My Travels In Vietnam – The Hanoi Watch Scene
What does a true watchie (thank you for the neologism Richard Paige) do after arriving in a city for the first time? Goes looking for watches of course!
On the recommendation of Peter Speake-Marin I headed for Miluxe Boutique the destination watch retailer in Hanoi. There the genial proprietor, Mr Le Tu, treated me to a viewing of a watch from the Speake-Marin brand created for a Vietnamese customer. The dial design is based on decorations adorning a traditional Vietnamese ceremonial drum. I found a similar drum in The Temple of Literature a Hanoi landmark.
We talked for a while about the Vietnamese watch scene and something Mr Le Tu said reminded me of the watch scene in the US and Europe – different cities possess different tastes in watches.
Saigon is warm year round and people there don somewhat flashier clothes and like larger watches than the denizens of Hanoi, which always experiences a few chilly months per annum. The warm weather/flashier clothes/large watches versus cold weather/more conservative taste in clothes and watches exists in the US – think Miami and LA as opposed to New York and Boston. In Europe it’s London and Berlin on the cold weather conservative side with Rome and Barcelona on the hot weather flashier team.
After Miluxe I walked around the city looking for watchmakers – not the ones ensconced in climate controlled rooms servicing watches from famous brands but the ones bent over workbenches repairing any watch mechanical or quartz, wrist or pocket that enters their shop. Watchmakers of that breed exist in every Asian city I’ve ever visited so I thought they must exist in Hanoi. Yes, they do.
The first one I encountered in the city’s Old Quarter was squeezed into a cubbyhole space barely big enough for him and his workbench but he looked happy in his work. He spoke not a word of English and did not enjoy being interrupted by a tourist with a camera. The watch in his hands: a Longines probably from the 1930s.
On my meanderings around unfamiliar cities I avoid relying on map apps or even a map – I just wander. Eventually, I turned onto a street called Hang Phen, also in the Old Quarter, which I learned later back at my hotel was once lined with about a dozen watch repair shops – four remain. Two allowed me in and let me take photographs. Both shops were established in 1932 – which means they endured wars, revolutions, armed occupation and heavy aerial bombardment – and continue to fix and service watches.
Inside the shops were watchmakers working on Omegas, Longines, Tissots, Hamiltons and Seikos and several other brands. One watchmaker spoke a little English. From him, I gleaned the watchmakers in each shop are from one family and that the craft is passed on from fathers to sons and nowadays to daughters.
These shops do not boast a gleaming, bright, airy ambience but they do form part of the infrastructure of the watch industry. If they ever disappear completely – that will be a sad day.