Story: Professor Trinh Sinh
Photos: Le Bich

Bien Hoa ceramics developed from the Cay Mai style of ceramics, when ceramic artisans from Saigon moved out of the rapidly urbanizing city and were influenced by ceramic makers in Bien Hoa, who’d been operating there since at least the late 17th century.
A Bien Hoa ceramic horse statuette

The Bien Hoa Vocational School was founded in 1903, and later renamed the Bien Hoa School of Indigenous Arts. It was the predecessor of today’s Dong Nai Fine and Decorative Arts College. This school specialized in a variety of crafts, including pottery.

In 1923, a French couple were appointed to manage the school: Mr. Robert Balick as principal and Mrs. Mariette Balick as the dean of the ceramics faculty. This was a turning point for Bien Hoa ceramics, as the Balicks contributed to modifying the styles and enamel used for Bien Hoa ceramics. After trying and failing to apply European enamel to the rough surface of Bien Hoa products, they oversaw the creation of a unique and spectacular locally-made enamel that became iconic of this school. This multicolored enamel was made from straw ash, wood ash, rice husk ash, glass shards, copper rust, Danang sands and Bien Hoa laterite, which notably included a signature green copper enamel (vert de Bien Hoa). Kaolin soil from Bien Hoa was widely available in Tan Trieu, Vinh Cuu, Tan Van, Tan Ba, etc. The key material was brittle pottery. Thanks to the contributions of the Balicks, Bien Hoa ceramics became works of graphic arts rather than just craft items.

A Nghe statue with striking blue enamel

Between 1923 through the 1960s, Bien Hoa ceramics hit artistic heights due to the combined influence of French Limoges ceramics, thanks to the artistry and zeal of Mrs. Balick; Chaozhou, Guangdong and Fujian ceramics, introduced by ethnic Chinese artisans in Vietnam; and local Champa ceramics. During these years, Bien Hoa ceramics were carried around the world and won many prestigious international awards, including gold medals in 1925 and 1933 at the Paris International Exhibition. They were displayed in exhibitions in Nagoya (Japan) in 1937; Hanoi in 1942; Bangkok (Thailand) in 1953; and Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in 1957.

Bien Hoa ceramics are noteworthy due to their diverse graphic decorations and special enamel. As well as household items such as jars, jugs, vases, pots, etc. which were mass produced for consumers in Vietnam’s Southeastern and Southwestern provinces, there were also highly artistic works such as ceramic figurines, reliefs, pots, vases, lanterns and decorative plates.

The decorations used on Bien Hoa ceramics were quite unusual. Craftsmen created reliefs and poked holes in the surface. Sometimes they sketched some lines with sticks to prevent the enamel from blurring the decorative patterns. These techniques helped highlight the patterns, add lively three-dimensional effects and bring the ceramics closer in style to the ceramic jars of the Tran Dynasty, particularly the brown enamel wares that were popular 700 years ago.

Bien Hoa ceramics adorn the roof of Binh Truoc House in Bien Hoa City

Large numbers of flowers were key motifs in Bien Hoa ceramics. The design “A hundred flowers” included ochna, orchid, chrysanthemum, lotus, sunflower and hibiscus blooms. Decorative motifs of dragons, phoenixes and qilin were also prevalent. A signature motif of Bien Hoa ceramics were leaf-shaped dragons, usually applied on lantern pots. Leaf-shaped dragons coiled around the pot with various dragons intertwined. The background curves of these dragons were embossed. These products were painted in two beautiful enamel colors of copper and ivory white. Elephant motifs were also popular on low enamelled stools. Other images on pots and reliefs included shrimps, three-tailed fish, gourami, storks, spruce trees, people going about their daily routines, weddings, dancers, children at play in the mid-autumn festival and scenes from folk tales.

Bien Hoa reliefs decorate the four entrances to Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market

Another theme common to Bien Hoa ceramics were patriotic portrayals of national heroes including the Trung sisters riding elephants to the frontline to fight Southern Han invaders and Tran Hung Dao repelling Mongolian troops.

Ceramic experts assume that Bien Hoa ceramics were to some extent influenced by ceramic crafting techniques used by Champa people in the ancient pottery workshop of Go Sanh (Binh Dinh). Champa decorative patterns may be seen on Bien Hoa ceramics, such as gods like Vishnu and Shiva depicted on ceramic pots.

Ceramic workshops in Bien Hoa also produced items for ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands, including jugs for pipe liquor in eel grey and brown. For years, antique collectors have traveled around the Central Highlands in search of bronze gongs and cymbals and liquor jugs. Most don’t realize that these quaint jugs were produced in Bien Hoa around a century ago.

A relief on the facade of the Dong Nai College of Decorative Arts

Some of the most recognizable images in Ho Chi Minh City’s iconic Ben Thanh Market were made by artisans in Bien Hoa. In 1952, the contractor building Ben Thanh Market ordered four bas reliefs from the Bien Hoa School of Indigenous Arts to decorate the market’s four entrances.These reliefs remain intact and portray specialties of the market, such as oxen, pigs, ducks and bunches of bananas. The reliefs are lively and realistic.

A Bien Hoa ceramic toad

Over hundreds of years, the popularity of Bien Hoa’s ceramics have waxed and waned. Many of these products are now prized by antique collectors. The ceramic school continues to evolve. Furnaces still blaze in the communes of Hoa An, Vu Hoa, Tan Van and Tan Hanh to the south of Bien Hoa City. Hundreds of ceramic businesses produce wares that are sold nationwide and exported around the world.