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Hobby blocs build on mutual love of LEGO

Update: June, 09/2013 - 16:50

All assembled: The Ha Noi contingent meets every Sunday in a cafe on Le Thanh Nghi Street to talk all things LEGO. — VNSPhotos Ho Quang Trung

by Ho Quang Trung

There are some types of hobby that are truly international. Collecting is certainly one of them, with people around the world finding, buying, cataloguing, displaying, storing and maintaining a whole host of items. One of the most famous brands to gain a huge following of collectors is LEGO, which has found its way into almost every country in the world.

Viet Nam is no exception. The country has many collectors, with the biggest groups unsurprisingly being based in Ha Noi and HCM City, where disposable income is higher and the expensive nature of the hobby less prohibitive.

"The cost involved is the biggest obstacle stopping newcomers from choosing to collect LEGO as a hobby. Imagine, only one small set costs more than VND100,000 (US$5)," says Dang Quang Dung, a third-year student and one of many LEGO lovers living in the capital.

LEGO is an abbreviation of two Danish words, "leg godt", that together simply mean "play well". Now, the word LEGO is synonymous with mini-figures and bricks that can be assembled and connected in different variations to build all manner of objects. The key breakthrough for the company was the release of LEGO SET 600 in 1978. The product was a huge hit and enabled LEGO to participate in a race to the top in the toy industry. Since then the brand has spawned toys, books, board games, clothes, working robots, video games, theme parks and even a forthcoming film. Sales have climbed even further since the introduction of the LEGO mini-figures series in May 2010. Now every four months a new cast of characters is introduced, complete with their own styles and accessories. The tenth series arrived in May this year, introducing figures including a Sea Captain, Roman Commander and Tomahawk Warrior.

It is this series that has particularly attracted Viet Nam's collectors. "I have managed to collect almost all of the figures since 2010 and add them to my existing sets," boasts Ho Quang Anh, who along with Dung is a member of a group that call themselves Hanoi LEGO lovers.

"I mainly choose to focus on one or two themes at a time, like LEGO Castle, or The Lord of The Rings," Quang Anh continues. "That way, it's easier for me to expand the collection of my own and I always know which figures and props to buy for my sets first."

This specific method of collecting is understandable, as LEGO themes are numerous and hugely varied, with buyers able to build sets located from places as far apart as the Wild West, space or a modern city.

"The producers are smart," says Quang Anh. "My first LEGO sets were expensive; I knew that and was prepared. Now though, the additions are even more costly. The individual figures are double the price of the sets, but I have to buy them to add to my collection. My hobby costs half of my monthly salary. That's a lot to pay!"

Piecing it together: The group compare the latest LEGO toys and figurines as part of their weekly meet.

The Hanoi LEGO lovers and their counterparts in HCM City have started a Facebook group called "We Love LEGO", where they can discuss their hobby extensively. The Ha Noi contingent also meets together every Sunday in a cafe on Le Thanh Nghi Street to talk all things LEGO.

"The rule is simple, if you love LEGO, join the group, and attend the offline events. That's all. We often bring along products that we recently bought and extra parts we can exchange with others," explains Duc Anh, a lecturer and a senior member. "The buying and selling activities make these events quite interesting. Our favourite activity, though, is discussing our collections with like-minded individuals. We talk about how much we spend, which sets we still need and how people should set up pictures of their collections better. These topics are worth discussing."

Duc Anh says that there is particular excitement on Facebook whenever a forthcoming LEGO release draws near.

"We all discuss which figures will be the most popular. It gives people a feeling of excitement and the forum really heats up. We don't buy all the products of a series at a time. Instead, we hunt them over a long period, so information about new releases is always exciting," he explains.

Unfortunately for the "We Love LEGO" group, Viet Nam remains a small LEGO market, meaning there is a limit to the products sold. As a result, members reply on shipping services from overseas. They place orders on websites around the world, from the largest markets like eBay to the minor sites for LEGO fans, and have their purchases sent to Viet Nam.

There are numerous accessories we can only get our hands on by importing them from the outside world," Dung says.

"That's true," Quang Anh agrees, "but we can save some money this way if we work together. If one set costs more than $20, the one part that I currently need costs only $2 online, plus a shipping cost of $5, it's still cheaper. I just have to convince some friends to form a group of buyers and the shipping cost doesn't matter anymore."

While the collectors work together whenever they can and enjoy each other's company, natural rivalries have built up and individuals become competitive about the best way to display their collections. "Each member has their own style," says Quang Anh. "I, for example, build my own castle and choose which figures to put inside in order to reproduce a scene from a film or a fairy story. Sometimes we are so determined to build the best display we liken it to an arms race, with each member spending more and more money to be the best!"

The club likes to show off its achievements by creating online albums for different themes. For example, a Roman War album contains photos of Quang Anh's LEGO recreation of a scene from the 2010 film Centurion, which explores the legend of Rome's mysterious Ninth Legion.

For now, recognition is mostly based online, but as the Facebook group continues to grow, so does the number of members joining the weekly meetings. It seems that the small bricks from Denmark are not going away anytime soon, and who knows, maybe one day even a LEGO Viet Nam theme will make its way onto the market. If it does, you can bet that the "We love LEGO" members will be first in line for a set. — VNS

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