes and low stools) but the connection with wood is strong: almost everyone I passed while walking around Hanoi with a big wooden jointer plane recognized the tool for what it was (they also were very much amused by an obvious tourist carrying something so untouristy).

I'm glad I had the chance to visit this exciting country, especially now that it seems on the cusp of real change. If you want to read more about the country, you may find the following books of interest:

Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina, Horst Fass amd Tim Page, editors. (New York: Random House, 1997). The best collection of Vietnam war photography I know of.. The book features the photography of both the famous (Robert Capa, Larry Burrows) and the unsung, from the U.S., Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Austrailia and Europe.

When Heaven and Earth Traded Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace, by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts. (New York: 1990, Plume Books). A riveting depiction of a Vietnamese woman's journey from her days as a child spy for the Vietcong through her eventual escape to the U.S. and later reunion with the family she left behind.

Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family, by Nguyen Qui Duc (the Library of Congress lists this book under "Nguyen," the author's surname.) (Reading, Mass: 1993, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.). The memoir of the son of a high ranking South Vietnamese civil servant who was taken captive by the Vietcong. A stirring expression of longing for the author's homeland and family.

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. (New York: 1991, Penquin Books (reissue)). Greene's classic novel about the early stages of the French and U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Many consider this book to be one of the finest novels of the century.

Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Arnow. (New York: 1983, The Viking Press). A companion guide to the acclaimed PBS series on the Vietnam War.

Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, by Robert Termpler. (New York: 1998, Penquin Books). A recent book about contemporary Vietnam by a columnist for the Asian Wall Street Journal.

Granta 50 (Summer 1995). An issue of Granta magazine with contributions about Vietnam by Philip Gourevitch, Tran Vu, Paul Eggers, Bao Ninh and Ed Grazda.

I haven't found any books specifically addressing the Vietnamese woodcraft traditions, but you may be able to find books about Chinese crafts, such as Gustav Ecke's 1944 classic, Chinese Domestic Furniture in Photographs and Measured Drawings (reissued in 1986 by Dover Publications), that can shed light on Vietnam's as well.

-- Bob Mathison, Curator, October, 1999


Back to Scenes from Vietnam

Copyright 1999 01 Inc., NYC