By: Tran Huyen
Photos: Tran Huyen, Tuan Kiet, Bich Thuan, Ngoc Phuoc
Set beside the Thu Bon River near Hoi An, an ancient pottery village charms visitors
An outing to Thanh Ha
My field trip to the pottery village of Thanh Ha turned out to be a journey down memory lane. I first came here in April 1988 as a student in the Department of History at Hue University. I was on another field trip to the carpentry village of Kim Bong, which faces Thanh Ha on the opposite bank of the Thu Bon River. Curious about how the local pottery was made, I rented a boat to Thanh Ha.
I next visited in June 2020, together with a writer from Saigon. He wished to find a setting for a screenplay about the early 17th century romance between Japanese merchant Araki Sotaro and Lady Ngoc Hoa, the adopted daughter of Lord Nguyen Phuc Nguyen. In the 17th century, foreign merchants who came to Hoi An and wished to meet the Nguyen Lord’s sons had to perform a sailing feat in order to reach Quang Nam Palace. They had to sail against the current of the Thu Bon River and turn into a smaller branch upon reaching the territory of Thanh Ha so as to reach the Palace in Thanh Chiem Village, which now lies in Dien Phuong Commune, Dien Ban District, Quang Nam Province.
Thanh Ha village stands on the front edge of the fork in the Thu Bon River in a perfect location for pottery-crafting and distribution. Boats drop off clay and firewood – the key ingredients for making pottery – at the river wharf. The village’s finished wares are also shipped out from this wharf.
At the end of the 15th century, migrants from Thanh Hoa, Hai Duong, and Nam Dinh settled in Thanh Ha, bringing the traditional pottery expertise from their homelands. Thanks to favorable geographical conditions and an abundance of high-quality clay and firewood from nearby areas, the first inhabitants of Thanh Ha were able to found a renowned pottery village. From stories told by elderly villagers, the pottery craft in Thanh Ha started in 1516 in Thanh Chiem Village, and later moved to Nam Dieu Village (currently at Block 5 Thanh Ha Ward). In Chinese, Nam means “the Southern land” and Dieu means “pottery kiln”. Hence, Nam Dieu means “pottery kiln of the South”.
In its golden days, Thanh Ha had hundreds of working kilns and thousands of craftsmen. Thanh Ha pottery was a famous and iconic product of the Quang region. The village’s products contributed greatly to the glorious image of Hoi An during the Nguyen dynasty. Exported to many countries in the region, Thanh Ha pottery was praised as “national property” of Dang Trong in Phu bien tap luc (Miscellaneous Chronicles of the Pacified Frontier) by Le Quy Don.
Reviving the pottery craft
Time changes everything. The demand for pottery construction materials and daily items from Thanh Ha declined. The village’s pottery trade lost its celebrated status. There were days when not a single kiln was lit and most villagers had to farm for a living. However, after Hoi An Ancient Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and started drawing more domestic and international travelers, the pottery craft in Thanh Ha was revived. The village’s reputation was restored.
I visited for a third time, eager to see the changes in this beautiful village.
Thanh Ha pottery is made using traditional clay without enamel. The products take shape on a pottery wheel (called a “bàn chuốt” by the locals). The outcome depends upon the dexterous hands and vivid imagination of the artisans. After being baked, Thanh Ha pottery turns a deep terracotta red. The products are simple yet delicate.
Today, fewer products from Thanh Ha serve as construction materials or daily items. Instead, villagers focus on producing souvenirs and decorative art items. There are currently eight kilns with 40 staff. The kilns are also popular with visitors who come to witness the pottery craft.
After purchasing an entrance ticket, visitors can watch the artisans at work, visit the ancient kilns, and try their hand at making pottery, aided by local experts. They can also buy lovely and sometimes unconventional pottery products in a variety of shapes and sizes. It’s hard to find any visitor leaving this place without a gift for themselves or their friends from Thanh Ha.
The biggest terracotta park in Vietnam
A highlight of a tour to Thanh Ha village is a stop at the Thanh Ha Terracotta Park, a pottery museum built in 2011 and officially opened to the public in 2017.
The Thanh Ha Terracotta Park was created by architect Nguyen Thanh Ha, the son of local artisans. After leaving for a new career in the South, he returned a success and helped to develop his hometown by investing in a pottery museum. He hoped to present the region’s unique pottery craft in a new way.
The museum contains displays focused on craft village conservation; Thanh Ha pottery; Sa Huynh and Champa pottery (once strongly linked to Thanh Ha – Hoi An); other pottery villages in Vietnam; contemporary art pottery; two models of ancient kilns (upside-down and open) used in Thanh Ha; miniature terracotta models; and the market for pottery enthusiasts.
The Thanh Ha Terracotta Park gives visitors enthralling experiences. It offers the chance to explore the secrets of pottery-making in general and Thanh Ha’s craft in particular. Visitors will enjoy the miniature terracotta models of iconic monuments from all over the world, as well as architectural legacies of the Ly – Tran – Nguyen – Le dynasties from across Vietnam. I was inspired to learn how potters in Thanh Ha have sought to meet modern consumers’ needs and tastes and give new life to this traditional craft.