From July to October every year, the flow of Thu Bon River, which starts from the watershed on Ngoc Linh Mountain in Kon Tum Province, about 167km away, carries large chunks of tree branches and woody debris to its outlet area of Cua Dai District in Hoi An, a small city in Quang Nam.
This debris turned out to be a gold mine for Thuan’s creative endeavors.
|An artwork made from driftwood by Le Ngoc Thuan and associates in Hoi An City, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre
Thuan is by no means a one-trick-pony.
Long before his wood carving project took off, he was already known as a mogul in Hoi An’s hotelier community, who owns and helped design a successful chain of homestays along An Bang Beach.
Thuan also channeled his eccentricities into the decorations of many nightclubs and restaurants in Hoi An, which helped draw in swathes of foreign tourists.
In late 2020, Thuan was contacted by a friend who jokingly asked him to create art from the wood scraps that washed up near the Thu Bon outlet, which was inundated during the historical flooding that hit central Vietnam from October to November that year.
On the other end of the line, Thuan felt like he had struck gold. He promptly rode his pickup truck to the location and searched the waterfront for pieces of driftwood that matched his vision.
One week later, Thuan called up the friend to show him a piece of art, which stretches 0.8 meters tall and 1.5 meters long, that was created out of the joke he made.
For this piece, Thuan set out to illustrate different shades of human expression facials out of wood.
What he achieved found resonance with many foreign art collectors, who offered to buy the piece at high prices.
Thuan immediately saw a business opportunity out of the driftwood that laid in abundance on the river shore.
“I quite like the ‘driftwood’ moniker that people started to call me. It implies that I made marketable arts from discards, and that I gave this waste a new life,” Thuan said.
|An artwork made from driftwood by Le Ngoc Thuan and associates in Hoi An City, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre
From waste to bucks
In early 2020, Thuan opened a new restaurant with DIY esthetics in Hoi An, where he strives to showcase fewer concrete structures and more upcycled art pieces.
Then the COVID-19 crisis arrived, dragging its shadow on Hoi An tourism throughout the last year.
To keep his businesses afloat during the new situation, Thuan had to come up with many initiatives, including art festivals on the beach and cuisine competitions that feature the best chefs in town.
In December last year, Thuan was featured in a night art fair that displayed notable arts and DIY crafts of the artists’ community in Hoi An, where his driftwood pieces emerged as a standout to visitors.
|Artworks made from driftwood by Le Ngoc Thuan and associates in Hoi An City, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre
Thuan’s approach of retaining the original color and grains of the material, while using minimal carving and avoiding wood shine products, was aided by the technique of a visual artist in the area.
Using one week to chisel the details, Thuan managed to pull out the touches of facial expressions from the wood caricature, which convinced an art fair goer to purchase the artwork on the spot.
The initial success convinced Thuan to branch out with more bizarre designs, which became the specialties of his stall at the local art fair.
|An artwork made from driftwood by Le Ngoc Thuan and associates in Hoi An City. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre
Minimalism in hospitality
After the initial phase of experimentation, Thuan reached a decision to pursue the driftwood work as a business venture.
He started out carving all products by hand, but later scaled up to a workshop with a woodworking machine due to the overwhelming demand of customers.
Thuan also headed to the Kim Bong Carpentry Village in Hoi An to pick up discarded wood and even recruited carpenters for his facility.
By now, his production has been able to run consistently, providing ornaments, napkin boxes, and furniture for lodging and restaurants all over Hoi An.
A piece of furniture from Thuan’s workshop can be sold for as much as US$1,000.
|Le Ngoc Thuan’s booth at a local art fair in Hoi An City, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre
“This product line proves the perfect fit to the emerging lifestyle of minimalism,” Thuan said.
“Each of the pieces is not simply an item for consumption.
“They are also works that harbor stories from the past.”
Echoing Thuan’s point, Tran Van Khoa, director of travel agency Jack Tran Tours Hoi An, said that eco-friendly decorations with artistic features are in vogue among the hospitality sector.
Meanwhile, in Hoi An, the penchant for modernism with glass and metal galore remains a hindrance for the rise of minimalism.
“Le Ngoc Thuan’s approach is the way to go,” he remarked.