Artists of Hanoi: Lien Nguyen a leather crafting mage
Written by Judith Barnes
Photos by Victoria Siwik
Making things from scratch may be a dying art in the West, but here in Vietnam the tradition is alive and well. This is easy to see at any cafe that’s sprinkled with handmade decorations, or in pottery shops where they actually spin the clay, on entire streets lined with the raw material for all things DIY, and not to mention little rooftop gardens everywhere. A child of her nation, Hai Duong born Lien Nguyen seems right at home in her workshop/boutique Seven Free. It’s from here that she handcrafts numerous leather items and where I pepper her with questions.
Lien tells me she started the business almost accidentally, that a notebook she had fashioned for herself caught her friends’ eyes, who then began imploring her to make one for each of them. At first she gave them away as gifts, but before she knew it people began asking for different items such as wallets, passport holders and pencil cases. The demand was there, and Nguyen decided to meet it. Any resistance she may have initially had broke down once she realized this could also be a pathway to greater freedom in her life, something she could acquire 7 days a week if she really wanted —hence the name “Seven Free.” The name felt right to Nguyen, not to mention 7 is also her favorite number.
“I can’t go back to working in an office,” Nguyen exclaims. Even the business model she adopted in Seven Free’s infancy was too fast for her relaxed style. “It was just do it and deliver, then do it and deliver. Like a machine!” But now, Nguyen doesn’t accept designs that she isn’t into or feels she wouldn’t be able to make well. That being said, she feels a sense of satisfaction and pride when meeting a challenge.
Nguyen’s pride isn’t misplaced either. She’s been providing tasteful, practical items for her customers for over 3 years. Although she’s largely self-taught, her craftsmanship is that of an expert. Right now she’s working on a piece that will soon be a notebook with a penholder. She’s dressed casually and leans on one leg as she deftly works a threaded needle in and out of the edges of a leather slab. She dons a pair of 1940’s style vintage glasses and a zany smile lights her face as she lets me in a bit on her inner life as an artist.
“I really like sometimes when I make the new things. When people ask me to do a hard thing —at the time making it is really hard and I think, why did I accept this?? But at the end when I’ve done it, I feel really proud and realize I can actually do it better.”
I can’t imagine the items being done any better however. As I glance around the simple shop, I’m convinced there must also be some wizardry involved in accomplishing the final products. The space is akin to an open-air garage; sunny, narrow and adjacent to a typical Hanoian home. Notebooks, rolls of leather and suede, small bags and other assorted items fill the floor-to ceiling shelves. A light breeze flows in from the street and rustles strips of material on a work table strewn with tools. Amongst them are a wooden holder, metal mallet and compass, punchers, smoothers and a sewing kit of course.
Ordering items from Lien is easy. Just head over to Seven Free’s super accessible location just off of Au Co. Pricing there is also quite reasonable, the most intricate items rarely reaching above 600K.