Our morning in Hanoi started off like no other. Beeping horns, the sounds of street vendors calling to customers with what one would assume to be a sales pitch for their latest crop. But today would be a little different. It was 9 am and we were on our way to witness a foreign Vietnamese art, the art of stamp making, or historically known as the art of seal making.
Kings and aristocrats used this historical practice during the feudal times in Vietnam, but in today’s age seals are now stamps and Mr Hung (pronounced Hoo-ng) is Hanoi’s stamp making aficionado, offering visitors the chance to learn this ancient practise through community-based travel company Backstreet Academy.
Backstreet Academy is a social enterprise dedicated to bringing you closer to the life of a local. They help people to promote the culture of locals, their traditions and their arts and, like Mr Hung, many people have found new opportunity through Backstreet Academy to share their arts with the world.
We arrived at Mr Hung’s working space which was a small workshop located curbside on a street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. There he sat with his tool kit and collection of stamps on show for all to see. The tool kit contained all sorts of chisels that he uses to carve the wooden stamps into his customer’s requested designs, some simple and standard, and some so complex that you wonder how they could have been crafted so delicately by hand.
Mr Hung has been making stamps for 20 years, selling stamps to both loyal customers and tourists who come to Hanoi. Offering custom made stamps, tourists can choose from an array of designs or make up their own. Today we would be creating our own designs and learning how to carve them as well.
Hai, our facilitator for the day, was there to translate for us as we talked with Mr Hung about his business. Backstreet Academy employs facilitators to assist with translation between tourists and locals. This helps enable those who face language barriers to still partake in activities and increases their opportunity to share their traditions.
The lesson was about to start as Mr Hung handed us a book of designs so we could choose which one we would like for our stamp. He tells us to trace a clear piece of plastic with a red pen so that later we can stencil it onto the piece of wood and start carving around it. In order for the stamp to work, we must carve indents into the wood around the image, first using a tool to make small incisions and then another tool to carve the excess wood out. Carefully we watch as Mr Hung demonstrates for us, graciously carving small incisions around the lines of our images. He hands us the sharp tools and a thimble to protect our thumb and we imitate his moves. Over green tea and lychees, we work on our crafts, twisting our wooden blocks, making dents around our images, trying to replicate a professional and create a masterpiece. After we had carved what we could Mr Hung began to work his magic, turning our rugged designs into spectacular ones. Such talent this man has, and how delightful to see that he still has a platform to share it.
The finishing piece would be a tailor-made, personalised wooden stamp with red ink that we could take home with us as a souvenir, as well as the experience of learning the art of stamp making. It was a unique experience, to say the least, but those are the kinds of experiences Backstreet Academy and its members provide.
Organisations like Backstreet Academy not only give opportunities to local people but they give education to tourists like us. We would never have thought of doing a wood carving activity in Hanoi but now it is one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam. Connecting locals with tourists is changing the face of travel and we look forward to seeing what more strange and wonderful activities come our way.
Check out more amazing tours with locals in many cities throughout Asia at the Backstreet Academy website.