Over the past four decades, Ho Chi Minh City cobbler Bui Thi Tuyet has worked tirelessly to make sure the bespoke shoes she builds are a perfect fit for customers with foot impairments, helping them walk comfortably and smoothly.
Able-bodied people may take shoes for granted, but what many with foot impairments dream of is just being able to don a pair of shoes that perfectly fit their feet and walk gracefully, particularly on their wedding day.
Tuyet is well aware of this and has been single-mindedly dedicated to helping her customers with such special needs.
For nearly 40 years, the 57-year-old woman has been running her in-laws’ shoemaking shop called Tuyet Tien, coined from her and her husband’s names.
Her small house, doubling as her workshop, is nestled in a ‘village’ known for its century-old shoemaking tradition next to Calmette Bridge connecting District 1 and District 4 in Ho Chi Minh City.
Snuggled in the District 4 end and run by Tuyet herself and her sister-in-law after being passed down for several generations, the shop brims with shoes needing work, morsels of leather and echoes from the footsteps of customers needing help.
Bui Thi Tuyet works with high dexterity on bespoke shoes for deformed feet at her family-run shoe shop, nestled in a century-old shoemaking quarter in District 4, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Le Van / Tuoi Tre
It is clear Tuyet is proud of the shoes she makes, and she goes the extra mile to look for materials and leather to make her footwear pieces stand out from the rest and best suit her customers’ special needs.
A local resident, she began learning the trade when she married into a family running a shoemaking business.
Now, almost 40 years later, Tuyet said her clientele keeps expanding and her items have never failed to win her customers’ hearts.
Her clientele includes professional dancers, including Hoang Ich Hau, who places regular orders with Tuyet for dancing clogs despite living in the north.
However, Tuyet’s reputation does not rest on her famous clients and fashion sense.
Her unique cobbling skills culminate in thousands of her customized shoes for her disabled clients to boost their mobility and confidence as they look their best in daily life or for special celebrations like weddings.
With or without impairments, all of Tuyet’s customers welcome her exquisite leatherwork, craftsmanship, and dedication with glowing praise.
Some of her custom-made pairs fetch up to millions of dong apiece, Tuyet said. (VND1 million = US$43).
Many of her customers from different parts of the country make orders for a couple of pairs, even five pairs, at a time, to make sure their trips all the way to Ho Chi Minh City for feet measurements are really worth it, Tuyet said while showing her homemade chat app Zalo inbox brimming with orders from V.I.P. customers as well as those with disabilities or budget constraints, or both.
Tuyet always strives to bring out her best for the customers.
Even though she had a full plate fulfilling orders for the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, which lasted one week last month, the seasoned cobbler insisted she retrieve and adjust a pair which a customer ordered as a gift for their mother to wear during the festive occasion.
Shoes that fit special feet
The first days in building shoes for those with foot deformation were a struggle, and it took a great deal of trial and error, with Tuyet sometimes spending days on a single pair of shoes.
“Customers are my greatest masters. There were times I just wanted to give up on a technically demanding pair,” she shared.
“I just went out with the best of my ability to finish one pair before moving on to 10 and 20.
“I just got blown away with the calling without realizing it.”
Her main clients are people with legs of different lengths and club foot, or twisted feet.
Her shoes must reduce the effect of the impairment or at least conceal it, which is why they must be specially made.
Tuyet’s main source of job satisfaction comes from the fact that customers who come in walking with a bad limp often leave walking with much greater ease in their specially-made shoes.
Among her patrons is Thanh Phuong, who lost almost all of her foot and has one leg shorter than the other.
“I’m still not able to fulfill her order placed from the summer,” Tuyet said.
She added she recently had to adjust the price for Phuong’s shoes slightly upward this year from the current VND300,000 ($13) a pair due to the rise in material price and the impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Tuyet recalled her first meeting with a special customer, a boy the age of her youngest son, who came to see her from Dong Nai Province, after watching a video clip on YouTube a few years ago.
Do Thanh Tan, one of Bui Thi Tuyet’s customers, looks his best in shoes built by her to conceal the difference in his legs’ length for his wedding held in October 2020 in Thai Nguyen Province, northern Vietnam in this supplied photo.
The mother of three was moved to tears at the sight of the boy moving awkwardly with his two tiny stubs of leg wrapped in socks.
Tuyet customized contoured shoes to fit his severely deformed legs and the boy has become one of her regular clients since.
In late October last year, Do Thanh Tan, a young teacher residing in the northern province of Thai Nguyen, had a wedding ceremony beyond his wildest dreams.
Part of the miracle came to life because of Tuyet’s shoes that glammed him up for his big day.
Tan, who has one leg 15 centimeters shorter than the other, said he is very grateful to Tuyet.
“It’s really difficult to find shoes for people with my condition. They are never available in shops,” Tan shared, adding he had one shop in his hometown build a pair for him, but they ended up too high in one sole, causing him a lot of pain.
“Tuyet’s shoes are a perfect fit, I can walk with much ease now and my legs are now only 1-2 centimeters imbalanced,” he said.
Tuyet also gifted him a pair of sandals for daily use.
Nguyen Thi Hao, from Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands, shares Tan’s foot condition and experience.
Five years ago, the woman, who also lost half of her foot, managed to track Tuyet down for bespoke pairs of shoes.
“Believe it or not? Until I met this cobbler [Tuyet], I had kept dreaming for nearly 50 years of perfectly fitting shoes so I could look my best,” the 54-year-old woman shared, noting it is not just about how shoes fit, but how they look and feel.
Hao cheerfully showed her wedding photos featuring her walking gracefully in Tuyet’s shoes on her important day.
Another female customer came all the way from a locality in the north to take her 70-year-old father with club foot to Tuyet.
It took Tuyet nearly one month to build the shoes for the father, who had always walked barefoot as no cobblers were willing to make shoes for his twisted feet.
Tuyet’s work came in extremely useful with the father, who then proudly walked her daughter down the aisle in the new loafers on her big day.
Tuyet shared unlike other cobblers who excel in only some phases of shoemaking, she has to master every detail in building custom shoes for deformed feet.
“No matter how difficult the items are, they will finally come into shape if I put serious work into them,” Tuyet said of what has kept her passion ablaze.
“I must be ‘unique’ so my special customers will come to see me. That’s also where I can help them most,” she said with a smile, adding she has built thousands of such special shoes throughout the years.
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