Meet the mobile blade sharpening man

“He’s one of the few left in Saigon; there’s no use for them anymore,” says 67-year-old Thuy pointing to the old man sharpening her kitchen cleaver. “I’ve been using him since I was young. Today’s society is wasteful. The young people now use something once or twice and then throw it away and buy a new one. They don’t care. I can afford to buy a new knife but I don’t want to, this one I’ve had for so long and it fits my hand perfectly. New does not mean better.” Fortunately for Nam, people from the older generation reject the disposable mentality.

Nam’s business card is his recorded voice on a loop through a bullhorn: “Mai dao oi! (Sharpen knife!),” which gives shout every morning for the past couple of decades while cycling through alleyways and neighborhoods. Nam has been in this trade for longer than he cares to—or can—remember. He started as an apprentice to his father, who had worked as a sharpener for 50 years and who passed on to him the old tradition of a sharpener’s knowledge and skill. “It’s not because I was particularly interested in the trade; I just did not want to stay at school,” he says. Like most beginner, the truant kid made a lot of mistakes, cutting himself often and sometimes had to pay customers for ruining their scissors.

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“The trick is holding the blade at the angle against the grindstone and applying the right amount of strength to sharpen it,” Nam explains. Straight on grinding will blunt the knife within seconds, while too much force will wear away the metal. “Steady hands are also important,” he adds. Every knife he sharpens feels like his first one, the same excitement of decades ago, yet with much more dexterity and artfulness. How does he know he got the right edge? He does it just by listening to the sound and feel of the blades as he performs a cutting gesture, just the way our parents warned us not to. He files the knife’s sharp end on a grindstone and splash a bit of water in between to clean away the accumulated mass or to cool the hot knife down. It usually takes a few minutes to sharpen a knife or a pair of scissors.

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Nam’s workstation consists of a motor-operated grinder that sits on the back of his motorbike (an upgrade from the bicycle he started with). He carries with him a small bottle of water, a grindstone and sheets of sandpaper. He’s been asked to sharpen scissors, meat-slicing blades, swords, tweezers and any metal items that have lost their edge.

As the old man works, he chitchats about how 99 percent of knives are stainless, which is a mix of chrome and carbon steel. “It’s hard to find the right balance between your chrome content and your carbon steel. One gives you corrosion resistance, the other gives you strength. A lot of cheaper knives don’t have the right balance so they can be prone to rusting and staining and not holding their edge. The handles, over time, will get worn out and can split because of the heat.” As you can see, Nam’s an expert on steel, he can tell cheap from expensive at a glance. There’s something about the act of sharpening a knife, he says, that’s deeply satisfying: the spin of the grinding wheel, the rocky song of metal meeting grit. It requires concentration to a degree almost transcendence.

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“A dull knife is the kitchen’s most dangerous tool,” he continues absentmindedly. “A sharp knife is your friend. A sharp knife does what you want it to do.” Wooden blocks to store knives in also prompt his scorn, as do the mechanical sharpeners so popular in modern kitchens. “Every time you pull a knife out of the block, you are cutting against the wood and dulling the blade. And the sharpeners take way, way too much steel off.”

Until the past decade, he sharpened knives at dozens of restaurants, barbers and wet markets in town but now he’s lucky if he gets five customers a day. Nam doesn’t see a bright future for his trade. A handful is still around but as a profession, he acknowledged, knife sharpening holds little appeal for young people. His own sons chose to work in other fields, and the few apprentices he has had over the years did not last long.

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN