Like many of the artisan villages outside of Hoi An, the Kim Bong village specializes in just one craft – carpentry.
While the many boutiques and workshops in the ancient town itself turn out beautiful products, these villages nestled along the river are home to generations of craftsmen from all over Vietnam who moved to Hoi An centuries ago when it was a bustling trade port.
At the carpentry village of Kim Bong, 25 year-old Uyen sits with a wooden Buddha statue wedged between his feet.
“It’s all in the eyes,” he says deftly adding the finishing details. “These statues are just like people. They need you to put a soul into them. Just one slip of the hand means you’ll have to throw the whole thing out. They’re like us. A misstep and they’re disabled, something you can’t fix.”
Uyen has been carving since he was 13, following in the path of his uncles and grandfather. “It’s my passion,” he says. “Carving combines many arts in one. You need patience and perseverance. If you’ve been drinking or had a day off, it’s hard to regain the focus you need.”
Clients come to the workshop, usually with a design in mind – a picture, some words, a half-conceived image and choose a type of wood – jack fruit, doussie, coffee, among others. But it’s up to the craftsman to bring the idea to life. “We have a lot of freedom in what we do; the details are up to us,” says Uyen. “That’s what I love about this job – the creativity, sketching out the finished form, looking at the characteristics of the wood to incorporate them into the design.
“When I first started out, it was hard, hard on the back to sit in one place for so long. I got headaches from trying to concentrate for hours on end, especially when you’re already tired. There’s an intensity required. I’ve been at this more than 10 years but I’m still just an apprentice. I don’t know when I’ll become a true craftsman. It takes years of training and a lot depends on your natural ability. Every year, there are competitions where you can demonstrate your skill and get government certified. I’m lucky that there are lots of craftsmen at the workshop where I work, so I can learn from them.”
Here, one person takes the carving from block of wood until the very end, so it’s all on you. But that’s what I like about it. You can look at the finished product and know that this is a combination of Man and Nature. Nature provided the materials and I contributed my skill. I can see myself growing old doing this.”
Leaving Uyen’s workshop, we walk around the village to the soundtrack of clacking, chipping and sawing. Some workshops make furniture amidst clouds of sawdust.
Clients can custom-order pieces or purchase ready-made items.
Some pieces are intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl, truly magnificent heirlooms to be passed down to the next generation.
The village is also renowned for shipbuilding, conveniently located right along the river.
A leisurely visit to the Kim Bong village makes for a wonderful outing, wandering around the many workshops, chatting up the friendly craftsmen and simply admiring this age-old art.