A visit to a statue factory, where different replicas stand side by side each other, offers a glimpse into Vietnam’s diversely religious life.
Nestled in the quiet suburban area of Thu Duc District, 15km (9.3 miles) from the center of Ho Chi Minh City, is a statue factory belonging to Dinh Danh Tu.
The 40-year-old sculptor-turned-businessman opened his business 17 years ago when he saw the opportunity as people’s religion worship started to meet the country’s economic growth.
“In the 90s, only rich families could afford to buy a statue for their altars,” he said. “But the economy has been improving for the past 15 years, and more clients are willing to pay for a detailed statue; the demand is just getting higher and higher.”
“From my own market research I've found that out of every 1,000 new houses, 600 have at least one stone statue on display,” he added.
Statues of Caishen, or the God of Wealth, are a popular choice among businesses.
Tu now employs over 250 scupltors working in a dozen factories throughout the country. Price tags for his products vary from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand dollars, depending on the size, the material and the aesthetic requirements.
“Because most of the statues here are carved to order, each of them bears different characteristics based on their conceptions.”
His clients range from individuals and companies to temples and churches based all over the country.
In Tu’s factory, statues of Buddha, Jesus Christ, Caishen and Ho Chi Minh stand side by side each other. These items are also exported to the U.S., France, Japan, Cambodia, etc.
Business is going well, he said. The factory in Thu Duc alone sells around VND4 billion ($176,000) worth of statues per month, with Buddhist and Catholic figures the most popular.
A 2014 Pew Research Center survey ranked Vietnam number three among the world’s most religiously diverse countries and territories, after Singapore and Taiwan.
About 24.3 million people, or 27 percent of the population, are affiliated with a certain religion, including Buddhism, Catholicism, Caodaism, Islam and Hindi, according to official data.
The most dominant, however, is Vietnamese folk religion, with 45 percent of the population reportedly regular practicioners. The country’s folk religion bears many similarities with that in southern China, in which followers worship the thần, or gods and spirits. They can be bygone national heroes, natural deities or simply ancestors.
Vietnam’s religious variances can be attributed to its history of exposure to different groups, including the Chinese, the French and the Indians (noticeably in the southern region).
“There are stark differences between Buddhist and Christian figures,” noted Tu. “For the former you must follow the East Asian body ratio and features, while the latter requires a taller model that mimics a more Western look.”
Phuong, a worker with three years of experience, said each statue usually takes from five to ten days to finish, but the more intricate designs can take months to finish, going through design, incisions, sculpting and polishing.
“The hardest parts are the eyes and the mouth,” Phuong said. “They convey the soul of the figure.”
A statue of Our Lady of La Vang, also known as Mother Maria, in traditional Vietnamese dress.
Legend has it that during the anti-Catholic hostility under the Nguyen Dynasty in early nineteenth-century Vietnam, Maria appeared to the oppressed refugees and saved them from persecution. She was described as wearing the traditional Vietnamese tunic with a child in her arms and two angels by her sides. The survivors later passed on the story of the apparition.
The worship of Our Lady of La Vang can be found mostly in central Vietnam, where spiritual pilgrims from throughout Vietnam gather to pray for encouragement, guidance and healing.
A miniature replica of Hanoi’s iconic Turtle Tower is taking shape.
“Employees here are paid either by the product or by the day,” said Phuong, a senior sculptor the factory. "We can either earn from VND300,000 to VND500,000 a day ($13 to $22), or receive a lump sum for a finished statue."
Dinh Danh Tu (R) shows an apprentice how to measure a stone before cutting into it. “It takes five to six years to train a skilled sculptor,” he said. “But most of them have to retire at fifty when their eyes and hands are too weak for this delicate work.”
To make a statue, especially a soulful, religious one, the sculptor needs to have a peaceful mind and concentrate.”Dinh Danh Tu, sculptor
Nhung Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen