Text: Nguyet Anh
Photos: Pham Ngoc Thanh

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, one family continues to produce cotton swan baskets, a traditional toy associated with the Midautumn Festival

As the Midautumn Festival drew near, my thoughts turned to baskets of cotton swans my mother bought me as a child. This memory prompted me to drive to Hang Luoc Street in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District in search of Ms. Vu Thi Thanh Tam, who is still making these traditional toys.

I found No. 79 Hang Luoc and entered a narrow alleyway to find Ms. Tam’s home. Her family was very busy, producing these traditional crafts and sharing fond memories. Years ago, many households on Hang Luoc and Hang Ma Streets produced cotton swans. Today, only Ms. Tam’s family still makes these traditional toys. Each year, they are happy to see customers taking pleasure in their wares.

Ms. Tam spoke of the days when kids’ toys were limited. Lucky youngsters rejoiced to receive a star-shaped lantern, an iron warship, a small drum or a basket of cotton swans. These simple toys were proudly displayed to all the other kids in the neighborhood.

Each year, the Midautumn Festival rekindles Ms. Tam’s memories of her own childhood. When she was around 10, thanks to her nimble hands, she and her sisters started to make cotton swan baskets. At first they crafted them for fun, but their products were so beautiful that vendors on Hang Ma and Hang Luoc Streets started to order them. Ms. Tam has been making these baskets ever since.

At first glance, cotton swan baskets look simple and frail. Yet they are hard to make, requiring time and skill. Ms. Tam starts preparing for the Midautumn Festival about two months in advance. By the time the festival starts, her family has produced some 100 baskets.

The first and most difficult step is to shape swans out of cardboard and stuff cotton over top to harden the frame. The swan’s body shape is then fashioned from steel wire, which is wrapped in cotton. The wrapping requires skill or the swan will look lumpy with rough edges. The last step is shaping the swan’s wings to make it look as if it is soaring. Rice water is applied to smooth out the surface.

While a lot of time and skill are required to make a swan basket, profits are meager. This is why most artisans have abandoned this craft.

Luckily for Ms. Tam, her daughter-in-law and niece are interested and following in her footsteps. However, they have other responsibilities and cotton swans only sell during Lunar mid-August. Many of the cotton swans are bought by older people who are nostalgic. They buy the swans as reminders of their impoverished childhoods, and how eagerly they awaited the Midautumn Festival.

Today’s kids and adolescents are mostly uninterested in traditional toys. Hence, as well as making cotton swan baskets, Ms. Tam and her family also produce cotton teddy bear baskets and cotton dolls, which appeal to modern children.

Although no other families pursue this craft, Ms. Tam has no intention of giving up. She  enjoys using her imagination.

Out in the streets, drums were pounding and lion dance troupes were gathering, heralding the arrival of the Midautumn Festival. I wished Ms. Tam good health so that each year, her cotton swan baskets could still be found in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, reminding buyers of a lost Hanoi.