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From flea market to antique café setting Vietnam’s record

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A man began to collect and trade in ancient objects at a flea market. With a passion for antiques, he opens Co Ngoan Café that wins a Vietnamese record.

Tourists to Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta should visit Co Ngoan (Antiques), a coffee shop where they may sip a cup of coffee while reminiscing about old memories and listening to stories told by the café’s owner.

The café is owned by Pham Van Hai, 36, a native of Hau Giang, a neighboring province. He also owns a cement trading company in Can Tho. Yet his hobby has nothing to do with building materials but about antique collection.

Passion from a flea market

Pham Van Hai in his Café

In end-2015, Pham Van Hai began to develop his interest in some old objects at a flea market in Can Tho City on the weekend. He has been fond of antiques ever since, which prompts him to learn and buy more antiques from his acquaintances and antique collectors.

Mr. Hai sometimes visited his relatives’ houses in the countryside, where some old objects were casually kept by their owners. He bought them, took them home, and cleaned them because they were meaningful to him. To collect the antiques, he has to travel far and wide to buy the items.

“I used to go to Bac Lieu and Ca Mau provinces just to buy a small vase,” Mr. Hai says. “Those trips were tiring but I was happy with them because I could buy one or two favorite objects. Sometimes when I arrived at a house after traveling hundreds of kilometers, the seller changed his mind and no longer wanted to sell his antiques to me. I was able to buy some only after I had come over to sellers’ houses many times.”

Talking about his passion for antique collection, Mr. Hai says, “I love the age and historical and cultural values of antiques. It is such a love that urges me to collect antiques.” At first, he wanted to display the items at home so that his friends could watch them and nurture a love for them. He was glad to receive antique lovers who paid a visit to watch and talk about his collection.

After having collected a large number of antiques, Mr. Hai thought of finding a venue to showcase all his collection. He then bought another house in Can Tho to open Co Ngoan Café in July last year.

Mr. Hai displays thousands of antiques at his café, including inexpensive bowls and plates and even those worth hundreds of millions of dong. “After visiting my café, some guests have realized that they have something similar to mine at home but they don’t know,” he says.

Mr. Hai also mounted many ceramic plates and vases on the walls. In December, the Vietnam Record Organization (VietKings) recognized his Co Ngoan Café as “the café with the largest number of ceramic plates and vases mounted on the walls in Vietnam.” According to him, the number of plates of southern origin he has fixed to the walls is more or less 3,000 pieces.

Guests at the antique Café

In support of the community

Mr. Hai’s café has made a difference: guests may touch any exhibits and he will never ask guests to compensate for what they unintentionally break at his café. “Most tend to view antiques without touching them for fear of breaking them inadvertently,” he says. “Guests can watch and touch or hold all exhibits at my café at will, so that they will love antiques more and thus try to preserve them.”

He adds, smiling, “It’s hard for me to buy antiques since the opening of the café, because guests have realized that they also have something at home that is similar to those displayed at the café, and if they want to sell them, they will ask for much higher prices.”

Since its opening, Mr. Hai’s café has become a venue for antique lovers to meet each other. “Many antique collectors have come to my café and told me about what they need,” he says. “I have traveled far and wide and thus known where to buy and sell such objects to those in need.”

He adds the profit from serving drinks alone is not enough to run the café, but thanks to buying and selling antiques to guests upon request, he can earn hundreds of millions of dong per month. He also helps selling valuable antiques for guests thanks to his large number of acquaintances in the antique collection circle. “As I know quite a few antique collectors countrywide, I can help my guests in finding rare objects,” he says.

Mr. Hai usually held auctions for antique collectors. He has spent part of the money earned from these auctions helping disadvantaged people. He has also auctioned his own antiques to raise funds for charitable activities held by media agencies.

“As I have possessed many antiques, I would like to contribute my part to charitable activities,” he says. “Many other antique collectors have also contributed money, or their own antiques to my fundraising auctions for charitable purposes. Doing such deeds makes me happy.”

In November last year, Mr. Hai cooperated with Gia Dinh Viet Nam Online to hold an auction and raise a fund worth over VND100 million for victims of natural disasters in the central region.

Storyteller of antiques

Mr. Hai is frequently present at the café to meet his guests. He is willing to tell his knowledge and stories about antiques they want to know. “Each antique I bought has its own story, and it seems like I’m selling these stories,” he says.

Talking about a bowl he loves the most among his numerous valuable antiques, he says the year the bowl was made, 1937, was printed on it. This was the first pottery product made by an apprentice to keep the money he saved for his wedding. He began to learn pottery making in 1937 and he made the bowl in that year. The bowl was filled with coins that he saved in four or five years, which was enough for him to get married. The bowl changed hands several times and was finally bought by Mr. Hai in Tra Vinh Province. The offspring of the potter told his story to Mr. Hai when he bought the bowl. “Although the bowl is not expensive, it’s invaluable to me as it’s second to none,” he says.

Mr. Hai is always exciting when talking about antiques showcased at the café, such as bowls, plates, kerosene lamps, bronze urns, ancient coins, and pottery vases and pots. He says every drawing sketch on a pottery vase has its own story. He elaborates on the periods, ages and history of antiques, and the tales concerning their enamels and their patterns.

He owns various types of antiques, the majority of which are potteries. All his collected items were made in Vietnam from 1930 to pre-1975. He always takes time to study antiques and their history. “I don’t collect those antiques made thousands of years ago as they are beyond my knowledge,” he says. “I’m interested only in the objects that are within my knowledge and ability.”

By Tran Duy Minh

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