Although the form is still very much in its infancy here, the sculptures have rapidly become indispensable decorations for parties and receptions hosted by leading hotels, companies or embassies where prestige is an important issue.
It’s a field where demand has long outstripped supply, but one firm, Van Long Advertising Co, has set up a workshop dedicated to the art. In contrast to the common thinking that ice sculpture is a luxury that only the fabulously wealthy can afford, it has introduced many new designs with competitive prices. They come in all shapes and sizes, and are made from one ice block alone or several frozen into one. They are usually exhibited lit up by multi-coloured lights to enhance their natural beauty and to bring out their innate sparkle. By its nature, it’s an ephemeral form: few sculptures last for more than four or six hours, unless they are exhibited outside on a cold winter night or inside with the air-conditioning turned way down low. In the end they all finish up as puddles of water, however much care has gone into the carving.
One of Hanoi’s few acknowledged masters of the craft is Tran Minh Long - and he fell into the profession entirely by accident. Having worked as an actor and circus performer for Dam Son Song and Dance Ensemble, Long left show business to apply for a job at the Daewoo Hotel, where he was hoping to land a position as a driver.
Instead he was selected for the hospitality division, which is in charge of decorating the hotel’s party rooms. He was later sent to South Korea for six months, where he spent hours between shifts watching ice sculptors working in a cold room.
Long went on to work for Van Long. one of his first challenges was to help craft a metre-tall model of the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel for the establishment’s opening ceremony.
According to Long, his new-found craft requires a talent for drawing and a good imagination. “An ice block might weight 100 kilograms,” he says. “A sculptor has to be able to take that block and turn it into a soulful statue.” Standard sculptures cost between one and two million VND, but larger ones can command prices of up to $300.
The sculptor begins by selecting a well-frozen block of ice, preferably one without air bubbles. Then he hacks out a rough shape. “I do everything myself - from coming up with the idea to bringing it to life,” said Long.
Then he chips out the details with an electric saw, chisels and a sharp knife. A simple statue may take a few hours to make, but larger and more complex designs may require four or five days of work.
“There is a young, wealthy class in Hanoi that always orders ice sculptures for weddings,” Long said. “But you can count the number of sculptors on the fingers of one hand.”
Long doesn’t wait for clients to come up with new ideas. Between orders, he works on new designs. Despite his lack of formal training, his sculptures are technically brilliant.
“The problem with large-scale work is supply,” Long said. He has a contract with a local ice-factory to supply four blocks a day, but if he has a big order to fill he sometimes has to wait for the next day to stockpile enough ice.
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