"My Australian director asked me to bring this leather he bought in France for Ut to make a pair of shoes," says Pham Phu Nguyen, who works for a public relations company in HCM City.
"Ut has his name and size from his last visit to Da Lat."
Ho Ut says: "This job requires patience and talent. It takes a lot of work before a pair of shoes can be finished."
First, wooden lasts have to be carved. "Lasts" are blocks of wood carved into foot shapes and sizes.
"A leather upper is stretched over the last and stuck with glue until it is time to be sewn to a sole. Then, the shoemaker pounds the sole and then uses a sharp awl to make holes. After removing the upper from the last and sewing it together with the sole, the shoemaker cleans and polishes the shoes and adds a heel.
"Normally, it requires a week to make a pair of shoes; to make unique styles also requires inspiration."
Now, at 90, Ho Ut still makes hand-crafted shoes, individually styled and customised.
"I just make them if they give real leather. The shoe s parts are all hand-cut, the uppers hand-lasted to give a unique quality that no machine can match. All the shoes are designed and made personally by me and my son. They are individually made with close attention to detail," Ho Ut says proudly.
"Many hours of work go into the making of a pair of hand-crafted shoes but the result is worth waiting for when you feel the comfort, quality, and style."
An increasing demand for his hand-crafted shoes means there is now a two-month waiting period. He has no fixed price for making a pair. "It is based on the leather, style, time and my mood," he says.
Passing on the skills
In the chilly weather just before Christmas, Ho Ut and his son are at work, carefully making shoes. He says his biggest desire is to pass on his skills to one of his sons.
He retains a sharp mind despite his age and talks loquaciously about the past.
"Da Lat was still pristine and had many beautiful waterfalls and lakes when I came here. It was so foggy you could be standing a few metres from someone and still could not see them.
"Churches, villas, hotels, and houses were all hidden by the thick pine forests. The town abounded with wild flowers, especially in spring when the cherry trees were in full blossom.
"As the population was sparse and pine forests were thick and endless, writers described it as a city in a forest and a forest in a city . Wild animals, including tigers, leopards, and bears, used to roam just a few metres away from houses.
"Even healthy young men with knowledge of martial arts had to go in a group if they went out at dusk to protect themselves from animals."
When Ho Ut left Quang Ngai for Da Lat, he was around 15.
"My parents and brothers were all goldsmiths and we were a well-to-do family. But I was a naughty child. My parents sent me to learn a mechanic s job, but I left after being scolded by the teacher. My brother hit me and I got angry and left home."
The Hiep Hung shoe shop located in the Hoa Binh (Peace) area was the biggest in Da Lat, having dozens of workers working day and night. It would take in trainees who would do work instead of paying rent.
It was here that the young Ho Ut joined to learn shoemaking.
"During my time at Hiep Hung, I acquired a wealth of experience and skills.
"I was an apprentice for three years. My teacher was so strict and hard to please. That s the reason I am still careful in my work. Youngsters these days learn for just six months and the shoes they make last just a few months. Shoes I make can last a lifetime.
"Though my income remained high and stable, entertainment, fun, and travel was very expensive.
"Young craftsmen like me could not hire a car or horse to go out of the city. Bicycles were something workers could only dream of."
When he was 18, the young shoemaker met the girl who would become his wife. What are now Cam Do, Hai Ba Trung, Anh Sang, and Phan Dinh Phung (Queo Bridge) Streets used to be covered by vegetable fields. Every morning young girls would pick fresh vegetables and take them to Hoa Binh market.
He married one such girl, thus becoming a son-in-law of Da Lat, the couple worked hard to raise their eight children and run the shoe shop.
People now call him nguoi cua muon nam cu (person from the good old days), a relic from a time every visitor to the "city of love" wants to talk about. VNS