Hanoi: Sitting before a bright orange flame, Vietnamese blacksmith Nguyen Phuong Hung prods a fire pit with a long metal rod before he hammers, bends and contorts glowing steel into a giant drill bit.
Hung, who toils away in his tiny corner stall in downtown Hanoi, is the last remaining blacksmith on Hanoi’s Lo Ren street, named after the masters of metal it was once known for.
But his kind of intimate knowledge of the forge is dying out.
Today most of the metal tools and housewares for sale on the busy street are mass produced — often with cheaper Chinese materials — extinguishing an age-old tradition that has been passed down in Hung’s family for generations.
“My dad said he got the job from his father — my grandfather. He said if I was a blacksmith, I would never go hungry,” 56-year-old Hung told journalists from his cramped stall on the motorbike-clogged street in the Old Quarter, surrounded by metal scraps.
Lo Ren has been the go-to strip for metalworks in Hanoi since the end of the 19th century.
It was initially known for farming tools before the street’s storied blacksmiths started making more complex objects to support the industrialisation boom under the French, who built railways and bridges.
It was under French rule that the street was christened Lo Ren street (Blacksmith Street) — or “Rue des Forgerons” — according to author and historian Nguyen Van Uan.
The tradition burnt bright for much of the 20th century, but shops like Hung’s have been replaced by wholesalers in recent years, their shiny polished metal items now more common than Hung’s handmade delights.
Nguyen The Cach, 71, switched to selling factory-produced metalware from his shop on Lo Ren a few years ago.
“This job (being a smith) consumes too much energy, we are not healthy enough to do it, that’s why it’s fading,” he said.
Vietnam’s better educated, smartphone-wielding younger generations, meanwhile, show less interest in taking up their parents’ artisan crafts.
Over the years Hung and his friends have seen all the other blacksmith shops shutter. His tiny store is the last window onto a bygone era.
Wearing a cap, T-shirt and wool gloves, Hung spurns protective gear like goggles or masks that one might recommend to a man working so close to searingly hot flames.
He says he’s the best in town, and takes customised orders for anything from nails to hammers to drills to hardware for the home. He even recently finished an order for ankle cuffs for a local police station.
The secret to his success? A combination of engineering school lessons, some four decades of experience, and of course everything he learnt from his father.
“Chinese products are not as good as mine. I always have to adjust and fix Chinese chisels (for my clients). Mine are second only to products made in Japan.”
For the time being he continues to attract loyal customers.
“The quality of drills made by Hung is always good, they don’t easily break,” said Nguyen Thanh Trung, who runs a construction business.
“I’ve always come to him, I have no reason to choose a different blacksmith,” he added.
Though the work is physically taxing, Hung says he won’t be turning his back on the profession that runs in his blood.
But he knows his shop will also one day shutter: his son has said he won’t be taking up his father’s tongs.