Nghi's showcase of intricately shaped, centuries-old wood salvaged from riverbeds and his prized collection of over 500 retro- and neo-style motorbikes are a hit amongst tourists visiting An Giang Province in Vietnam's Mekong Delta.
Nghi's tourist complex in My Luong Town has been all the rage amongst visitors to An Giang since it opened its doors in early February, steadily making a name for itself as the most alluring destination in the province's Cho Moi District.
The most notable pieces in Nghi's collection of natural and manmade oddities are the salvaged wood he's recovered from the Tien (Front) river over the past decade.
His assortment of lua timber – the Vietnamese name for lumber recovered from riverbeds – included 24 pieces of exquisitely carved Chinese zodiac animals, as well as dozens of uniquely shaped tree stumps.
The collection is so peculiar that it has attracted over 10,000 visitors in the less than three months since the exhibition was launched.
But it's not just the salvaged wood that is pulling in tourists. Many say Nghi's hospitality and friendliness magnify the beauty of the collection.
For Nghi, however, the attention is a brand new experience and one he would rather shy away from.
"I don't want to be in the spotlight. On top of that, I'm not really photogenic and I try not to take pictures with my customers because of my dark skin from years working in the construction industry," the 52-year-old explained.
Nghi shared that his love for carpentry and wood began during his childhood in My Luong Town – a locale known as a time-honored carpentry village.
As a young man, Nghi would help fishermen whose boats became entangled in sunken logs and stumps. All fishermen needed to do was to give him a call and he would show up on his barge, set them loose, and bring the sunken trees ashore.
Over the years, Nghi searched for ways to make use of the preserved trees but typically wound up just dumping them in a deserted lot on En Islet between An Giang and Dong Thap Provinces.
As the pile grew bigger, with hundreds of tree trunks filling the lot, he realized that collectors were willing to pay a hefty sum to purchase the salvaged logs for use as decorations.
|Lua tree bases and trunks retrieved from riverbeds make an eye-catching sight at Nguyen Van Nghi's property in An Giang Province, Vietnam|
As he began to make more money off selling the reclaimed tree trunks, he started scouring local rivers for more and even hired skilled craftsmen to carve them into magnificent works of art.
At one point, he even invited a troupe of wood sculptors from the central Hue City to take a shot at carving the preserved wood.
Throughout his first 15 years of salvaging wood, Nghi's wife had no idea he had slowly been building a collection.
It wasn't until that he became involved in tourism that she realized just how vast her husband's work had become.
To launch his exhibition, Nghi spent nine months transforming a two-hectare lot into a tourist complex boasting 50 salvaged tree trunks of various shapes, sizes, and carved patterns depicting both humans and animals.
Some of the trunks which have been left in their original form are so big that over 10 people could stand on their base at once.
Not so surprisingly, given the popularity of his exhibits, Nghi's complex is hailed by both neighbors and local authorities as an important addition to the tourism industry in Cho Moi District, on par with the tourism offerings in nearby Long Xuyen and Chau Doc Cities.
Still, the magnificent collection on display is just a small portion of Nghi's riverbed finds.
The remaining items still lay idle on the 10-hectare plot on En Islet, where the ambitious man is halfway through reaching his goal of building another tourist complex to 'better promote Cho Moi's allure.'
A mobile passion
Aside from his collection of salvaged wood, Nghi's tourist complex also hosts a 300-square-meter hall crammed with vintage motorbikes from between 1965 and 1967, as well as classy modern scooters produced by Vespa and Honda.
In total, his collection of motorbikes numbers over 500.
Nghi grew up in a poor family and owning a motorbike always seemed like an unachievable dream.
"Coming from a humble background, I wasn't even able to afford a bicycle. I remember a man on a Honda Cub 50 once drove by me and it suddenly aroused a desire in me to buy my own," Nghi recalled.
"That dream pushed me to work non-stop until I earned enough to buy one."
Such desires led Nghi to work all kinds of odd jobs before finding success as a construction contractor before he turned 30.
He also runs a brick kiln and owns a few barges.
Such success led him to earn enough to begin purchasing a collection of motorbikes and outfitting them with license plates that held lucky numbers.
Currently, all of the bikes in his collection carry plates registered in An Giang and Dong Thap Provinces, his paternal and maternal hometowns.
Currently, most of the bikes are registered to himself, his trusted nephews, and the care of close friends.
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