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Bamboo witch creates spellbinding statues

Tucked away in the southern province of An Giang's Long Xuyen City, the 64-year-old has been harvesting flowery bamboo for the past four decades. Even today, he is no less enthusiastic about making this special plant than he was forty years ago.

Unlike most craftsmen who operate in private workshops, Vien's space resembles more of a kitchen, filled with bamboo and old furniture. His work has earned him a host of nicknames over the years like "bamboo witch" and "bamboo craftsman", but he prefers to be called the "old man of bamboo".

Born and raised in Dong Khoi City, Vien's choice to become a bamboo craftsman came as an unexpected surprise to his parents, both famous for their tailoring. No matter how peculiar, his connection to this plant runs deep.

"I got married in the early 1970s, and began my career that time. First, I started to make handicraft products from toothpicks. However, after an encounter with my close friend in Dong Thap Province, I saw a rather prominent type of bamboo with strange and brown veins on its body, used for the furniture in his house. It was planted around this area," he says fondly.

The encounter lit his curiousity and he began studying this special plant. "Only in My Luong township and Lap Vo District in Dong Thap do they have this special kind of tree. If other people can do a lot of things with this plant, why can't I?" he said.

After months of pondering, he finally managed to buy a plant and bring it home, trying to fashion the material into products. "First, with the model of Chua Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda) statue, I tried to graft many parts of the bamboo together using a special kind of glue I created. In the first year, since I was not satisfied with my product, I looked for another image of the pagoda to redo it," Vien says.

After twenty years, Vien finally fulfilled his lifelong dream. The completed One Pillar Pagoda made entirely of bamboo has wowed guests to his home, impressed by its remarkable detail and awesome resemblance. This achievement is even more impressive when you consider he has never set foot in the real thing and composed his replica simply by studying images of the pagoda.

"Later on, when I think back, it is the most memorable moment in my career as a bamboo craftsman," he recalls.

Vien is also an innovator. Typically, a bamboo tree only possesses two colours. However, overtime his research has produced 12 new ways to dye bamboo using artificial colours.

In 1999, Vien founded the Vien Thanh Bamboo Arts and Crafts Facility with support from the An Giang Industry and Trade Department. Alongside Chua Mot Cot, Vien has added more projects to his repertoire, including a replica of Ngo mon Hue (Hue Royal Palace), the President Ton Temple and a house on stilts - all important symbols in Vietnamese culture.

As is often the case with passionate people, Vien's obsession has come at a price. His wife Nguyen Thi Day says she suspects her husband loves the plant more than he loves her. "In many nights continuously, he woke up to cut and saw things, and created such noisy sounds that the neighbours thought he was out of his mind. For me, I know nothing about his work, but I know him so well, so I let him do what he wants," says Day.

Vien's accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. In December 2005, he received an award for traditional craftsmanship for Vo Thanh Vien. "This is indeed a Vietnamese traditional product, that tells the spirit of Vietnamese people," says Luu Duy Dan, deputy chairman of the Vietnamese Trade Village Association.

To this soulful craftsman, he has now earned a desired place in local history. However, he believes his job is also to inspire the next generation of bamboo artisans.

"Now, the most important thing is how I can pass my skills to more youngsters. Making bamboo products is not just about making art, it's about learning," he says.