Artisan in Hanoi Carving Woodblocks for 40 Years

Hanoi's Old Quarter still shelters a rare craft, hand-carving wood stamps, and Pham Ngoc Toan is one of the last artisans to preserve it.

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Located in the vibrant Old Quarter of Hanoi, a sight that often catches the eye of tourists is the renowned Phuc Loi Stamp situated at 6 Hang Quat Street, Hoan Kiem District. Delighting visitors with its unique charm, this establishment is home to an esteemed elderly gentleman, immersed in his craft, fashioning exquisite carved wooden figures.

The tiny wood stamp shop is run by Hanoian artisan Pham Ngoc Toan in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Photo: Hideo Tanaka

Artisan Pham Ngoc Toan: Master Craftsman with 40 Years of Experience

Pham Ngoc Toan, a dedicated artisan with true passion, has been perfecting his craft in the bustling city of Hanoi for almost forty years.

Learn the Art of Woodblock Printing

Despite the scorching midday heat of an early summer day, the elderly gentleman could be found diligently organizing and restoring a vast collection of wooden stamps in a quaint shop nestled within Hanoi’s historic Old Quarter.

Taking a moment to relax with a cup of tea, Toan expressed that Hanoi is renowned for its 36 streets brimming with a rich variety of traditional arts and crafts. Located in the heart of this vibrant city, Hang Quat Street has been Toan’s home for almost seven decades and stands out for its exceptional sculptures and engravings, notably showcasing exquisite wood carvings.

In the present-day Old Quarter, there exists a limited number of shops that engage in the skilled artistry of handcrafted wood carving.

Toan reminisces about his deep-rooted connection with the craft of wood carving, which has been passed down through generations in his family. Even as a child, he would dedicate his time to honing his skills by diligently practicing carving with chisels and knives. Despite working as a math teacher in 1993, Toan found that his salary was insufficient to sustain himself. It was then that he mustered the courage to leave his teaching profession behind and fully embrace his passion for wood carving.

The simple yet elegant wood stamp made by the artisan. Photo: Hideo Tanaka

Toan’s shop, occupying a modest space of less than six square meters, proudly showcases a vast selection of exquisite wooden stamps. With years of expertise and at the age of 68, this seasoned artisan shares that the initial phase in creating a wood stamp involves carefully selecting a pliable and easily sculptable type of wood. Following this, the chosen wood is allowed to dry for a period of one to two days.

“The craftsmanship involved in creating hand-carved wooden stamps surpasses that of the manufactured ones. Basic design elements can be meticulously engraved within a span of 10-20 minutes, whereas intricate motifs demand an entire week’s worth of dedicated labor,” expressed Toan.

The next step in the process is carving, which is the most meticulous and crucial stage that ultimately determines the final outcome. Skilled craftsmen are required to skillfully employ knives, chisels, and small rasps to meticulously carve intricate designs into plain woodblocks. While it is possible to acquire basic proficiency in just two months, it takes two to three years to master the art and create truly exceptional products.

Toan, with over four decades of experience in wood stamp craftsmanship, continues to strive to sustain his family business. His clientele primarily consists of international tourists and overseas Vietnamese who share a deep appreciation for the exquisite artistry of wood carving.

“I always make it a priority to visit Phuc Loi Stamps whenever I have the opportunity to explore Hanoi. This renowned craftsman from Hanoi has gained global recognition for his exceptional skills and craftsmanship. Despite his fame, he remains incredibly humble and is always thrilled to witness how his stamps have been incorporated into my own creative endeavors,” expressed Hoang Moon, an esteemed customer of Phuc Loi Stamps, in an interview with The Hanoi Times.

“Over the course of several decades, the price has remained relatively stable, while our wooden seals are meticulously hand-carved with utmost attention to detail,” he emphasized.

Pham Ngoc Toan, 65, has spent almost all his life making wood stamps in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Photo: Tuoi Tre Thu Do

At Toan’s shop, each stamp is priced at VND70,000 (equivalent to US$2.9), with no consideration given to the complexity of design or word count. Toan’s passion for his craft surpasses any concern for monetary gain. Witnessing the satisfaction of his customers upon receiving his products brings great joy to this dedicated craftsman.

According to the individual, the prices have not been increased in several years, and as a result, there have been no customer complaints, including those from foreign customers.

Amy Scott, a visitor from the UK, expressed her admiration for wooden stamps from Hanoi. She described her positive experience in obtaining a custom stamp in less than 24 hours after exchanging a digital picture. Delighted with the outcome, she even requested another stamp as a gift, emphasizing her satisfaction with the product. Overall, Amy regarded the wooden stamp as a fantastic gift idea.

In business, it is important to remember that customer satisfaction is key. As long as we have customers who rely on our products and services, it is our responsibility to ensure their needs are met and they are happy with their experience. Customer satisfaction leads to customer loyalty, repeat business, and positive word-of-mouth referrals. So, let’s always keep the customer at the forefront of our minds and strive to deliver exceptional service and quality products.

Over time, the traditional art of handmade wood stamp carving has been fading away. However, Toan persists in upholding his family’s trade and seeks a worthy successor to carry on the craft.

As the art of craft slowly fades away, Toan finds himself restless, plagued by the absence of a potential successor.

These clients patiently await the tiny beautiful pieces of stuff made by the old artisan. Photo: Tuoi Tre Thu Do

In the current era of societal progress, the traditional art of woodcarving is facing a slow decline. Regrettably, the number of craftsmen practicing this skill in Hanoi has significantly dwindled, with only a handful of individuals remaining, many of whom are closely related to us.

Growing up, Toan was witness to his family’s struggles as woodcarvers. With a deep-rooted passion for the craft, Toan, now in his late 60s, continues to find himself enthralled by the art of wood carving. Having dedicated most of his life to working in the family business, he views wood carving as both a vocation and a fated path in life.

During my youth, the toy options available were limited in comparison to the variety present today. In an attempt to entertain myself and my peers, I would often craft handmade wooden stamps featuring characters from the popular ‘Journey to the West’ film series. These stamps would then be taken to school and used to create aesthetically pleasing imprints on paper, much to the delight of my classmates.

Business Exchange Strategy

The exchange of each sheet full of prints was quite successful, resulting in five blank sheets. It’s worth mentioning that my business acumen was apparent even during my school days,” Toan chuckles.

Every day, numerous customers continue to visit the traditional craftsman’s shop to place orders for woodblock prints, while others come solely to indulge in the captivating stories he shares.

Toan fondly recollected an enjoyable encounter with a Japanese tourist who patronized my shop. This individual not only revisited my establishment but also kindly gifted me with books and a map in their native language.

He explained that one of the most gratifying experiences for artisans is when their customers return to their shop. It is particularly special when customers living on the opposite side of the globe come back after an extended period of time.

The simple tools for creating wood stamps. Photo: Tuoi Tre Thu Do
A funky wood stamp is an ideal gift from Hanoi for kids. Photo: Hideo Tanaka
Pham Ngoc Toan’s wood stamp of lotus – a popular flower in Vietnam. Photo: Hideo Tanaka