“Ah, welcome to my home,” he says, looking up. “I see you’ve met my son”.
The boy scuttles off back down the stairs. In the future he will, Dung hopes, take over to become the fifth generation of luthiers in this family. First, though, he must study. In the face of ever growing competition from big multinationals such as Fender, Yamaha and Gibson, he will need a good understanding of business and economics to compete. Yet such things feel a long way removed from the intimate studio built into Dung’s family home where, drawing on the inherited knowledge and craftsmanship of his ancestors, he makes some of the finest guitars in Vietnam for musicians all across the world.
The family business, Thanh Cam, has always been shaped by forces from overseas. At the beginning of the 20th century, Dung’s great grandfather was running a small business in Hanoi making traditional Vietnamese stringed instruments like the dan nguyet (two stringed lute) and the dan ho (upright violin). With the country under colonial rule at the time, occasionally a Frenchman would bring in a guitar for repairs, prompting him to learn on his feet so as to open himself up to this new market. The newly acquired knowledge was handed down to his son, Dung’s grandfather, who started making guitars from scratch, along with other western stringed instruments that were more suited to the Vietnamese musical style, such as the mandolin and banjo.
East Meets West
The French, in their attempt to bring their own brand of civilisation to the country, chose Vietnamese musical tradition as something that necessarily needed westernisation. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries they handed out western instruments such as violins, mandolins, saxophones and accordions across the country to almost anyone who asserted their belief in the Christian God. As a result, in the depths of the Vietnamese countryside, there are still many people who possess and can play these instruments, though not in the style they were intended. As typical for Vietnam, the foreign influence was taken on but morphed to meet Vietnamese tradition. Often the instruments were re-tuned to suit the Asian pentatonic scale rather than the western chromatic. Dung’s grandfather latched onto this trend and started altering the western instruments to further meet Vietnamese requirements. Most inventively, he created a scalloped neck for the mandolins and guitars that, with the strings lying over dug out fret boards, allowed the player to bend the strings downwards to hit the mid tones so important to Vietnamese music.
The successive wars that followed Vietnam’s independence brought with them a need for a new type of music. Sparked on by the Eastern European songs that started to play on Vietnamese radio after 1945, the guitar was adopted. Simple, versatile and capable of holding a song together on its own while groups of people sang over the top, it was the perfect instrument for the urgent and uplifting songs of the period. The government quickly realised its morale-boosting capacity and in the 1950s started up factories that made up to 4,000 guitars a month, most of which were sent off to the soldiers on the front line. Dung’s father, out of work in his private luthier business, took up a job at the biggest of these factories in 1960, beginning his specialisation in guitars that would then go on to inform Dung’s business.
Supply and Demand
The wood Dung is working when I meet him will eventually be the neck of a guitar that he will sell to a shop in England for somewhere close to VND42 million.
“I have to be careful with this one,” he tells me. “The wood alone is worth over VND25 million. Any mistake would be very expensive.”
The room he is working in has guitars of varying shapes and sizes hanging from the walls, all in different stages of completion. Each one will sell for over VND21 million , almost exclusively to the west. As Vietnam has been drawn in by globalisation, Dung’s business has seen many changes and no longer sits just on the receiving end of foreign influence. His small team makes about 400 guitars a month, and while the majority are cheap and quickly produced to sell to amateur players in Vietnam, his best business is in selling high-end guitars abroad.
“Like in almost every industry nowadays, we are in competition with companies who outweigh us completely,” he says. “In China there are huge factories making guitars where the low labour costs and huge quantities in production mean we cannot compete over price. To survive, we have to find our own place in the market.”
In general, high quality guitars are made by individual luthiers in the country where they are to be sold. As Dung prices his labour lower than in the west, he can produce the same quality guitars for a fraction of the price. Dropping his own brand name and imprinting that of his customer onto the guitars, they can be sold in foreign markets without garnering the suspicion that many westerners hold against Asian goods.
During the time I am with him, Dung shows me about ten different types of wood, making me smell and feel each piece and talking enthusiastically about their different qualities.
“It’s all in the wood,” he tells me. “The luthier’s job is just to do it justice, though that’s not easy. It takes a lifetime of experience to know each type, its character, its failings. My father taught me a lot but I still have things to learn.”
I ask him if he feels that the intimacy of the instrument is lost in rebranding it and posting it off across the world.
“Not at all,” he replies. “When I was younger, before I got married, I used to go to sleep holding the guitar I was working on. It makes me very happy to think that someone thousands of miles away might be doing the same thing with a guitar I have made for them.”