‘Special village’ helps preserve a long-standing art in Saigon

Tran Van Thang, 70, the owner of a brass burner workshop in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Hiding away in a small alley of Go Vap District in Ho Chi Minh City is a ‘crafting village’ dedicated to the making of brass incense burners.

Formed over half a century ago, the An Hoi brass burner casting village finds its root in an ancient craft that has existed in Vietnam since as early as the late 19th century.

The craft has survived the turmoil of history, but it may soon disappear as Vietnam’s rapid economic growth continues to see traditional values falling out of favor.

Today, few workshops and families still hold on to the art of their ancestors.

Tran Van Thang, 70, who owns a brass burner workshop named after himself in An Hoi, said he was among the first-generation craftsmen who founded the village.

For the past 50 years, Thang and his children have stuck to the handcraft business despite the changes of the outside world.

“It has been the only thing I know and love my whole life, so there’s no way I’m going to give it up,” Thang said.

His son and daughter have chosen to dedicate their lives to the family business, and are both skilled artisans themselves.

According to Thang, one has to be absolutely in love with this art in order to learn and survive with it, so there is little he could do on his part to prevent the craft from dying.

The seasoned man said he had refused a number of youths who had asked to become his disciples, for he did not see in them a burning passion for the art.

The craft of making brass incense burners in Saigon. Clip: Tuoi Tre News

Making a brass burner from scratch involves dozens of steps, with each craftsman being responsible for only one of them. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Making a brass burner from scratch involves dozens of steps, with each craftsman being responsible for only one of them. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The first step is making the mold from a mixture of clay, sand, ash and rice hulls. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The first step is making the mold from a mixture of clay, sand, ash and rice hulls. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Finished molds are then left to dry. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Finished molds are then left to dry. Photo: Tuoi Tre
An internal mold is also needed to form the shape of a brass burner. Photo: Tuoi Tre
An internal mold is also needed to form the shape of a brass burner. Photo: Tuoi Tre
A wax cast is handcrafted by skilled artisans to be the standard shape for future burners. Photo: Tuoi Tre
A wax cast is handcrafted by skilled artisans to be the standard shape for future burners. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The wax cast is covered in another layer of fine clay. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The wax cast is covered in another layer of fine clay. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Melted brass is poured in between the external and internal molds. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Melted brass is poured in between the external and internal molds. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The copper and zinc ratio in the brass is crucial to the quality of the finished product. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The copper and zinc ratio in the brass is crucial to the quality of the finished product. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The molds are removed. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The molds are removed. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The next steps are honing, decorating and polishing. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The next steps are honing, decorating and polishing. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Attention to detail is essential in making a perfect brass burner. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Attention to detail is essential in making a perfect brass burner. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Brass incense burners play an important role in the traditional religious practice of the Vietnamese. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Brass incense burners play an important role in the traditional religious practice of the Vietnamese. Photo: Tuoi Tre

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