We went to meet a traditional toymaker amid Saigon. Modernization has robbed me of the joy in playing traditional toys, so I am very excited to explore such wonders in the stall of cụ Hanh – a street vendor who was called “Mr. Mouse.”
When we got to talk to him, we realized that he did not merely sell toys for a living, but also he wanted to preserve childhood for many children. For this reason, he diligently sits on the sidewalk, selling handmade toys for the kids quick to lose interests. “Kids today prefer electronic toys and video games. But as long as there are still customers, I will still be doing this. There are still many children coming here to play with me every day.”
30 years selling handmade toys are 30 years preserving the childhood of many Saigonese generations. It happens naturally: “In 1990, my health deteriorated, so I couldn’t work as a farmer anymore. I returned to Sai Gon afterward, helping my wife sell che ngo (a Vietnamese delicacy) to support the family. Ever since I practically roamed Sai Gon to sell balloons due to a lack of capital. At that time, a balloon is sold at 1 – 2 dong. Then, I thought, selling balloons did not do justice to my educational background. So I quitted.”
After that, he also learned to make, innovate, and adjust traditional toys to make them unique. Eventually, those toys are still an attraction for decades up to now.
Apart from toy-making, Uncle Hanh also composes poems, recites history, and is even fluent in English and French despite no longer working as a deskman or interpreter. “The churches have many foreign visitors. Whenever they come, they visit my stall. I always introduce them to the Vietnamese traditional toy-making sector that I am upholding now. They are always fascinated and repurchased as souvenirs home.”
The taste of Sai Gon is well-preserved by the people dutifully maintaining traditional values. Uncle Hanh is definitely one of them.
Photographer: Cong Tuan