Story: Nam Anh
Photos: Xuan Chinh, An Thanh Dat, Nguyen Dinh Thanh, Nguyen Phu Duc

Northern Vietnam is home to a number of fascinating craft villages

Xuan La tò he village

What: Rice dough figurines on bamboo sticks

Where: 30km northeast of Hanoi, Xuan La Village (Phuong Duc, Phu Xuyen, Hanoi)

People from Xuan La are known for making traditional toys out of rice dough. The figurines are fashioned from flour made of ten parts rice to one part glutinous rice, which is steamed and kneaded into malleable dough. The dough is dyed in bright colors and fashioned into animals and characters. While many producers use food coloring and other artificial dyes, artisans in Xuan La continue to dye their figurines with natural dyes. The four basic colors are yellow, red, black and green, which they source from plants and vegetables. Red is extracted from gac fruits (momordica cochinchinensis), yellow from turmeric and green from malaleuca leaves and chives.

The toys’ name “tò he” is thought to be derived from the word “horn” (tò te), which vendors once blew to get kids’ attention. Over time the figurines became known as “tò he”. Popular figurines include birds, animals, traditional heroes – and even modern comic book characters. Each figurine is stuck on a bamboo skewer, making it easy for small hands to hold.

Yen bamboo dragonfly village

What: Small dragonfly toys fashioned from bamboo

Where: Yen village (Thach Xa Commune, Thach That District, Hanoi)

Yen Village has long been known for its traditional bamboo baskets and fans. About a decade ago some artisans began to make small dragonfly toys out of bamboo. These simple toys are now sold all over Hanoi.

The bamboo is collected from upland areas like Hoa Binh and Ha Giang. It is peeled, cut into small pieces and dried four or five times before being made into products. Artisans select smooth, malleable pieces that are free of termites, chop off any bumps, and peel and cut the bamboo to form the dragonfly’s body. It takes skill to stick the wings into the torso so as to make the toy balanced. The artisan tests the balance by resting the toy on his or her finger. If it doesn’t tip, the wings are glued in place. Finally, the dragonfly is painted in bright colors.

Phu Vinh rattan village

What: High quality rattan products

Where: 35km southwest of central Hanoi, Phu Nghia, Chuong My District (Hanoi)

Every household in Phu Vinh produces wares in rattan. People of all ages – from village elders to small kids – help out with this traditional craft. The locals’ skill at collecting, treating, cutting and weaving rattan has lifted many families out of poverty and brought affluence to this village.

In the past, Phu Vinh produced mainly household items such as baskets or sieves. Today, to meet changing demands, they produce a wide range of rattan handicrafts including ornaments, plates, trays, vases, window blinds and furniture.

Quat Dong embroidery village

What: Embroidered pictures

Where: Quat Dong Commune, Thuong Tin District, 23km south of central Hanoi

 Quat Dong Village in Thuong Tin District has been known for its embroidered wares since the 17th century. To make a finished embroidered picture, artisans must be skilled in many tasks, including sketching, stretching the fabric, selecting colors and stitching. As a child, an artisan learns to plant the needle neatly and keep the embroidery smooth and even.

 Embroiderers from Quat Dong produce a wide range of products, from traditional craft items such as parallel sentences, entry banners, parasols, flags, curtains, tablecloths and traditional theatrical costumes to landscape pictures that feature Uncle Ho’s stilt house or the One-Pillared Pagoda, etc.

Nowadays, Quat Dong Embroidery Village attracts many visitors. In addition, embroidered handicrafts from Quat Dong are exported to many countries worldwide. 

Thu Sy fish trap village

What: Bamboo fish traps

Where: 60km from Hanoi, Thu Sy Commune, Tien Lu District, Hung Yen.

This commune is home to around 500 people who produce bamboo fish traps in addition to farm work. This craft has the longest history in the villages of Tat Vien and Noi Lang.

Making bamboo fish traps requires skill and patience. The round and double-ended traps are the most complex and challenging to make. Round baskets are used to trap perch, gobies and other species. Artisans select well-aged bamboo that is both tough and malleable and cut strips as thin as toothpicks. They must cut, clean, shape, weave and dry the bamboo.

A finished trap can hold up to nine kilograms of fish or shrimp. These traps and baskets are essential tools for people living on rivers, ponds and swamps all over northern Vietnam.

Fish traps and baskets from Thu Sy sell well as they have a reputation for quality. These items are sent to rural markets both in and outside of the commune. Villagers don’t become rich from this craft, but it brings them a stable income.