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H'mong knives have the edge

No 1, Vol.6, January – February 2016


The fame of H’mong master blacksmiths made me climb the steep rocky slopes of Nà Trôn mountain to Sử Pán commune (Sa Pa). The sound of hammering added rhythm to my steps. It was Mr. Chầu A Giáo, 45, who made the diligent sound. A red-hot piece of iron looked so docile under the muscles of his sturdy arm.
The pride of Sử Pán, he told me, the trade is an age-old tradition of the H’mong at Sử Pán. On these harsh rugged mountains, one can’t survive without a machete or ax good enough to cut trees, a strong plough or hoe to soften the soil, or a good sickle to harvest. The H’mong here used to make all sorts of iron tools. But nowadays, they only make machetes.

Heating iron on charcoal

I asked how to make a good knife. Mr. Giáo said that one needs good iron and has to know how to forge it. Kinh people use pit-coal, but the H’mong use charcoal from strong forest wood. Red-hot iron is hammered to take the thin, sharp head of a knife, and then tempered to be stronger. This is the most important stage. Not enough heat, the iron will be soft. Too much heat, the knife edge will be brittle and easy to jag. The tempering water is another age-old secret. It helps give the knife toughness without being brittle, durable sharpness that makes it last longer than human life. Wild banana trunk is an ingredient used in the preparation of that water.
The H’mong at Sử Pán have another secret in making bronze rings to cover knife handles. They cut strips from bronze sheets, curl them to fit the handle and solder the stripe ends to make the rings. In the past, they used silver and some other rare and expensive substances for the solder. Nowadays, electric welding is more convenient. Yet welding bronze requires skills, because a clumsy weld is easy to break. Welding bronze is a hard skill to master. It takes a lot of patience and deft.
Mr. Châu A Chính, who lives nearby, is also a lifelong blacksmith. Due to old age and blurred eyesight, he has quit forging, and his son took over the family’s business. He told us, “H’mong men are inseparable from their knife. It’s both a work tool and a self-defence weapon. Our H’mong ancestors at Sử Pán have forged precious experience and family secrets to make good knives. This is also an ethnic feature that generations have preserved and passed down.”
On Nà Trôn Mountain, beside the big masters like Mr Giáo and Mr, Chính, there are about 30 other H’mong households that follow this traditional trade.
The H’mong blacksmith workshop at Sử Pán is very simple. A dirt mound for a furnace, a few anvils, bellows, hammers and pliers are all there is. Except for harvest seasons, the furnaces of Sử Pán are always red hot, and the sounds of hammers and anvils make life here vibrant.
The H’mong knives of Sử Pán were primarily a life necessity. But recently, the knife trade began booming. Many households make knives to sell to tourists. Sùng A Dơ, who specializes in knives for tourists that visit Sa Pa said, they love ones that are not only good, but also very beautiful. Commercial knives must have an elegant shape, shining blade and a carved
curve handle wrapped in many dandy bronze rings. The sheaths also have to be eye-catching and light. A sharp knife in a wooden sheath normally sells for 150,000 – 200,000 VND. But one with handle and sheath made of buffalo horn can be worth 400,000 – 500,000 VND.n

Text and photo By Tuan Ngoc
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