People in and around northern Cao Bang province readily give a single travel tip to others: ‘If you visit Phuc Sen commune, be sure to buy a knife or your trip will be meaningless’. For over a century the Nung ethnic minority in mountainous Pac Rang village in Phuc Sen commune has been famous for their sharp and durable forged products. The village is home to around 2,000 Nung people, who live in stilt houses and make a living from farming and the traditional craft of making hand-forged agricultural tools.
Different from farmers in other regions, who only do forging between crops, the people of Phuc Sen are blacksmiths throughout the year and do little in the way of farm work. It is said that its products such as axes, scissors, knives, hoes, shovels, grappling hooks and ploughshares are purchased widely by farmers from nearby provinces and even as far away as in the lowland areas of Hanoi and Nghe An province.
The Nung people use not only their strength but all of their senses, especially their eyesight, to create sharp and durable forged products. ‘Only a blacksmith with good vision and hearing can make the best products,’ said Luong Van Vang, a 70-year-old blacksmith in the village. ‘The sound and the colour of the metal when being forged determine the sharpness of the tool.’ By examining the quality of the lime water (used during the knife sharpening process), they can also tell how sharp the blade is. Professional blacksmiths usually test their products by moving the knife on a nail; one that moves smoothly is perfect.
According to blacksmiths, the best materials for making products are suspension bars salvaged from motor cars, which are firstly heated and then cut off into smaller pieces appropriate to the size of a knife or ploughshare. Quality is the top priority - the forged products must be hard not brittle and flexible not weak.
The use of a charcoal fire also plays an important rule. In ancient times blacksmiths used only wooden charcoal for forging, but the material has become rare and expensive so people now use fossil coal instead. ‘The fire from fossil charcoal is too strong, and forged products can become too crisp and blunt more easily,’ Mr Vang said.
Not only talented blacksmiths, the Nung ethnic minority people in Pac Rang also have a good head for business. Some of the blacksmith households now offer home-stays for tourists.
Getting there: Pac Rang is one of six mountainous villages in Phuc Sen commune involved in the traditional trade of forging agricultural tools. The village is located 10 km from Ma Phuc Pass on National Highway No 3 in Cao Bang province.