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‘Crackpot' collector not so scatterbrained

Update: March, 16/2014 - 18:17

Prized possessions: Nguyen Vinh Xuong's collection of old jars.

by Tran Hoa and Ha Nguyen

Author Kim Lan (1920-2007), an antiques connoisseur, could look at a shard of an old bowl and know instantly where it came from. He once wrote that collecting such objects was not a simple hobby, but one that required extensive knowledge about the past.

Nguyen Vinh Xuong, 75, is following in Lan's footsteps. Over 20 years, he has amassed an enormous collection of old jars, baskets, wooden clogs and scrolls. Visiting his narrow house in Ha Noi's Tay Ho Ward, we saw thousands of old objects.

Born in the Hong (Red) River Delta province of Hung Yen, Xuong nurtured a love for these objects from an early age. After he returned from the army and joined a transport company in the 1990s, he had many opportunities to travel around the country collecting antiques.

"I repaired the jars and pots people threw out, even cracked ones. I could spend hours examining them. Our ancestors were so clever to produce these things," Xuong said.

One day in 1995, his friend told him that he had seen a lot of old objects in a remote village in the northwestern province of Son La's Muong La District, about 300km from Ha Noi.

"I was very excited to go to Son La to buy these things even though I had a fever. My wife told me that I could go when the fever was gone, but I couldn't wait," he recalled. "I don't know if my fever was gone when I arrived at farmer La Thi Hien's house, where there were cracked jars and pots, several baskets, a mandrel and a spade."

Artefacts: Xuong has become an expert on old jars. — VNS Photos Tran Hoa

Hien told him these things were handed down from generation to generation, used by her ancestors and fellow villagers.

"Cooking food in these pots gave us much tastier and more delicious meals compared with modern utensils," Hien said.

Hoang Van Cuong, an antiques dealer from HCM City, asked Xuong to sell him several of his objects worth millions of dong, but the collector refused.

"I don't collect these things for money, but to preserve Viet Nam's rural culture," Xuong said.

When he returns to his home village in Hung Yen, he often rummages through ponds and rubbish dumps to seek treasures.

"Many villagers think I'm crazy when they see me wade in a polluted pond in search of an ornamental jar," he said.

While he cannot count how many objects he has, the collector knows everything about each one, easily rattling off ages and places of origin.

Archaeologist Dao Quy Canh from the Archaeology Institute of Viet Nam often asks Xuong to check things before displaying them in public.

"Xuong's experience is excellent," said Ha Noi antiquarian Nguyen Tuong Long, who has also invited Xuong to approve many of his antiques.

Nguyen Huu Hoanh, an artisan from Ha Noi's famous pottery village Bat Trang, said Xuong's jars and pots were valuable and genuine. Modern Bat Trang artisans could not make such items any longer.

"Our ancestors had their own secrets for making these things, so each of their items has its own soul that no one can copy," he said. — VNS

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