From war to peace: Vietnam’s rubber sandals work


This photo taken on July 5, 2022 shows a worker making rubber sandals at a shop in Hanoi. AFP

HANOI – Made from recycled military truck or airplane tires, Vietnam’s handcrafted rubber sandals, the famous rugged shoes of the Viet Cong, have traveled great distances over the decades.

In the bustling capital of Hanoi, all kinds of shoes are on sale: from $1,000 Gucci heels to $2 plastic slippers.

But for those looking for a nod to the past, hard-soled rubber sandals – evocative of the communist state’s ingenuity under fire – are available in markets and small shops.

Uncle Ho’s sandals

Dao Van Quang paid $8 for a standard pair at a store outside a Hanoi museum dedicated to the country’s revolutionary leader – and devoted rubber-sandal wearer – Ho Chi Minh.

“I wore rubber sandals when I was at school in the 1980s,” the 47-year-old from the central province of Quang Nam told AFP.

“They have historical value, are easy to wear and look beautiful.”

At the museum, the well-worn pair belonging to the former president of North Vietnam affectionately nicknamed “Uncle Ho” is displayed in a glass box along with his Chinese-style uniform.

Ho’s sandals have even been praised in national songs praising his simple lifestyle.

“These sandals helped the uncle to travel a long way, and with them he overcame the difficulties to build the country,” says the lyrics of one song.

The Vietnamese started making rubber sandals in the late 1940s, during the First Indochina War against the French, using tires from an ambushed military truck.

From war to peace: Vietnam's rubber sandals work

This photo taken on July 8, 2022 shows Nguyen Tien Cuong pushing a truck tire outside a workshop in Hanoi, before it is made into rubber tires. AFP

They found the sandals to be cheap to make and survived well in wet, muddy and hilly conditions as soldiers marched through thick jungle.

Later, during the Vietnam War, the simple but sturdy shoes became a symbol of the ingenuity of the communist Viet Cong forces in their fight against the military power of the United States.

Even in times of peace, the design remains popular for sustainability reasons, said Nguyen Duc Truong, who has spent his life making the shoes.

“I think there’s still a lot of potential for rubber sandals,” the 58-year-old said.

Growing popularity

Vietnam is one of the top four countries in the world for shoe manufacturing and its factories produce pairs for major brands such as Nike and Adidas.

The footwear export industry generated nearly $12 billion in the first half of this year, according to government figures.

Although the humble rubber sandal doesn’t generate quite the same revenue, it has high heritage value and its popularity as a casual shoe is growing.

Vua Dep Lop, which started as a small company and has become Vietnam’s leading rubber sandal, sells the shoes for around $10 a pair.

From war to peace: Vietnam's rubber sandals work

This photo taken on July 5, 2022 shows a customer trying on rubber sandals at a store in Hanoi. AFP

In his workshop in Hanoi, cobblers use sharp knives and scissors to make the sandals from huge tires that are almost the same height as the workers.

While traditional black models are best-sellers, a modern, colorful twist helps the sandal appeal to a younger demographic.

Nguyen Tien Cuong took over the business from his father-in-law in 2011 and has sold over half a million pairs of rubber sandals since then.

“We tried to make them softer and more fashionable. After changing the style and format, we started getting more customers,” he said.


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