Truc Lam

Just 60km from Hanoi, the ancient village of Phu Lang is known for its traditional pottery and rustic beauty

Fans of traditional ceramics spare the ancient village of Phu Lang a special place in their heart. Nestled by the Cau River in Que Vo District, Bac Ninh, just 60km from Hanoi, this ancient ceramic village is tranquil and charming. Stacks of wood known as “wood trees” line the dykes. Residential backyards are strewn with jars, pots and vases in shades of earthy brown or red terracotta. Using clay shipped from Bac Giang, Phu Lang ceramics are characterized by their warm colors.

The history of Phu Lang is associated with those of Bat Trang and Tho Ha, two other northern ceramic villages with similar backgrounds. They villages diverged into producing different styles as time went by. The founding father of Phu Lang’s ceramic craft was Luu Phong Tu, who was sent north during the Tran Dynasty with two other ambassadors. Upon his return, Luu Phong Tu passed on his newfound knowledge about ceramic techniques to his fellow villagers. The two other ambassadors subsequently founded the ceramic villages of Tho Ha (Bac Giang) and Bat Trang (Hanoi). While Tho Ha Village has long since abandoned this craft, Phu Lang and Bat Trang are still turning out distinctive and beautiful ceramics.

Phu Lang villagers produce rough ceramics coated in lustrous black or red brown glaze. The wares have a rustic and natural charm. Strolling through rural alleyways, visitors feel like they’ve gone back in time, catching sight of potters, wood fires and smoking kilns behind green bamboo hedges. Most Phu Lang pottery is produced using a potter’s wheel, although several households employ molds. The village’s pottery is known for its rustic yet contemporary patterns.

Because of their rustic style and traditional techniques, Phu Lang’s traditional products fell out of favor and were struggling to find a market. After graduating from the University of Fine Arts and Industry, Vu Huu Nhung returned to his village determined to breathe new life into its ancient craft. In his adept hands, the local pottery was adorned with modern patterns. Mouths and handles were added, as well as geometric patterns and painted reliefs. All of a sudden, the village’s fermented cabbage jars and fish sauce pots were considered artistic as well as functional. The village’s pottery is now exhibited worldwide.

Committed to traditional wood-fueled furnaces, molded terracotta is fired at a temperature of 900oC. The resulting ceramics are popular for outdoor use in urban gardens. Drawing tourists and artists, this bamboo-shaded village has now become a contemporary art hub. Phu Lang villagers welcome visitors who wish to practice pressing, trimming and drawing patterns on pottery. This openness entices art lovers who come to learn about the traditional techniques and add their own creative touches.

Phu Lang has gained more attention thanks to a new product range: religious figurines. Branded with the name of the village, these figurines were inspired by the gifted artist Nguyen Tuan, known for his Buddhist statues, the little monk or a man with wings. The most unique product, titled Tree of Life, was displayed worldwide in 2015 and 2016. These new designs reveal the artistic importance of this ancient village beside the Cau River.

As well as being a working craft village, Phu Lang is known for its rural beauty. Tourists come here to pose for photos. Music videos are filmed in this charming setting. Visitors stroll down meandering lanes lined with stacks of wood and explore workshops strewn with works-in-progress. In the birthplace of quan họ singing, visitors can hear the soothing voices of male and female artists, sample local spousal cakes and rice buns, and bring home some unique ceramic figurines to remind them of this special village.