Story: Thai A
Photos: Nguyen Hong Thai

Many artisans and artists congregate in Bo De, a strip of land next to Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge. They live in the heart of an ancient village and devote themselves to making products that capture the essence of their ancient crafts.

A ceramic item made by Trinh Vu Hieu

When they think of the left bank of the Red River, which flows through Hanoi, older people may recall the folk verse: “Clip clop, the Lord has returned, let’s cut fresh Bo De grass for his horse.” Meanwhile, younger people may think of artistic products made by skilled workers from all over Vietnam. In addition to Bat Trang and Kieu Ky craft villages, many artisans and artists live in Bo De, a small strip of land next to Long Bien Bridge. In the heart of this ancient community, they create products that capture the essence of various crafts.

The first is Nguyen Ngoc Hung, known as “Hookah Hung” among fellow artisans. This moniker comes from his craft, which Mr. Hung began to practice 30 years ago. Mr. Hung coats film-thin layers of copper around the mouths of ceramic hookahs and bamboo pipes, elevating the value of simple items that were once prized by families. He has expanded his offerings by lining and covering pots, cups, lamps, and trays with copper, as well as decorating various objects with bright and cheery yellow lines, patterns, and textures. His talents draw upon the traditions of his hometown, the copper village of Dai Bai in Bac Ninh province. After meeting goldsmiths from Dong Xam Village in Thai Binh province, Mr. Hung has been improving his techniques ever since. Copper is an inherently hard metal that is difficult to adhere to a curved surface. However, artisans tightly press the metal into the ceramic core, increasing the rigidity of the product and enhancing its beauty. Even the most delicate Qing Dynasty bone china teacups can be copper-lined to render them shatterproof. The family works and lives in a stilt house in the gardens of Bo De. Visitors will come across a variety of unusual items, ranging from European-style chandeliers to innovative copper trays, oil lamps, and animal statues, most of which have patterns that do not conform to ancient stereotypes.

A steel artwork of clouds by Vu Binh Minh

Also known for their distinct and beautiful style are the porcelain statues of Nguyen Tuan, known as “Pottery Tuan” among his fellow artisans. After graduating from the University of Industrial Fine Arts, Mr. Tuan established a workshop in the craft village of Phu Lang and began his creative career with contemporary Buddha statues. Since then, he has established himself as a well-known artist on a national and international scale, with works displayed in prestigious galleries and the lobbies of high-end buildings. Mr. Tuan’s statues of the Buddha, monks, and novices have a variety of expressions – contemplative, sad, or carefree – but most importantly, they do not conform to any standard model of Asian statues. From a studio in Bac Cau Village, Mr. Tuan is now opening a garden art space in Ngoc Thuy, where viewers can marvel at innovative and contemporary works that retain the soul of the Vietnamese countryside. He works in red clay, which gives his pieces a simple and gentle sensibility, in contrast to the glossy and neat ceramics of China or Europe.

The artist Vu Binh Minh paints in lacquer

The breath of old professions blows over the land of Bo De to forge talented artisans, who include household names such as Trinh Vu Hieu, Chu Viet Cuong, and Vu Binh Minh. Mr. Minh has invited countless people to wander through the dream world of shapes he creates from iron, paper, and composite materials.

 “I chose to display contrasts by using heavy construction steel to express the multivariable movement of space and time through images of clouds in the vast sky. Those are the constant twists and turns of life,” explained Mr. Minh.

Meanwhile, at Chu Viet Cuong’s nearby workshop, viewers are immersed in the spirit of the old town and village. Devoted to lacquer, Mr. Cuong has created masterpieces that depict banyan trees, boats, village gates, and Hanoi streets. His meticulous paintings exude never-ending love for the peaceful old corners in everyone’s soul.

The artist Chu Viet Cuong poses with a steel art work

As for Trinh Vu Hieu, his artistry is distilled from long apprenticeships across the country, where he learned to create “artistic items that can be used in daily life”. This message is conveyed through each of Mr. Hieu’s vases, jars, statues, and ornaments. These sophisticated items are adorned with floral motifs, the Buddha’s face, images of the Three Courts and Four Palaces, the Three Palaces of the Mother Goddess, and the Jade Emperor. His pottery also has a rustic feel with brown, gray, or blue glazes, mostly made from natural materials. In addition to pottery, Mr. Hieu also paints in lacquer and oil, creating shapes with various materials. Each work has a strong contemporary breath and rustic style yet fits into luxurious art spaces. His pieces are neither as simple as rural handicrafts nor as luxurious as works from the Indochinese School of Fine Art, leaving viewers to feel the influences of ethnic origins and talent that weaves everyday life into art.

In the peaceful land of Bo De, the ancient Vietnamese soul has mingled with art to create a distinctive lifestyle.