Tran Duc Anh Son
Vietnam’s traditional craft villages have long histories of adaptation
In his book “The structure of the traditional Northern Vietnamese village” (Social Science Publishing House, Hanoi, 1984), Tran Tu (the pen name of ethnologist Nguyen Duc Tu Chi) wrote: “The village is the root of Vietnamese society, a natural product of Vietnamese people’s history of settlement” (page 11-12). This means that the Vietnamese village is not an administrative or cultural unit but also an economic one, generating livelihoods for the local community and influencing their socio-economic condition. This explains the existence of thousands of craft villages in Vietnam that specialize in handicrafts or fishing, as well as those dependent on agriculture. With centuries of history, these villages have long played a crucial part in shaping the country’s rural countryside and non-agricultural economy.
Craft villages were established in Vietnam at the start of the 11th century when the feudal court took root and began to order the construction of palaces and citadels. At that time, the ruling class started using specially designed items in their daily lives and for religious activities. This demand for handicraft products led to the formation of traditional crafts and craft villages in Vietnam.
During the 13th century, handicrafts were exported from the ancient Dai Viet kingdom to neighboring territories. This resulted in the establishment of more craft villages, creating an economic model and contributing to Vietnam’s economic, cultural, and social development for thousands of years. Craft villages not only supported the livelihoods of the majority of the rural population but also left their mark on the development of inter-regional trade networks. Simultaneously, they encouraged artisans’ creativity and skills, allowing them to create fine products and practice traditional trades imbued with our national identity and culture. They even turned Vietnam into a bustling commercial marketplace within the Asia-Pacific region during the Grand Commercial Age of the 16th – 17th centuries.
Through the ups and downs of history, Vietnamese craft villages and traditional crafts underwent various changes and adaptations but never disappeared. Their role in the socio-economic structure of rural Vietnam has remained largely consistent.
According to the Vietnam Craft Village Association, in 2020 there were over 5,400 craft villages producing traditional crafts in Vietnam. Locations that have preserved old houses and craft guilds are recognized as “craft villages”. Trades that once belonged exclusively to a family or village but are now widespread, forming the bread and butter of many generations and communities, are called “traditional crafts”. When a locale’s ancient craft has been lost to time, leaving behind the bare-bones features of a once-glorious trade village, the place is called an “ancient village”.
From an economic perspective, craft villages and traditional crafts create jobs and boost incomes for local people, and contribute to rural economic restructuring, social development, and local tourism.
In terms of culture, craft villages and traditional crafts are decisive factors in forming the village’s culture and craft culture in Vietnam’s rural areas. This is achieved through the creation and promotion of cultural values generated by creating, buying, selling, or exchanging products, through passing the craft from generation to generation, and through maintaining and practicing the customs and beliefs related to the craft and the craft village.
Almost every craft village and traditional craft recognizes a founder. The rituals to worship this founder form a unique highlight of craft village culture. It is from this worship that the relics, customs, and festivals associated with the craft and village are formed. In addition, the legacy of craft villages includes folk songs, colloquial sayings and proverbs, legends and anecdotes about the craft’s founders, and trade secrets to be passed onto future generations. These are the intangible cultural heritages of crafts and craft villages, coexisting with tangible heritages created by artisans, and the artisans themselves, who are “living treasures” who create, maintain, and pass down the crafts.
Today, craft villages also serve as tourist attractions that welcome visitors for an immersive sightseeing experience. Craft village tourism is a type of high-end cultural tourism offered in many countries around the world that is gradually rising in popularity. Craft village tourism turns the cultural values of craft villages and hand-crafted products — the fruits of hard labor — into touristic commodities, allowing visitors to witness the crafting process and even try it themselves.
Many craft villages in Vietnam have changed their model from commodity production to craft tourism. This not only helps promote the handicraft products but also honors the village’s culture and craft culture. It also enhances infrastructure in rural villages, turning them into novel tourist attractions. Craft village tourism is generating income for local people and bringing economic benefits to their community, while promoting the traditional crafts and their cultural values. It also serves to preserve the landscape of rural Vietnamese villages amidst rapid urbanization.