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Sandals from wartime keep on marching

Update: July, 22/2014 - 08:28
73-year-old Pham Quang Xuan spends several hours per day making tyre rubber sandals at his shoe making "factory' on Nguyen Bieu Street. These days Xuan has to refuse some orders because his product has become so popular. — VNS Photo Nguyen Anh
by Thu Huong Le

HA NOI (VNS) — At 73, retired shoemaker Pham Quang Xuan says he never thought his tailor-made tyre sandals would still be popular in modern times.

The sandals, made from old car and aeroplane tyres, were worn by many Vietnamese soldiers during the war against the French and the Americans.

Xuan's shoe making "factory" on Nguyen Bieu Street in Ba Dinh District is a popular destination for people who want footwear as hard wearing and as practical as in those days.

Known as dep lop (tyre rubber sandals) or often Ho Chi Minh sandals by the Americans, the footwear is made from tough rubber with strong cord imbedded.

Xuan now has so many orders pouring in that he has to refuse many. Each customer is only allowed one pair.

"These sandals are like my children. I don't want them to be mass produced," he said.

Xuan and his friends once made and sold rubber sandals in Hang Bot Street, but demand dropped as they slowly went out of fashion with more affluent Vietnamese. Foreigners continue to buy them as souvenirs - or as actual walking gear for hiking around Viet Nam.

But there was a time buyer interest fell off and he dropped the craft altogether and turned to making rubber cushions for the railways.

Several years ago, he started re-making the sandals for friends and family members and, in doing so, helped revive a wartime product.

"In the past, I had to measure sandals for cadres from the north travelling the south during the war. My eyes began to recognise how each person had uniquely shaped feet," Xuan said.

In 1968, he was selected to re-make a tyre sandal modelled after an old pair which was worn by Ho Chi Minh himself. The replica model is still on exhibition at the HCM Museum in Ha Noi.

Despite his age, with the help of his nephew and son, Xuan still spends several hours a day carving sandals from rubber of suitable thickness, then cutting and trimming the edges and soles. The sandals come in either with diagonal or horizontal straps.

Each customer usually has to wait two weeks to get their new footwear.

The rubber is brought from Quang Ninh, where people sell thick, second-hand tyres from trucks that transport coal.

Xuan shapes them with special steel tools ordered from blacksmiths in one of Ha Noi's outskirt villages.

But he said it was getting more difficult to buy rubber-tyres because many more people were buying them to produce other things.

But Xuan is determined to keep the craft growing to show that the Vietnamese are hard-working and meticulous.

Xuan said his product had also regained popularity because more people were aware of the nation's efforts to protect its sovereignty and indepedence.

Recently, he started carving a map of the country into each pair of sandals showing the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos.

His son, Nguyen Tien Cuong, plans that in the future, each customer will also get a brochure telling them the story of the tyre sandals.

"I want to help my father retain this trade - and younger people to know more about the history tightly bound up with these sandals," he said.

Cuong helps his father keep track of the orders. He said he hopes to introduce the product to more museums in the country.

"We now have customers in the 30-35 age, backpackers, tourists, ex-soldiers, politicians, businessmen and actors," Cuong said.

However, Xuan does not know how many more years he can continue making the sandals. The old craftsman said he can't find many youngsters interested in learning the craft. — VNS

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