Walking down Hang Ngang Pho (street) in old Hanoi, I stopped at Nguyen Bao Nguyen’s storefront/atelier…drawn by his very realistic portraits of French and American actors and other luminaries, as well as of his walk-in clients.
Nguyen is a Truyen Than artist.

Portraitist Nguyen Bao Nguyen, has been working in his 100 square foot atelier for over 50 years. Now in his late seventies, he still remembers each and every drawing he has ever made.

When I met Nguyen Bao Nguyen, he was busy drawing a Black Dzao from Bac Ha in the northern region of Vietnam, copying it from a large photocopied photograph. I was struck by how his drawing was richer and more detailed than the photograph.

It’s in the small streets, alleys and warrens of Old Hanoi that Truyen Than (Vietnamese for Conveying The Soul) portraitists started their art in the early 20th century. The black and white charcoal drawings were designed to convey the essence of their subjects in a low-key fashion.

The practice started as people wanted personal depictions of their relatives to use for ancestor worship. The artistic renditions of family members copied from old photographs quickly became popular, especially for wedding photos.

Nguyen’s craft is in drawing and copying old (or damaged) photographs in exquisite details; a painstaking task that can take him many days.

Good truyen than portraits must not only look like the persons they represent, but also make viewers feel that they are physically there and are talking with them.

The walls of his tiny atelier are covered with his work, showing erstwhile French actors such as Jean Gabin, Yves Montand and even Alain Delon. Gary Cooper and John Wayne represent the United States. However, the most realistic are those of Vietnamese individuals.

Despite the current availability of imported ink in Hanoi, Nguyen still uses his own handmade ink which he learned to prepare when it was impossible to import foreign products. He burns scraps of rubber tires with a kerosene lamp, and uses the soot collected to create black ink.

He occasionally makes his own pencils…making them from incense sticks or matches, then tying them tightly to thin bamboo sticks using thin copper wire.

Nguyen considers the portraits he draws of dead parents and ancestors to be his most rewarding work. Many of those are for families who lost their parents or grandparents during the American War. Some say the drawings have helped them through the pain of missing their loved ones.

“The city used to have over 300 Truyen Than shops,” says Nguyen. “But now they are no more than 10.” Will the Truyen Than art survive scanners and digital cameras?

It’s doubtful.