When Le Thi Hung goes on vacation, a once-a-year event during Tet, he padlocks the doors to his moveable cart, wraps it tightly with fabric and pushes it into a motorbike parking area around the corner and then hangs a sign on it that says, “Nghi Tet (Closed for Tet).”
Mr Hung, 59, is the proprietor and the sole employee of Dong Ho Ong Hung (Mr. Hung’s Watches), a small business that feels like a rarity these days. It has been in the same spot on Huynh Thuc Khang Street, near Ben Thanh Market, for a long time. It turns a (modest) profit, and is unaffected by the whims of the commercial real estate market because its owner is also its landlord.
In an age of fads and disposability, Mr. Hung, Saigon watchman, fixes watches that may have cost anywhere from VND20,000 tp VND15 million but are worth much more to the people who wear them. From behind a plexiglass cart but still exposed to the elements – sun, wind, rain, dust – he manipulates tools that are Swiss made and high end: one contraption that opens watch cases and another that closes them; a device that checks if a waterproof watch is still waterproof; a machine that checks if a watch is running too fast or too slow within a 24-hour period.
Mr. Hung likes to talk, and if you ask, he might tell you why a cheap quartz watch is a more accurate timepiece than a pristine Rolex, in his humble opinion. If you observe him, you might notice that he maneuvers like a surgeon, probing a watch’s innards to figure out why it has failed. He uses an array of familiar tools, like tweezers, pliers and screwdrivers in all shapes and sizes, plus a few esoteric implements, like a contraption whose sole function is to lift a hand from the face of a watch.
In addition to hundreds of vintage watches that he hopes to fix and eventually sell, Mr. Hung estimates that he has thousands of spare watch parts, including hundreds of crystals (the glass) and movements (the gears). The parts sit carefully catalogued in crumbling drawers and boxes, some held together with duct tape and filled to the brim with yellowing envelopes. Everything is labeled and Mr. Hung boasts that he can find any required part within a minute. That’s also about how long it takes him to change a watch battery, lifting the pieces apart and fitting them back together with ease.
If you linger, you will see that after 30 odd years in business, he has gotten pretty good at telling the type of repair a certain customer will be willing to pay for or how fast she might need it done. He did not, for example, try to dissuade a longtime customer from getting her USD65 Swatch fixed for the ninth time.
“Last time she came by, I told her she should think about getting a new watch, but she just kind of growled,” he says. “What can I do? She likes this one.” (The woman kissed the watch after he handed it back to her and exclaimed, “On time!” before walking away.)
Mr. Hung still occasionally repairs classic and expensive timepieces, including Tag Heuers, Movados and Raymond Weils. But these days, he said, he also fixes “sports watches, colorful watches, watches so big they look like baby alarm clocks”.
Most of his business comes from word-of- mouth and tourists who pass by and realize they haven’t changed their watch battery in a while and it’s cheaper to do it in Saigon than their home country. Even after so long in the business, he still delights in the moment a broken watch’s gears start turning again, propelling the minuscule hands on their first twitching leap forward. “They’re just fascinating. You bring them back to life. It’s like creating something that comes alive.”
Mr. Hung was born and raised in Saigon. He has a degree in literature from a liberal art university, but could not find work after he graduated. His father was a watchmaker and suggested he learn the trade, which he did. However, over time, he has seen his trade wane and nearly vanish as cell phones became the norm. Dong Ho Ong Hung is open every day during business hours, more or less, “depending on my mood,” he says.
* Images by Ngoc Tran.