Nguyen Dinh 

Telling stories through traditional crafts

Pottery, tò he (figurines made of glutinous rice) and traditional ethnic clothing all embody our culture, art, traditions, and heritage. Join Heritage Magazine as we meet artists and artisans who are continuing Vietnam’s proud craft traditions.

Bach Van Nhan: Embroidering on pottery

Pottery artist Bach Van Nhan grew up in Binh Duong, Vietnam’s “cradle of pottery”, which has become famous since the 1960s thanks to their works incorporating elements of both Lai Thieu and Bien Hoa pottery. During our conversation, Mr. Nhan explained that he first came to art through painting lessons while in high school, and that his first art teacher was the painter Pham Thu. 

Teapot with embroided technique made by artist Bach Van Nhan

In university, Mr. Nhan temporarily put aside his passion for art to study science, later becoming an engineer at the Center for Glass Research and Production. His job involved producing engineering ceramics used in the textile industry.  With this new background knowledge, Mr. Nhan returned to art and pottery, experimenting with innovations. One such innovation was his technique of engraving “threads” onto a product’s clay base and during the shaping process. These “threads” create embossed patterns and form empty areas  that can be filled with many colors. The combination of embossed patterns, sunken glaze, and colorful realist, abstract, and cubist illustrations characterize Mr. Nhan’s signature painted enamel pottery.

From painted enamel pottery, Mr. Nhan developed a new type of product called “embroidered pottery”, which uses many of the same techniques. Every line, pattern, and detail requires careful attention. “Embroidered pottery employs Arabesque patterns, which are wavy, curved lines used in Arabic characters and some other artistic languages, as well as the decorative carvings on Aboriginal houses in Vanuatu. I developed a line of products that combine techniques from both painted enamel and embroidery, and used it in pottery.”

Mr. Nhan continues to look for fresh inspiration. He fuels his life with a passion for research, innovation, and experimenting with pottery. 

Nguyen Hoang Anh: Crafting dolls with love 

As an artist and lover of beauty, Nguyen Hoang Anh decided to take action upon seeing some dolls dressed in the clothes of Vietnam’s ethnic groups being sold in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

“I felt sorry for these Vietnamese dolls,” said Mr. Hoang Anh. “They were so sloppily created with glue all over the place. In other countries like Japan, dolls are really beautiful and delicate. So I began researching ethnic groups’ clothing and designed clothes for dolls. I was not very passionate at first, because field research took a lot of time and effort, and proved difficult. I visited the Ethnographic Museum but saw only models, so in the end, I still had to go on field trips. But the more field research I did, the more passionate I became. It felt like I’d discovered a treasure trove. On every trip, I drew sketches, painted, and studied traditional ethnic outfits. To this day, I’m still fascinated.”

Nguyen Hoang Anh holds one of his prized dolls

As we discussed the various facial expressions of his dolls, Mr. Hoang Anh added: “When designing the faces, I use a brush to paint the eyes, eyebrows, lip outlines, eyelashes, and other features. I use painting techniques to give the dolls a unique and lively vibe. Therefore, while their face shapes are similar, if you look closely you’ll see that each doll has a different facial expression.”

Mr. Hoang Anh chooses the patterns, fabric, and details himself. Some outfits must be sewn manually, while others combine manual and machine techniques.  Mr. Hoang Anh wants each doll to be beautiful and representative of the ethnic group’s culture. His attention to mixing materials and colors and his use of perfect proportions give each doll in his vast collection a surprisingly graceful beauty. Admiring each doll is like listening to a tender love song. 

Dang Van Hau: Telling stories with tò he 

As the youngest person in Xuan La village (Phu Xuyen, Hanoi) to be officially recognized as an artisan in 2014, when he was only 29 years old, Mr. Dang Van Hau considers tò he (sticky rice dough figurines) not only a profession but his destiny. Born and raised in a village famous for tò he, Mr. Hau inherited his skills from his father and maternal grandfather. They taught him to mold glutinous rice dough into shapes of his liking. As he grew older and followed his grandfather to many places, he officially entered the profession in 2007. 

Folklore researcher Trinh Bach (right) advises artisan Dang Van Hau on a figurine in a Nguyen Dynasty robe

While the majority of tò he makers in Xuan La follow market trends, Mr. Hau uses his techniques and feelings to recreate images of a forgotten past, such as dough figurines from the old Pho Khach Street and Dong Xuan Market. Such tokens of the past now exist only in the memories of elderly people and in some artifacts preserved in the French School of the Far East and some museums in France. Mr. Hau had the opportunity to meet and work with folklore researchers like Mr. Trinh Bach to systematize reference sources, stories, and memories. His dough figurines vary greatly in shape, from animals like buffalo, dogs, chickens, pigs, crabs and goldfish to five-fruit trays, all made in Hanoi’s traditional style. He has also created some new designs based on the Nguyen dynasty’s five-flap áo dài, with patterns befitting the royal court. 

When talking about recreating ancient costumes through tò he, Mr. Hau said: “It is very interesting because when I make these figurines, I learn a lot more about history and our national dress. Making tò he and dough figurines is not merely a form of entertainment but also a tool for conveying culture and history.” 

As a rare artisan who has mastered the different styles of tò he and dough figurines over many years, Mr. Hau not only works to enhance his skills, but also continues to promote tò he through workshops, free training classes, tours, and exhibitions to introduce this beautiful traditional craft to more people. In these ways Mr. Hau keeps the craft alive and uses tò he to tell meaningful stories.