With thick brush strokes of red paint, Lai An Khanh writes a Chinese character on yellow cloth.
Happiness, it reads.
Khanh and other Lunar New Year calligraphers in Vietnam sell the characters to passing homeowners who believe the uplifting words will help bring them good luck in the Year of the Tiger, which began Sunday.
But the words – peace and prosperity are also popular – could just as easily apply to the calligraphers themselves.
They say their hobby, rooted in the country s Confucian tradition, has brought them a more righteous and stable life.
For me, calligraphy is my medicine, says Khanh, 59, sitting on a mat outside Hanoi s centuries-old Temple of Literature, the site of Vietnam s first university.
The former construction worker says he began the study of handwriting after he was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago, a diagnosis that also led to mental instability.
I have become more stable, he says. Learning calligraphy teaches you how to be calm.
His cancer is now in remission.
Nguyen Van Thuan, 55, a retired university teacher, came to calligraphy by a less dramatic route but has similar feelings.
Knowing calligraphy teaches you how to live beautifully, he says. I am sure that calligraphers are not about to go into the street and swear at each other.
Six brushes of varying size are lined up next to pots of ink beside him.
The calligraphers sit and paint side-by-side for more than 100 meters (yards) along the tree-shaded temple wall where their finished works hang.
Their numbers have grown markedly since the Lunar New Year calligraphy tradition was restored 15 or 20 years ago, said Hoang Anh Diep, 53, the only woman among them.
They set up in early February and will stay for about one month, through the first days of the new year, she said.
Known locally as Tet, the Lunar New Year is Vietnam s most important annual festival.
Many of the calligraphers belong to the same hobbyists club, said Diep, wearing a traditional conical hat and ao dai slit skirt. The retired literature teacher said she began studying Chinese calligraphy four years ago.
Used for centuries in Vietnam, Chinese script has been replaced by Latin-based writing for about 100 years but Khanh said the traditional characters are still treasured.
The respect for Chinese writing contrasts with the wariness with which Vietnamese in general regard their giant neighbor, which occupied Vietnam for about 1,000 years.
Ancient things are more precious, and Confucianism is eternal, says Khanh, who has a faint grey beard.
If you enter a house where many ancient characters are displayed, you feel that family is different from one with a modern lifestyle.
A special word in the house can bring a family luck for the rest of the year, says Diep, the female calligrapher.
People always ask for words like peace , prosperity , happiness , talent , she says.
Thuan said the words also act as a source of moral inspiration for a family.
Tran Dinh Huong, 72, asked a calligrapher for happiness because his niece will soon be married.
It s a great tradition to ask for Chinese words for Tet, Huong said. This will be a very meaningful present for her.
While Chinese script dominates calligraphers work in Hanoi, people from the south of the country prefer Vietnamese characters, said Ngoc Dinh, 26, who is skilled in both writing styles.
I think, in the future, Vietnamese calligraphy will grow more and more, he said.
Like the older calligraphers, Dinh said he is not writing for the money.
I love this, he said. I want to maintain culture.
For Diep, money is almost a dirty word.
In times past, villagers would compensate their local calligrapher perhaps with rice or chicken, she said.
But now, in the city, people asking for words also ask us how much it would be. So we have to set a price, she said, describing the average rate as 50,000-100,000 dong ($2.65-5.30) depending on the calligrapher s skill.
I wish people would be more subtle in asking about the price because this is a tradition, and it is an art.