Story: Buon Krong Tuyet Nhung, Buon Krong Wiyapodam
Photos: Quoc Nguyen

In the land of the Stone God, female M’nong R’lam artisans produce distinctive traditional pottery

Located in Lak District, about 40km from central Buon Ma Thuot on Highway QL27, the town of Yang Tao is home to people of M’Nong R’lam ethnicity. In the local language, Yang Tao means “Stone God”. Tourists come here to discover the locals’ skills in taming wild elephants, fishing, carving dugout canoes, and weaving artful mats, etc. This region is also famous for traditional pottery made by local women.

Shaping a jar

When the morning mist still hangs over Yang Tao, groups of M’Nong R’lam women have already left their homes and gone downhill in search of clay. Their strong hands move blocks of soil and dig at least half a meter down. They extract lumps of clay, put them in their baskets, and carry them back to town. The clay is neatly placed in the front yards of M’Nong R’lam’s matriarchal stilt houses.

The wares made by M'Nong R'lam women are delicate, light, and plain, yet stylish

This soft clay is naturally sticky, and becomes more adhesive when hand-pounded in an old mortar. It takes time and effort to achieve the desired stickiness: one to two hours, or more. A touch of water is added to make the pounding easier. The longer the clay is pounded, the smoother and more adhesive it becomes. The pounded clay is then kneaded. It’s either used immediately or carefully stored overnight in the front yard. The female pottery artisans use upside-down mortars with baskets as tables. They gently place a lump of clay on top of the basket and start the shaping process.

Products are carefully arranged and fired over dry wood

Sitting slightly hunched, the artisans skillfully mould, cut, and shape the clay from different angles to form a product. Now and then, they use a small piece of brocade and a bit of water and turn the upside-down mortars counter-clockwise to create the product’s smooth surface. A flat bamboo stick is used to draw simple patterns, before the products are sun-dried. When they are dry enough, they are carefully arranged and fired over dry wood in the open air for 30 minutes to one hour.

To enhance the products’ shiny black finish, the fire is speedily extinguished by covering it with chaff. This is the final step in making Yang Tao pottery.

Pottery-making traditions are passed to the younger generation

Traditionally, the pottery products made by Yang Tao women included cups, bowls, pots, sticky rice steamers, and jars for stem liquor. Besides being used for daily life, the products are also bartered with other ethnic groups in the region for rice or cattle. Unlike the sophisticated pottery of Kinh people in the Mekong Delta, or the rustic pottery of Cham people in Ninh Thuan, the wares made by M’Nong R’lam women are delicate, light, and plain, yet stylish.

Nowadays, along with traditional lines, Yang Tao pottery products are being diversified to meet customers’ tastes. Along with thrilling mythical stories about the biggest monoliths in Vietnam – named the Father Elephant and the Mother Elephant, M’Nong R’lam women continue to pass on their pottery-making traditions to younger generations. Yang Tao pottery is a remarkable tradition in the rich cultural flow of the legendary Central Highlands.