Story: TRUONG QUY
Photos: AMACHAU, NGO QUY DUC, CAO KY NHAN
Learn how Vietnam’s rural craft villages are keeping traditions alive
Since ancient times, villages have been home to artisans making treasures for humanity. The hands of masters in craft villages have made everything from vibrant carvings in dinh (village communal houses) to beautiful statues for pagodas.
Like traditional agricultural villages, craft villages are unique economic communities in Vietnam. Cottage industries were part of the feudal “Four Occupations”: gentry scholars, peasant farmers, artisans and craftspeople, and merchants and traders. Many craft villages created both material and spiritual values for civilization, demonstrating Vietnamese people’s capacity to create beauty. How do these values fare today under the pressures of centralized industries and products made by large-scale manufacturers? Some craft villages have survived by becoming cultural destinations that create elevated handicraft products. Each village can be proud of its own artisans unlike any others.
The village as an art studio
Ha Thai Village (Thuong Tin District, Hanoi) became famous for lacquer painting. Instead of stopping at the mass production of handicrafts, the village now has a considerable number of professional artists with university degrees in the visual arts. They returned home, opened art studios, and kept their inspiration alive in the flow of tradition. Names such as Tran Cong Dung, To Ngoc Trang, and Nguyen Ngoc earned recognition through deeply personal creations. Visitors to Ha Thai can now explore art studios cum galleries that are clustered together.
This is nothing new; the famous Bat Trang pottery village accomplished the same feat two decades ago. Knowing it would be difficult to compete with industrial pottery and ceramics, artisans and artists with close ties to Bat Trang figured out ways to create unique pottery items. For example, Casa Italia in Hanoi exhibited ceramic boots created by Merited Artisan Vu Thang, inspired by European high heels and adorned with traditional Vietnamese motifs and enamel techniques. His legacy is currently on display at the Bat Trang Museum of Ceramic Arts, on the grounds of the late artist’s ancient abode. In addition, the six-floor Bat Trang Pottery Museum recently opened its doors. These spaces are not just meant to exhibit items or serve as backdrops for selfies but also offer opportunities for visitors to try their hands at pottery-making. Artist Nguyen Thu Thuy has also been making waves with a collection of vibrantly-colored ceramic vases that buck trends. She created these pieces by practically camping out near the village’s kiln when she wasn’t working as a university lecturer in cultural tourism.
Perhaps pottery villages draw the attention of tourists because their products are so versatile. Additionally, these villages foster an atmosphere that encourages artists to turn ceramic creations into works of art. Pottery villages such as Thanh Ha (Hoi An City) and Mang Thit (Vinh Long Province) are also connected to urban heritage areas or distinct cultural zones in Central Vietnam and the Mekong River Delta.
Crafting golden routes
Many craft villages lying close together create “golden corridors” for cultural tourism. For example, to the south of Hanoi, a single area that is 15-km in diameter contains an impressive number of craft villages: embroidery in Quat Dong (Thuong Tin District), inlaying with mother-of-pearl in Chuon Ngo (Phu Xuyen District), and making ao dai in Trach Xa (Ung Hoa District). These villages are interspersed with notable landmarks such as Dau Pagoda, Boi Khe Pagoda, and Cuu Village, home to many famous Vietnamese academics. Artists and researchers into art and fashion design regularly visit Trach Xa and Quat Dong to try and restore traditional ao dai and old embroidery motifs long thought to be lost.
In Bac Ninh Province, the bronze forges of Dai Bai and the woodcarvers of Dong Ky are right next to pagodas like But Thap, Dau, and Phat Tich, which are considered national treasures. Villages dedicated to sculpture, such as Bao Ha (Vinh Bao District, Hai Phong City) or silver-making (Dong Xam Village, Kien Xuong District, Thai Binh Province), are linked to pilgrimages to spiritual centers.
In the Northwestern mountains, Mai Chau (Hoa Binh Province) delights tourists with many homestays and opportunities to experience brocade-weaving with local Muong people. In South Central Vietnam, the Cham brocade-weaving village of My Nghiep (Ninh Thuan Province) borders the pottery village of Bau Truc and is close to the Cham temple of Po Klong Garai, creating an interesting journey of cultural experiences.
In modern times, craft villages are able to do well by slowly changing into low-emissions businesses that make money and give people the chance to be creative. They remain in the public consciousness because their products are prominent in daily life, and thanks to connections between specialized industrial arts research initiatives and a tourism-based economy. This provides a three-pronged foundation for new abundance.