Somewhere out in the blistering heat of Ha Dong, where an unfamiliar dusty haze swallows the suburbs of Hanoi, giving the urban environment an almost rustic atmosphere, lies Backstreet Academy. Pham Duc Anh, or David as he’d rather be known makes himself present. “I’m going to show you the complete traditional process of knife making.” David has been with Backstreet Academy for almost three years now and has racked up a range of experience in the process. If you want to try your hand at Vietnamese cultural exploits in a traditional and authentic fashion, he’s your man. Everything from cooking, to calligraphy, painting watercolours to making weapons – I mean knives – Backstreet Academy have a host of options available for you.
“Normally, in modern life, we use so many factory-made or machine-made products, so I thought it would be good to introduce people to crafting their own – these traditions are at risk of disappearing.” David seems earnest in his desire to engage with locals to help their crafts survive the brutal march of time and progress.
“Making knives is hard work, it takes a lot of energy and effort – also a lot of time, and it’s not a high paying job,” he laments. Behind him is a range of tools that looked fresh off the set of a Saw movie, but were in fact a blend of modern technology and classical methodology. As intimidating and medieval looking as these implements might have looked.
Ha Dong only become a part of Hanoi in 2008, but prior to that – some few hundred years ago – it had been a series of communes, this one in particular was known as Da Sy village, according to David. “Historically, Da Sy was visited by a blacksmith who introduced forging to the locals here. As the technology developed, the trade became popular and Da Sy was renowned nationwide for providing weapons for the military, but when peace returned to Vietnam 40 years ago, the blacksmiths turned to making kitchen equipment.”
Chef Big Boi Roy, Hanoi-based chef and all-round good guy, surveyed the range of knives on offer to make. I personally opted to craft something big, heavy-hitting and cruel looking. “If a cleaver and a French knife had a baby, it’d look like that,” laughed Big Boi Roy as he searched for something else. Taking one of the pre-made test models out and checking the weight and the balance, Big Boi Roy ran the blade up his arm, as if he was shaving. “That’s how you find out if a knife is sharp,” he explained. “If it cuts your hair, it’s sharp.”
He seemed to have a knack for this. “I’m looking for finesse, but it’s got to be something that’s got a bit of chop to it,” he explained casually as he rained down a series of fearsome blows on the hot metal. “You need to heat and hit both edges, otherwise the blade won’t be straight.” As the American chef and David remained unfazed by the blazing furnace, despite, laborious process of craftsmanship and general physical exertion, they hammered a chisel into a hot sheet of metal to get the basic shape for their knives. After hammering the metal flat, they carved and whittled a handle, grounded the blades sharp and – under David’s expert guidance – assembled the knives in all their glory.
Evidently proud of his skill, Chef Big Boi Roy set about sharpening the knives on some sort of stone that had been engineered precisely for this moment.“I don’t know what this specific type of stone is, but usually you have two kinds of whetstones – oil or water – and they tend to have ones in restaurant with three different gradients ranging from coarse to smooth. Every knife has a different purpose.” Again, he casually sets about explaining this while working with knives that could definitely end lives.
Sometimes it’s the thought that counts when it comes to handmade gifts, but sometimes – you need something that actually functions. A knife is a chef’s primary weapon of choice and even though I’m not a chef, as far as doomsday prepping goes, a big knife, a coconut machete in this case, is always handy.
Want to make your own knife? Visit Backstreet Academy for more information.