Cafes that sell a lot more than just coffee are spreading through Hanoi like wildfire. One caffeine-infused option? Make your own leather goods. Words by Noey Neumark. Photos by Julie Vola
I’m typing this article with a blister on my left thumb. My neck is sore, my elbows are stiff and my fingertips are tender. I spent the last few hours cutting, poking, prodding, tracing and pounding. I’ll return in a couple of days to sew, and then I’ll have a beautiful leather passport case.
I stumbled out of DIY Box brimming with a mix of glee, fatigue and over-caffeination. While I worked tirelessly on my first-ever leathercraft project, I sipped thick Vietnamese coffee, chatted with newbie and veteran leather enthusiasts, and breathed in the sweet smell of thick animal hide (or was that glue?). I was converted. How could a simple café day have turned into an inspirational bout of self-discovery? This is the sort of transformation Nguyen Tuan Dung was dreaming of when he opened Hanoi’s first “leather café” two years ago.
“I wanted to open a workshop where I work and where people can come join me,” Dung, the founder of DIY Box and the downstairs Geo Coffee (the two floors formerly comprised Mammon Café) says. “I want to guide people so we can work together and share knowledge with one another.”
Stitching it Together
Hanoi’s leather café trend is on the upswing. Since Dung opened DIY Box two years ago, he’s witnessed his fellow leather enthusiasts and friends open similar shops across the capital. I first met Dung on an afternoon visit to Fuku Café & Leather, a rustic alternative to DIY Box’s long wooden tables and organized cubbies of fabrics and supplies. He was helping Ha, a good friend of his, with the credit card system at Fuku — a small gesture, perhaps, but one that indicates that the leather café community is close-knit rather than competitive. “I’m excited that my friends want to make leather,” Dung says.
DIY Box, Fuku, and other leather newcomers are a testament to the creative community in Hanoi. Patrons enter DIY Box through Geo Coffee and can find their way to the workshop upstairs, where a crew of staff assist leather craftspeople in every step of the process.
First, the artist must decide what it is he or she wishes to build. They might waver indecisively, as I did, between the array of beautiful template suggestions. Stacks of classy wallets and coin purses, funky glasses cases and chic notebook covers overflow from wicker baskets against the side wall, but workshop customers can also choose to make something from an image or, better yet, their imagination. Once the template is determined, DIY Box staff help patrons trim their selected fabric, and over several hours or days, guide blossoming leather experts through cutting, drawing, shaping, hammering and sewing.
According to Trung, who steers me through my passport case work: “It’s very easy to do if you know how to draw it, then cut it, then make holes, then sew it together.” I don’t know how to do any of these things, so I’m grateful for Trung’s patient kindness.
A Full On Experience
DIY Box, as the name implies, aims to offer a creative environment in which leather enthusiasts old and new can explore the craft. The workshop is bright and spacious, and identical hammers, X-Acto knives and needles sit within clearly-labelled organisers. The place is staffed to capacity, ensuring that there are always a few people on hand to help if you cut crookedly or hammer imprecisely.
In contrast, Fuku requires more endurance. A smaller, quieter shop where you have to try hard to order a coffee from the single leather-paged menu that floats between the café’s cushioned chairs, the leathercraft process at Fuku is just that: a process. The leathering approach at Fuku demands patience and persistence. Your first visit to Fuku may result only in coffee. On your next visit, as your presence is more familiar, perhaps you can sit and admire the crafty dedication of the shop’s owner hard at work on his next project. When you return, why don’t you try your hand at hammering, and then sewing?
I speak with one of the shop’s regulars, who has been honing his skills at Fuku for months. Despite a near-total language barrier, he collaborates beautifully with Ha, Fuku’s owner, as the two assist and advise each other on ongoing projects.It’s clear that it took him time to get to this point; his creative pursuits at Fuku could evolve only with him being both meticulous and dedicated.
Albeit in different styles, both Fuku and DIY Box (and others like them, including the new Egos Leather café and shop in Ho Chi Minh City) make the art of leathercraft accessible to those who seek it. “I’ve met many people working here,” Trung explains. “People come here who, like me, enjoy making things with their own hands.”
The Little Flaws
Take Harvey Bruce Milligan, for instance, who had no experience working with leather before he moved to Vietnam a few months ago. He did, however, have a passion for using his hands to create, which he discovered while spending time in a collective bicycle workshop in England.
“I’ve met a couple of other people through here who have been on pretty rigorous backpacking regimes,” Harvey says. “They arrived in Hanoi worn down and found that doing nothing but focusing on a piece of animal skin for a few days is actually quite appealing.”
Harvey found DIY Box with a visiting friend of his, and has since worked consistently to create a slew of leathercraft products. On the day I meet him, he’s got his hands busy cutting and stitching a set of six leather coasters. “It’s pretty straightforward, but it does take time to get something really beautifully crafted,” he clarifies between hammer blows. “I don’t think anything I’ve made is pitch-perfect... but people appreciate those little flaws.”
In Search of Oneness?
In an increasingly anxiety-ridden world, it seems everywhere in the world should embrace Vietnam’s craft café trend. Not only have I, and those who came before me, realized the therapeutic power of tedious craftwork, but the sense of accomplishment afforded at the completion of a craft project (or a major milestone within it) is enough to brighten any mood.
Is that why Dung opened DIY Box, in an attempt to save the anxious world from itself? Not quite, but it’s apparent that he’s happy to be spreading the leather gospel.
“Before working with leather I was a software engineer,” he explains. “When I learned about what you can do with leather, I became very excited.” So excited, in fact, that he made it his life’s work to teach others about the challenges and rewards of leathercraft.
Dung opened Mammon in 2013, but changed the name and branding to DIY Box when he started to envision making the company bigger and broader. Despite changes, though, he emphasises that he wants to “keep the craft accessible”. Maintaining and growing a shop of this kind can be difficult, Dung adds, because people must really commit to their projects to keep the café in business. “I like to see people coming to us, and I like them to see how leather works and the work that goes into leather products,” he says.
This movement is still in its nascent stages, but with Dung’s commitment and the enthusiasm of others, we’re sure to see continued growth. “Places like the US and Europe have a history of people doing leathercraft,” Dung explains, adding that he’s eager to keep pushing the modern spread of this centuries-old craft.
From my limited personal experience, it wouldn’t surprise me if the leather bug spreads quickly. The work is relaxing, stimulating and fun, and according to everyone I meet, it’s the kind of thing that anyone can take up. So what will you make first?
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