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Hoan Kiem carver's craft spans five decades

Update: January, 17/2016 - 04:30
Crafty: Le Van Quy has been carving inscriptions on pens at Hoan Kiem Lake for more than 50 years. — VNS Photos Doan Tung

For Le Van Quy, carving inscriptions on pens is more than just a way to make a living. It's a way to preserve and document history. Bach Lien reports.

Under the shade of an ancient banyan tree on the edge of Ha Noi's Hoan Kiem Lake, for half a century, Le Van Quy has been carving inscriptions on pens. The pens can be offered as gifts to friends or kept by the owners as souvenirs.

Quy was once a shoemaker. In the 1950s, not many people afforded shoes, so he began carving inscriptions instead.

For over 50 years, the 80-year-old man has served his customers under the ancient banyan tree every day from 7.30am to 6pm.

Quy's tools include a screwdriver and a self-made carving knife. He keeps his gear in a small iron box.

He has been at this spot with his tools and a little plate "Gift Pen Engraving" with his mobile phone number inscribed on it.

If a customer wishes, Quy can also carve a miniature of Hoan Kiem's turtle tower or the The Huc Bridge on the items. He still remembers that he engraved a gift pen for the then German chancellor some 20 years ago.

To have an engraved pen, his clients only have to pay VND6,000 (25 cents) to 7,000 (30 cents). He also carves more complicated images including trees, flowers.

Depending on the difficulty of each inscription, Quy earns between VND10,000 and 20,000 (US$1) (50 cents to 1 euro). In a month, he may earn VND1 million ($50).

For Quy, carving is something he does for love, and not for money. He and his wife have a small house in Phuc Tan ward in Ha Noi. Their two married daughters often visit to help their parents.

On some days he does not earn any money. But he does not like to quit this job, even though now not many people are interested in owning such pens.

Gift of giving: Carved pens can be given as gifts or kept as souvenirs.

The pen carving business has declined over the last 20 years, because many people have stopped using fountain pens and turned to ball-point pens.

There used to be a lot of script-carvers, but now there remains only Quy.

He has a very few clients now. However, he is not fed up with the job and cannot forget the glorious times in his career.

"During the war, most soldiers and students wanted to have a pen engraved as a keepsake. For them, a pen at that time was like a friend. Before going to the battlefield or before joining the army, young people bought a pen at the Sword Lake and asked the artisan to carve on the pen their name or some sweet words that they wanted to send to their loved ones," he said.

There used to be many pen-carvers at that time and lots of clients.

Previously, the soldiers kept those carved pens during wartime, and always took it with them wherever they went. They wrote diaries and noted down lot of dreams with those pens. When the war ended, many soldiers met Quy again.

"Some had lost their arms, some were exposed to Agent Orange, but they still kept the pen which was carved many years ago. During those moments, I felt that I had done a meaningful job," he confides emotionally.

Heart in Ha Noi

He was born and grew up in Ha Noi in a poor family, Quy only finished primary school before having to do numerous small jobs to earn a living.

"When I was 15 years old and struggled to earn a living, I would learn how to engrave a pen. Pens were very rare when I was at school, so I always loved holding a pen in my hands. And I love my job."

He first took up this job when he 21 years old. After he got married and his six children were born, he kept doing this job with love. His wife could not explain why he loved it so much for so many years, but she supported him.

"Every day I sit here, I can meet so many people. I feel I become younger," he said.

"I love Ha Noi and love the street life. So when I sit here, I can witness the changes in the city every day, every hour."

Recording history

The pen-carving job has become for him a precious job which has brought him lot of sweet memories.

Some families of war martyrs could find the remains of their relatives thanks to the pens that he had carved.

"Most of the soldiers who were sacrificed during the war were buried along with their personal effects, including their pens that they kept with them during wartime. Other objects can disintegrate but pens remain intact. Some people met me and asked me to make clearer the writings carved on pens, which became dim with time. Those pens were dug up from tombs of unknown soldiers. And this way, I could again see the many pens that I carved after so many years."

Time flies, but he said, he could never forget those touching moments. — VNS

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