Nguyen The Dung, 75, rides his old Thong Nhat bicycle near Nguyen Chi Thanh street to No 51 Hang Dao street every morning in Hanoi's Old Quarter. This is the address of a portrait drawing shop, or ‘ve truyen than’ in Vietnamese.

After parking his bike at the corner of the small shop which looks old with simple tiles and a bamboo curtain, Dung sits down on an old chair and begins working.

His toolbox is full of paintbrushes, some factory-made, and others handmade from bamboo chopsticks and steel wire. 

He picks up a paintbrush and gently dips into the colors he bought at an art store, and waves his hand back and forth on the portrait of a recently deceased man. He is planning to draw a portrait of the man which will be put at the altar.

“It is easy to buy drawing colors now. They are available at every art shop. In the past, we used paraffin lamp soot to draw, and we had to collect soot a month long to get a small piece,” Dung recalled.

The bigger the fire, the more soot generated, but this soot was not good enough because the adhesion was bad. But Dung finally found a way to create high quality colors. He mixed the lamp soot he collected with a special method with some powder to create a black color which is suitable for drawing portraits. This is a professional secret.

Le Minh, an artist from Quang Binh, said he also drew portraits in his young age and that every painter had his own secret to create drawing black color. He had to burn chinaberry tree to get charcoal and then collect the black powder for painting. The powder was like an adhesive, but it could be erased.

Dung said portrait painting is a special art. ‘Ve truyen than’ in Vietnamese means the art of drawing portraits and conveying the mien, spirit and soul of a person.

“The photos taken by camera or smartphone cannot capture the spirit of a person. The faces on digital photos, if edited, may turn flat and look unnatural,” he said.

Working day

It was not a busy day for Dung. No one came to the shop on that morning and he spent all his time to complete the portrait ordered before.

“I can draw one portrait within several days. If customers don’t hurry me, I draw one portrait a week. In the past, in 1960-1970s, I completed two portraits a day,” he said. “The clients were the relatives of the deceased and they wanted to have a portrait to put on the altar."

1967 and 1972 were tough years for Hanoians, when the US army bombed the city. Many people died, so the demand for portraits of the dead was high.

“We worked so hard then. Clients placed orders in the morning and wanted to get portraits in the afternoon. I got a lot of money that time, but I felt sad. Many people got obsessed for a long time,” Dung recalled. 

In the wartime, as there were few cameras, the demand for portrait was high. there were dozens of ‘ve truyen than’ shops on Hang Dao, Hang Ngang and Hang Duong streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and the fees were very high.

“The rice price was 0.4 dong per kilogram then. Meanwhile, the fee for one portrait was hundreds of times higher. My income was many times higher than pay to state officers,” he said.

Traditional career fading away

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, cameras and computers became popular in Vietnam, which meant lower demand for drawn portraits. More recently, smartphones have cameras, which takes pictures as well as cameras. The career is fading away, and ‘ve truyen than’ shops are no longer crowded.

“People nowadays only have to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dong and wait for several minutes to obtain a color photo. I heard that AI edit photos in seconds,” Dung said.

However, the artisan believes that ‘ve truyen than’ still has its advantages.

According to Dung, the fee for one drawn portrait is still relatively high compared with having a photo taken, about VND1 million for an 18 x 24 cm portrait. 

Customers have to pay more for larger-size portraits, VND1.2 million for 20 x 30 cm, VND2 for 30 x 40 cm portraits. However, a portrait has its own beauty, vividness, depth, and characterization of the person being drawn. 

Nguyet Ha - Linh Nhi