Nguyen Phu Duc
The bronze-casting craft of Ngu Xa was one of the “four quintessential professions” of the ancient capital of Thang Long – Hanoi.
Romantic Thanh Nien Road runs between vast West Lake and the smaller Truc Bach Lake. Jutting into Truch Bach is a peninsula, once home to Ngu Xa village, now renamed Ngu Xa Street. This village was famed for its bronze-casting. At its peak, bronze-casting was one of the “four quintessential professions” in the ancient capital of Thang Long – Hanoi. An old saying goes: “Glossy silk from Yen Thai, pottery from Bat Trang, goldsmiths from Dinh Cong, bronzesmiths from Ngu Xa”.
Before the construction of the Co Ngu dyke (now Thanh Nien Road), Truc Bach Lake and West Lake were one, forming a vast body of water surrounding Ngu Xa village. This area is home to the Ngu Xa Communal House, which backs on to Than Quang Pagoda (Phuc Long Pagoda). The pagoda and communal house are devoted to Buddha and to Nguyen Minh Khong – the father of the bronze-casting craft.
In the Le dynasty (1428-1527), bronze-casters from the five communes of Dong Mai, Chau My, Long Thuong, Dao Vien, and Dien Tien in Sieu Loai district (now Thuan Thanh – Bac Ninh province and Van Lam – Hung Yen province) gathered here and established Ngu Xa Trang – the Bronze-Casting School of the Five Communes. They opened workshops to produce pots, incense burners, bells, statues, worshipping tools, and even bronze coins. To commemorate their home villages, they named their new village Ngu Xa (Five Communes).
From 1873-1954, the village spanned around 3ha and was home to about 80 families from four clans: the Nguyen, Leu, Do, and Tran. These families were scattered in four neighborhoods: Tren (upper), Duoi (Lower), Mieu (Shrine), and Goc Gao (Stump of the Cotton Tree). At that time, Ngu Xa had over 20 bronze-casting workshops, each occupying a large area and using a two-level bronze-casting furnace. The upper level was for mold-casting, and the lower level for melting the copper.
At this craft’s peak, the village was organized into a dedicated professional quarter, called the Ngu Xa Bronze-casting Quarter. Typical products included statues of a crane on the back of a tortoise, incense burners, candlesticks, and pots. The village’s artisans also created bronze statues and worshipping tools for many major temples and pagodas across Vietnam. Outstanding examples include the 3.95-meter-high Amitabha Buddha statue in Than Quang Pagoda (Ngu Xa village), recognized as the oldest bronze Buddha statue in Vietnam; the black bronze Huyen Thien Tran Vu statue in Quan Thanh Temple; and the bell in the One-pillar Pagoda.
The village’s men were mostly bronzesmiths, while the women purchased the materials. After a product was cast, it was shined by the family’s women and apprentices, then sold in stores on Hang Dong Street in the Old Quarter.
Bronze-casting requires great skill. A good bronzesmith must master all five stages: shaping and modeling; moulding and casting: preparing, melting and pouring the copper into the mold; correcting and engraving after the mixture has cooled; and polishing. Although the mold is created with great care, it can only be used for one product. To date, only the polishing step is done by machines. The other stages are still done by hand.
At the beginning of the 20th century, due to the long war, the trade faltered and did not start to redevelop until 1975, when the country was unified. As the economy thrived, demand for bronzewares surged, leading to the gradual recovery of Ngu Xa. At present, two highly-skilled families of bronze artisans still work here, passing the trade to the next generation. The two workshops are those of Mr. Nguyen Van Ung and Mrs. Ngo Thi Dan (daughter-in-law of the Nguyen clan).
By convention, the village does not pass trade secrets to non-villagers, so it is a positive sign that youngsters in these two families still feel a passion to follow in their forefathers’ footsteps. The village’s creative artisans have updated their designs and created new models. Many international visitors come here seeking production opportunities.