A self-taught shoemaker has honed his craft from meager beginnings to fashioning some of the finest leather shoes in the world from his workshop in Saigon, Vietnam.
Learning the trade in humble circumstances in the 1940s, Trinh Ngoc, now 89, went on to craft footwear that became sought after by world leaders.
His shoemaking journey started at an early age in 1947, when Ngoc’s brother apprenticed in making suitcases. Near where he worked, there was a shoemaking workshop that Ngoc used to visit frequently.
“I found it really interesting, and I was interested in learning it because shoemaking is really diverse,” he told The Epoch Times.
He would watch the shoemakers practicing their craft and learned from them—although their shoemaking skills were considered inferior by European standards.
“Fortunately in 1950, my family moved to Phnom Penh and opened a shoe shop in a new French town,” he recalled of the family’s move to Cambodia.
There were several shoe stores in that city, which stocked all kinds of popular brands that were sold to local European customers. At first, those European patrons distrusted Ngoc’s workmanship, deeming the quality of his shoes subpar, owing to his still-unrefined skill set. They would only go to him to have their shoes repaired, while buying new pairs from France and Italy.
Still, they kept telling him they would start buying his shoes if he could match their standards.
“What they said made me feel motivated but also unconfident,” Ngoc admitted.
With so many European examples at his fingertips, though, he took the opportunity to compare the craftsmanship of the imported footwear versus that of the locally made. He found that the quality gap between the two was huge.
Every night, while repairing those shoes, Ngoc would open a box and examine the craftsmanship in detail in order to learn a thing or two.
“Gradually, day by day, year by year, my skill improved and I started making more shoes,” he said.
After about two years of practicing in this way, he showed some local European patrons what he had made when they came to have their shoes repaired. They said the quality still looked substandard—but they would try out a pair.
Luckily enough, Ngoc found that his customers actually liked his handiwork, and soon more and more orders started to stream in each day.
His reputation and business grew steadily, and in time, his brand became famous throughout Cambodia.
“French businessmen, professors, and doctors started ordering,” he said. “Even the French ambassador also came to make shoes in my shop.”
Eventually, the prime minister and his family became his patrons.
“Later, the Cambodian royal family also came to my shop,” Ngoc said.
The king, Norodom Sihanouk—who was considered a very stylish man who only wore shoes from Europe—heard about Ngoc’s shoemaking prowess and invited him to the palace to make a pair for him.
At that time, his career was at its height.
In 1970, however, a civil war broke out in Cambodia, involving U.S. troops, those of Lon Nol, and the Vietnamese communists, which forced Ngoc and his family to flee back to Vietnam.
“When I came to Saigon, I lost everything—nothing left. But God blessed me, I was still alive,” he said.
In 1971, he conducted a market survey and set out to focus on making only high-class shoes, which he would showcase at popular malls and shops where imported footwear was being sold. Ngoc’s shoes started selling rapidly due to their very reasonable price, with customers noting the quality of the items. One shop owner even offered to pass them off as imports.
Business was good for Ngoc and his customers alike—and vendors took note of his constant trips to promote his wares. They started inquiring about his shop location so they could purchase from him directly at a lower cost.
“Since that time, the customers around Saigon have poured into my shoe shop,” he said. “Musicians, singers, and even French doctors also came to my shop to make shoes. The Saigon government also invited me to their office to make shoes for them.”
However, difficult times hit after Saigon fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese communists, and Ngoc stopped making shoes. He noticed that people had given up wearing shoes, exchanging them for cheap rubber sandals to stroll around town.
This made him and his wife quite sad; he thought his career had come to an end, and he took a long break from shoemaking—until eventually taking up the trade again in later years.
In 1975, with his expertise in shoemaking, Ngoc went to work for Bata, a Vietnamese shoe company, as a manager, teaching the skill of shoemaking to the workers.
At the age of 61, he retired from Bata and delved back into his specialty.
He had also passed on the art of traditional shoemaking to many other students. But he says that none have managed to follow his method as painstakingly as he had—instead lured by the financial incentive to produce a greater volume of cheaper shoes during times of financial strain.
“It takes two days for me to make one pair of shoes, but they can produce 200 to 300 pairs per day,” Ngoc said. “The benefit is really high.”
To succeed in the shoemaking business, he added, you need passion, creativity, sophisticated artistic eyes, and golden hands to execute exactly what you wish to see.
All photos and video by The Epoch Times.