Woodworking in Vietnam

Tool Markets in Hanoi

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A Hardware Store in Hanoi.
In a bustling city like Hanoi ,everyone is building, fixing, or expanding. There are hardware stores everywhere carrying a mixture of locally made hand forged knives, tools, and cutlery. They also carry imported tools from places like Thailand. Preparing food in Vietnam usually means a lot of peeling and chopping of fresh vegetables, so the knives both local and imported were of very high quality.
Interior of a Hardware Store in the Old Quarter

In the old part of the city, north of Hoan Kiem Lake, is the area known as the 36 Pho Phuong, or 36 Streets. Traditionally each street is known for a specific trade or buisness. There is the lacquerware street, the stonecutters streets, etc. These days, hoards of tourists, mostly young students, stay in the Old Quarter and many of the buildings have been converted to inexpensive hotels. However, most of the industries, or their modern equivalents, are still there, on the same streets that they occupied for centuries. This hardware store specializes in woodworking tools and it is where I purchased a lot of the basic tools that are in this exhibit. The proprietor and his wife spoke no English and I speak no Vietnamese so the entire transaction was done with sign language and scribbled pictures and notes on a paper bag. As a result, while I think this store does a little wholesale, I am not sure. Of all the places selling woodworking tools in Hanoi, and there were a lot, this was the only store I saw that had a complete selection with a large inventory. Prices are negotiable and the atmosphere is very friendly.

Hanging on the wall are bows saws, and in the racks are plane body blocks. The blades are sold separately. The quality of the chisels and carving tools sold here was very good, but the wood plane bodies were horrible. As a rule, craft workers make their own wooden parts of tools, so it is expected that if you buy a plane body you will have to turn it significantly yourself anyway. This shop sold the full range of smooth, jack, jointer, and rabbet planes that one would expect to need to compete a shop.

Street Seller of Woodworking Tools in the Old Quarter

Several stores down from the tool store pictured above, I saw these tools propped against a wall. Identical to what was carried in the shop, they appeared to be part of the stock of another store that mostly sold metal parts. The old block of smiths and toolmakers has evolved into makers of sheetmetal ductwork, sellers of sheetmetal tools, and equipment for reparing motorbikes, which have become the rage in the Hanoi. I suppose these tools are there to entice the traditional customers to the quarter but for me the scene triggered an observation. . ..

I was immediately reminded of an old engraving from early 19th century London. Here of course the tools are new. What struck me is how similar the description of woodworking in London in the 1840's (before technology changed everything) was to the scenes I saw in Vietnam.

I should mention right away that I don't consider this a bad thing. It seems to me that Vietnam is a country were everybody works, where there are very few beggars on the street, people look fed (Vietnam is in net exporter of food), and there is a very high rate of literacy. It also strikes me that a job working wood by hand is safer, more interesting, and is preferable than operating a machine in a giant factory.

In addition to minding her store, the woman in this picture is also watching some children and preparing food for her family. Most of the stores double as homes for the proprietors, with the main room downstairs serving as a showroom and the back a sort of living room. The family sleeps in a room behind or above the main room. Everyone sets up low tables and eats out on the sidewalk. It is a very sociable way of living, and one that allows to store to stay open all day - which they all do.

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