A Vietnamese man has touched the hearts of those who love Saigon - the former name of Ho Chi Minh City - by his wooden miniatures facsimileing the city in his memories.
It was a sunny late-February morning when your correspondents visited Nguyen Duc Phuc’s The Gioi Ti Hon (Tiny World) store in District 4, Ho Chi Minh City.
The venue sells scale assembly models under a variety of themes which the 31-year-old founder and his team have created during the past five years.
The store’s signature products are the Saigon-themed ones.
Visitors to Duc’s store often could not help feeling amazed to see hundreds of lifelike palm-sized street food carts, groceries, and barber shops which are made in sophisticated detail.
|A miniature by The Gioi Ti Hon features a barber shop. Photo: Binh Minh / Tuoi Tre|
Father’s childhood gift
Your correspondents stopped by Duc’s place when he was finishing a new product mimicking a house in the countryside of the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam.
“Should I put it here?” Duc mumbled to himself while trying to find a spot to put a tiny detail into the miniature.
After putting a khan ran (a traditional checkered black-and-white shawl often worn by farmers in the Mekong Delta) on a small wooden chair to finish his work, Duc sat down for a conversation and led your correspondents on the journey into his tiny world.
Before entering the miniature world, he had worked several jobs which are not related to what he is doing currently.
One day, the man looked at himself in the mirror and asked, “What is my life purpose? What is my passion?”
During those uncertain days, the young man found a lifebuoy thanks to a gift his father had given him when he was six: a three-story wooden miniature house.
“I had a conversation with my dad and he reminded me of that present," Duc recalled.
"Then I thought, ‘Why didn’t I make miniatures by myself?’”
|Nguyen Phuc Duc is seen working on a new product featuring a house in the countryside of the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam. Photo: Binh Minh / Tuoi Tre|
Duc added that he had always dreamed of making wooden mini houses with his own hands after watching animated movies as a kid.
He started to research and found out that there were only a few shops selling miniatures in Vietnam at the time, and all were imported.
That encouraged him to create something 'made-in-Vietnam.'
However, Duc wanted to create assembly miniatures, not a finished product, so that customers could build up the miniatures by themselves.
It would also be easier to deliver a box of components than a finished miniature, he explained.
To start his business, Duc had to sell his motorbike for money, and developed a whole process all by himself from creating to promoting and shipping his products.
In September 2014, Duc founded The Gioi Ti Hon. Still, success did not come easily.
It took Duc a year to sell 100 sets of his first miniature, a Japanese sushi restaurant.
Duc later decided to get himself more skills by taking courses on marketing to know how to develop his products professionally.
At the same time, he kept doing some side jobs to earn money and invested it in his miniature career until his business started to pick up after three years.
|A miniature by The Gioi Ti Hon features a sidewalk stall selling baluts and dried squid. Photo: Binh Minh / Tuoi Tre|
A beloved Saigon in scale models
In July 2019, The Gioi Ti Hon drew public attention with an exhibition showcasing its series of Saigon-themed miniatures.
The exhibited models were divided into different categories, sharing the same theme of 'recreating' an old Saigon which was familiar in the childhood memories of the Saigonese born in the 1980s, the same generation as the models’ creators.
The ‘Street Vendors’ category displayed 18 street food carts which could be spotted on every corner of the city, while ‘The Childhood of Every Student’ imitated a school gate area with toy shops and snack carts that every young student feels connected to.
|A series of miniatures recreate a school gate area with toy shops and snack carts that every young student in Ho Chi Minh City feels connected to. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
Duc said his own childhood memory has motivated him to bring back the old Saigon that he loved when he was little.
The first product about Saigon was a miniature version of a grocery store made from Duc’s impression of a small shop down an alley where he often stopped by for snacks when he was a kid.
It was a simple model which surprisingly received positive feedback when he shared pictures of it on social media.
Some even placed orders for the product, which encouraged Duc to optimize the design and released a better version of the model.
The grocery store has remained Duc’s best-seller so far.
|Miniatures by The Gioi Ti Hon feature stores selling groceries and newspapers in Saigon which was common in the past. Photo: Binh Minh / Tuoi Tre|
Joy from the first success urged Duc to go forward. He later created a bigger model depicting a whole street in Saigon with storefronts, barber shops, comic book shops, and more.
“I’ve kept reminiscing about the past, as I had beautiful childhood memories,” Duc said.
“When I was little, my grandpa often took me to the barber's. That’s why I created barber shop miniatures.
“Then, in my memory, there was always a newspaper stall next to the barber shop.
“The noodle shop run by a Chinese near my house also inspired me to create a model of a Chinese noodle shop."
Duc said he wanted to conjure up not only the memories but also the feeling to give people a sense of connection to those memories.
“I like people to look at my works and say, ‘Oh, this scene is familiar,’” he said.
|Miniatures created by The Gioi Ti Hon. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
Duc said ideas for scale models stem from his own childhood stories, what his buyers demand, as well as suggestions from his team, giving rise to a range of products, from old to modern Saigon.
It is a long process to make a model but what matters is how to touch the hearts of the buyers, Duc said.
Without a professional training background, he admitted that his works were not always perfect in terms of technical requirements.
But, he added, he was always open to feedback.
In the future, Duc hopes to create more miniature versions of other places across Vietnam.
“I want to make the Vietnamese love Vietnam more, before showing foreigners how beautiful Vietnam is,” Duc shared.
|A miniature by The Gioi Ti Hon mimics a house in the countryside of the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam. Photo: Binh Minh / Tuoi Tre|