Craftman Nguyễn Văn Léo and two of his fishing boats craft works. VNA/VNS Photo Huỳnh Phúc Hậu
Viet Nam News
Huỳnh Phúc Hậu
BẾN TRE — For 68-year-old Nguyễn Văn Léo, being a fisherman was not just a job, it was a way of life.
Léo spent most of his life fishing off the coast of Thới Thuận Commune, Bến Tre Province, but is now retired. His love and the sea has never waned though, and he has earned the nickname “sea soul” thanks to his collection of 400 model fishing boats and cargo ships.
Inspired by his passion for river and sea landscapes with fishing boats as the focus, he has created the collection over the course of more than 30 years.
Léo said despite the fact he had to stop school at the age of 10 to follow his father out to sea, he was always attracted by the beauty of the sea and fishing boats and cargo ships in particular.
“During my time at sea, I could see fishing boats and cargo ships of various shapes and sizes. I found each of them had their own characteristics featuring the beauty of the area,” he said.
During his many years of fishing, he always had the feeling he should be doing something for himself and his children.
“I didn’t have any carpentry skills but I was determined to craft model fishing boats,” he added.
Léo said each of his models conveys a story from his life and memories.
Many businessmen have tried to persuade him to sell the models, but Léo replies that they’re not for sale and just a hobby.
“The main goal is to help my children understand what their forefathers did and walk them through the different periods of history they had lived through.
His collection has been praised by local authorities and education officials as a "museum", and has been used to teach students in the commune and fishermen in the area.
Léo has a private apartment in his house with shelves to display all of his models.
He said his wife was annoyed to start with because his hobby took up nearly all his spare time, but after she understood what he was trying to do and how he had overcome many hardships to finish them, she supported him.
Picking up a model cargo ship neatly displayed on a shelf, Ba Léo slowly told the story of the vessel.
“This is an old cargo ship that I call the ‘cyclo’ as I think it looks like a model cyclo. It was used to transport goods down the river during the 1950s and 60s. The ship appeared mostly in Mỹ Tho City.
“The ship had an old design and was only used by merchants at that time and disappeared after two decades due to socio-economic development. Now there are other more modern cargo ships with facilities which meet modern demands.”
According to Léo many old cargo ships are now used as tour boats thanks to their old design.
Holding another model fishing boat about the size of his hand, Léo admired the small details and regretfully said: “You don’t see these boats on the rivers and canals anymore.”
The vessel he was referring to used to operate as a ferry known as đò ủi, and was very common in the southern province of Long An in the old times.
When he finished the model and presented it to some elders, they all were excited and impressed because it looked really like the original model in every detail.
On the body of the đò ủi, Léo also carved two verses of Vietnamese poetry which roughly translate in English as: "My small body is along with you. Transportation is my role throughout the homeland."
He said he wrote the verses with the aim of reminding people of the past and the traditional means of transport along Long An’s Vàm Cỏ Đông and Vàm Cỏ Tây rivers.
Craftman Léo is working on a new model of fishing boat.
Aside from model fishing boats and cargo ships, Léo has also created many types of warships, anti-aircraft guns and wartime bomb shelters.
Each of his works is full of detail from the originals and follows the same crafting process.
His wife Trần Thị The said she was worried about his health because he spent all day working on his models. She repeatedly advised him to relax but he did not.
“He always carried a chisel and saw with him, at home or even when he was at sea,” said The.
Realising she would be unable to stop him even when building a house was the family’s main priority, The said she allocated a room for him to work in and display his products.
“The room is for him to develop his creations and should be called a ‘museum’,” she said with satisfaction.
Lê Văn Dũng, chairman of Tiền Giang Province’s Cultural Heritage Association, said Léo, also a member of the association, had made a great contribution to the association.
“His models have contributed to preserving the image of the regional waterways, particularly those involved in fishing and transportation at different times,” said Dũng.
Through his works, Léo had helped boost traditional maritime education in the province, he added.
Dũng said the craftsman had sent his works to exhibitions held by the association and attracted the attention of viewers such as those during the Tết (Lunar New Year).
The models have also been exhibited at events outside the province and won prizes. In 2010, the artist was certified by the Vietnamese Book of Records as the owner of the largest collection of fishing and waterway model boats in the country. — VNS