Crafting Buddha idols in Saigon

By Thanh Nguyen    June 15, 2019 | 11:46 pm PT
In a quiet quarter in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 6, many households have been making cement Buddha idols for decades.
Crafting Buddha idols in Saigon

The alley near Giac Hai Pagoda has around 10 families which cast them, one of them for the last three generations. Many cement Buddha idols can be seen lining the alley.

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The place bustles from 7 a.m to 4 p.m. daily as vehicles enter to deliver raw statues. These are newly taken out of the mold. Craftsmen here then polish them to make the final statues.

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Thi Quoc, 71, a craftsman, makes a statue mold from bricks, sand and cement. "This is an idol of Sakyamuni Buddha in nirvana which is 3 meters long and weighs nearly a ton. It takes up to 10 days to make it, so patience is an important factor in this profession."

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Craftsman Huynh Van Thong carefully draws palm lines on an idol of Sakyamuni Buddha. He has been crafting hands for more than 20 years and is a master at it.

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In a quiet room filled with idols of gods and the Buddha, Ba Tien is busy adding minute details to them.

Tien is owner of Le Van Chanh workshop, one of the oldest and most famous statue production houses in the place. "I am the third generation to follow this profession. In the olden days my ancestors made the idols from jackfruit wood; in the last 60-70 years we switched to cement and gypsum. I am proud that so far no one has ever complained about our family's products."

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"The most important thing is to have a passion. Only passion can create the soul of the idols."

His family’s products are sold locally and exported to many countries including the U.S., Canada, Japan, and India.

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"Making a beautiful idol involves many stages," Tien says. Every worker is important, whether they cast, peel, scrub or decorate the statue. An idol’s quality is decided also by the eyes and the face which should be lively and soulful, he explains.

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Inside a workshop with dozens of statues in different designs, craftsmen are working.

According to the owners, the statues cost VND100,000 to millions of dong, depending on their size, materials and sophistication. 

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Mai Thi Hoang, 64, the daughter of a craftsman, is coloring a God of Fortune.

"The most difficult thing is to make the shape and color look lively," she says, revealing that her father taught her to focus on the beautiful traits of Buddha when making an idol. "I know I have not mastered the task but I’m trying."

Hoang uses gold paper to decorate a statue.

"I think, whether a statue is small or big, simple or complex, it must be made meticulously so that it can be beautiful and soulful," she says.

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A craftsman eats lunch in a workshop.

The wages of the workers depend on their expertise and output and range from VND150,000 to VND800,000 ($6.4-34.3) per day.

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Workers bring a Buddha idol back to the warehouse and replace it with another after a customer refused to take delivery since it was too big.

According to the artisans, due to the availability of many different materials such as stone, bronze and composite, the craft of making Buddha idols here is gradually waning.

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