Three Score Years and Ten in the Company of Stamps

Stamps have been the constant companions of Mr. Pham Van Thiem through 70 years of a changing world and now the 85-year-old resident of Dong Nai Province possesses a priceless collection of more than 200,000 stamps from 185 countries.

“Stamp collecting lights up my life"

Mr. Pham Van Thiem

“Stamp collecting lights up my life,” said the quiet 85-year-old. Among his prized trophies is a nineteenth century Belgian stamp picked up in 1890. In this neck of the woods Mr.Thiem is particularly keen on the stamps of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

His hobby, his passion has even given Mr.Thiem the opportunity to learn some English and French thanks to his numerous contacts with like-minded foreigners.

His foreign-language skills date back to when he came south and began working as a painter at Bien Hoa’s airport. In those days, he would spend time hanging around the office and rummaging through the wastepaper bins on the lookout for interesting stamps. He picked up a lot of learning in this unorthodox fashion.

This episode of his life ended when an officious senior who did not understand what Mr.Thiem was seeking decided his behavior was suspicious and forbade him from entering the administration block.

It wasn’t until he took up a caretaker’s position at Nguyen Ba Tong High School (Bui Thi Xuan High today) that Mr.Thiem became a professional, not just collecting stamps but dealing in them as well.

He’s been collecting stamps since 1937, a hobby that was inspired by a simple thought: “Those tiny little pictures on stamps are a world in miniature.”

Another job he had while still young was in the church in Thai Binh, serving a foreign pope. It was a position that gave him many opportunities to see letters from overseas, and the envelopes in which they’d come. The stamps were carefully prized off and preserved by the committed philatelist.

Much of his pay went on buying books about stamps, books that taught him how to determine a stamp’s value and how to categorize and preserve stamps. Pretty well the rest was spent on stamps themselves.

In one year he used nearly all his pay to buy stamps depicting John F. Kennedy from a young age to becoming president of the USA, and others showing Vietnamese royalty like Prince Bao Long and Queen Nam Phuong.

Sometimes he had to accumulate thousands of ordinary stamps so that he could exchange them for one of something special.

After the south’s liberation in 1975, Mr.Thiem and his family moved to Bien Hoa, where he became an administrator. By then, his reputation as a serious philatelist (aren’t they all?) was beginning to spread and fellow enthusiasts began sending him stamps issued by the north during the war.

Neither food nor sleep

Though seventy years have gone by, even Mr.Thiem’s first stamps are still in fine nick. He says there are many ways to preserve stamps but he relies only on “love, his hands and the sunlight” as he puts it.

Every week, he opens his treasured albums and uses a pair of tweezers to adjust every single page so that his stamps can “breathe”. After that he is so engrossed in looking at the albums’ contents that eating and sleeping are often dispensed with.

Every episode of Mr.Thiem’s life is in those stamps. For instance, he bought those ones when his first child was born, and his family traveled to Saigon when this precious stamp was acquired.

That there only-one-in-the-world Laos stamp reminds him of the surprised and sorry face of the Chinese merchant who had insisted on 10,000 common stamps in exchange for the unique issue, believing that Mr.Thiem couldn’t possibly get hold of that many. He did.

But for Mr.Thiem, the best thing about his collection is the story it tells of change and upheaval, in society, culture and indeed all human affairs through the ages.

This can be seen in one way by observing the changing fashions of the ladies. In olden days, they wore the four-flapped outfit known as ao tu than and the flat-topped hat called non quai thao, whereas nowadays they wear the ao dai with a non la on their heads. In between were the times of economic hardship, when nearly every woman wore the pajama-like ao ba ba.

It’s been 70 years since Mr.Thiem started collecting stamps as a boy of 15. Time is eroding his memory but he hasn’t forgotten to bequeath his collection to suitable people.

At the beginning of this year he began the painful task of transferring his stamps to capable hands, to like-minded young enthusiasts with a profound respect for culture and history.

When asked what his collection was worth in money terms, Mr.Thiem said sadly: “Perhaps I have to tell them to bring me my stamps sometimes so that I can look at them for a while. Sleep has eluded me lately.”

Source TT – Translated by Khuong An

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