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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

Sylvie Fanchette
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 1 b. Pottery villages (Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang)

Texte intégral

The craftvillages
The craftvillages: villages of Phù Lãng Commune (Ðồng Sài, Phân Trung and Thủ Công) and the village of Thổ Hà.
Cultural and architectural heritage
Brick architecture of the three very picturesque villages that make up Phù Lãng and its surroundings, the very rich and varied traditional architecture and the communal house of Thổ Hà.



1Exit Hà Nội to the east through Gia Lâm. Go straight through the Nguyễn Văn Cừ/Nguyễn Văn Linh intersection and turn right towards the motorway (National Highway no5) to Hải Phòng. After about 11 kilometres, turn left to get onto the motorway that leads to the provincial capital of Bắc Ninh. After 25 km of road through the paddy fields, take the exit for Bắc Ninh, turn right (National Highway no18) towards Phố Mới, the administrative centre of Quế Võ District: leave the bridge over the motorway to your left. When you get to this small town, you have another six kilometres to go. You will see a large brick kiln on your left. Turn left and follow the narrow, raised road that crosses the paddy fields. In the distance, you will see the hills on which are perched the villages of Phù Lãng. After about a kilometre, the road begins to climb. It goes through the village of Hữu Bằng and winds along the hill. You go through the village of Phùng Dị, then the road makes a long curve to the right round the hill. You will begin to see potters’signs. Nearly there! A kilometre further on, you come to a T-junction. If you go straight on, you will come to Ðồng Sài, the village where the famous ceramist Nhung lives. If you turn left, the road leads to Thủ Công, the village where the craft originated.


2This visit of three pottery villages is also a trip back through time concerning the story of this craft in the Red River Delta: the visitor can at once admire fascinating remains from the past and observe the pitiless interplay of forces driving towards the present.

3We begin this itinerary with the most far-flung destination of all the villages proposed in this guide: Phù Lãng. However, the distance (just over 60 kilometres) is largely compensated for by the beauty and the singularity of this place. In reality a succession of three separate pottery villages (Ðồng Sài, Phân Trung and Thủ Công) located along the banks of the Cầu River, Phù Lãng is a very charming place. Surrounded by fertile paddy fields and far from the region’s main roads, this little clump of houses, snugly settled on the slopes of a short chain of hillocks, retains many elements of traditional Tonkinese villages, while presenting unique aspects and boasting a distinctly modern dimension.


4Potters have been at work in Phù Lãng Commune for a very long time: archaeological research has uncovered, buried deep in the ground, shards of ceramic dating back to the Trần Dynasty (13th /14th century). Legend has it that the expertise was brought back to the village by three mandarins, Hứa Vĩnh Kiều, Ðào Trí Tiến and Lýu Phong Tú, after their diplomatic mission to China and passed on to the inhabitants of their village.

5Catherine Noppe (Musée royal de Mariemont, 2006) offers us one of the versions of this founding myth: “…Having returned home safe and sound, they enabled the people of their native villages to benefit from their experience: Kiều taught at Bát Tràng (Itinerary no2) the art of producing a white enamel glaze, Tiến taught at Thổ Hà (see p. 102) that of a red glaze and Tú taught at Phù Lãng how to make a dark yellow glaze. Shortly afterwards, their work was presented at Court where it was found satisfactory and the glory was reflected onto the villages, which in turn honoured the mandarins as tổ sý ‘founding ancestors’ and worship of them with solemn festivals was established…” Originally, the village potters mainly produced articles useful for everyday life: cooking pots, bowls, mugs, jars for alcohol, tiles, perfume-burners, etc. These articles were covered with a light brown glaze and were sold to other Delta villages and as far away as Hà Nội. Phù Lãng enjoyed quite good transport connections by river to bring in raw materials (once the local clay deposits and available wood were exhausted) and then to distribute and sell the – relatively heavy and fragile – produce. However, this village never managed to break into the export market, unlike Bát Tràng (Itinerary no2), Chu Đậu and Hợp Lễ (formerly major ceramic-producing villages of the Delta), which in the 17th century were dominant traders in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, Phù Lãng was famed for the quality of its products: at the end of the 19th century, the best artisans of the commune were chosen to make 200 finely worked and glazed perfume-burners to be presented to the Royal Court.

assorted pottery, phù lãng

6The improvement of roads and the arrival of motorised vehicles in Vietnam supplanted transport by river, which became too slow and costly for the competitive transport of goods in the Delta, save for the use of big barges and junks still plying up and down the Red River. Phù Lãng was disadvantaged by this evolution: far from Hà Nội and rather poorly connected by road, it suffered from, among other things, the competition of Bát Tràng, the best-known pottery village in the whole Delta (see Itinerary no2) and located close to Hà Nội, the main commercial hub for the entire region.

7However, it is above all the course (or the curse) of geopolitical events and the great social upheavals of the beginning of the 20th century, washing over the deltaic plains of Vietnam as elsewhere, that temporarily submerged Phù Lãng’s traditional activity in a period of decline. A state of war took hold and a guerrilla movement sprang up against the French colonial regime. The kilns of Phù Lãng were left to go cold and fall into ruin.

8The revival of the activity did not take place until during the collectivist period. In contrast with Thổ Hà, where the co-operatives precipitated the demise of a high-quality craft established many centuries ago, Phù Lãng’s co-operatives enabled it to re-establish the production of pottery of moderate quality made for everyday life, using the string of kilns in Thủ Công village, hugging the bank of the Cầu River.

9Then, about 20 years ago, a small group of craftsmen from the commune found a new way of diversifying their activity and increasing production. They went to Thổ Hà (see p. 102) to obtain models of burial caskets (see box p. 94), the traditional stock-in-trade of Thổ Hà’s potters, and set to making moulds in order to copy them, sell them more cheaply and thus replace Thổ Hà in this lucrative market for the whole of the northern part of the Red River Delta.

10More recently, some young artisans in the village have also opted to switch crafts, this time to artistic ceramics: some of them have studied at the School of Fine Arts and the School of Industrial Arts in Hà Nội, bringing back new, creative ideas to the village. This ‘new’ craft has been very successful and some of these artisans-cum-artists have become quite famous.

funerary urns piled high at thủ công (phù lãng)

For whom the bell always tolls twice

11Ceramic burial urns or caskets (tiểu) receive the bones of the dead during a solemn exhumation ceremony, held three (or sometimes four) years after the demise of the loved one. On that day, a smartly dressed group (each member wearing the white headband of deep mourning) can be seen heading through the fields to the graves. With them, they carry shovels and toothbrushes (to dig up and then clean off the bones picked dry by… the passage of time) – as well as a casket (made without a doubt these days in Phù Lãng), destined to be the final resting place amid the rice fields. The sides of this little coffin are pierced with small holes to let the guardian or tutelary spirits of the skeleton pass freely in and out. Before retrieving what is left of the dear departed, sacrifices must be made, firstly to the ancestors, then to the spirits of the earth – the one the dead person is leaving that day as well as the one where the departed will lie for eternity (or at least until the next bone-cleaning ceremony). As at the first burial, the mourners remember their loved one and perhaps surrender to their grief as an outlet for their bereavement.

12The casket, filled with the bare bones blackened by the elements, once they have been sprinkled with perfume, placed according to a special order and covered with gilded and red votive paper, is buried in a tomb in a new place, chosen with care according to the rules of geomancy in order to aspire to a helping hand from the dead in favour of the living. The capital importance of a piece of land respecting a certain topographical configuration is summarised thus by the Vietnamese historian Hữu Ngọc:

13“…The breath of the White Tiger or that of the Dragon could give the family impoverished runts or well-heeled scions, peasants or aristocrats, or even kings.” (Hữu Ngọc, 2007)

14Hoping to sire royal children (and not just children who behave like royalty) might seem a tad optimistic, but one must admit that, despite the turbulences and ‘cultural liberalisation’ of recent times, the beliefs and observances of ancestor worship are still very much respected in Vietnam.

15The Vietnamese are well aware that these traditional practices concerning human remains – which nonetheless find very similar echoes in many other cultures in Asia and elsewhere – are more than foreign to Westerners; you must be considered a very close friend of the family before you get an invitation to attend such a rite of final passage into the hereafter.


16First of all, there are several beautiful buildings: aside from the inevitable crimes against architecture in pastel-painted concrete (or nouveau riche style), the houses, mostly quite small and discreet, are usually built with local clay bricks (as are the walls surrounding the original hamlets of the commune) and blend harmoniously into the surrounding countryside. These villages give a sense of space, for they are perched on the hillside: there is no competition here with agriculture, in contrast with villages on the deltaic plain (imagine, for example, Burgundian villages chronically short of room for expansion, but exchange the vineyards of Nuits-Saint-Georges in front of the church for paddy fields behind the pagoda). The other interesting architectural features include the pottery workshops (often behind the houses) and the kilns for firing all the ceramics being produced.

The kilns

17They are a prominent feature of Phù Lãng (there are about 30 of them) and are worth special attention. They are of the kind called ‘kiln laid flat’ or tunnel kiln (in Vietnamese: lò ống), of relatively large volume compared to other models of traditional kilns (many are over 20 metres long). Built level or slightly sloping, some of them are partially buried and blend into the voluptuous curves of this charming place. Each kiln is protected from the rain by a fine tiled roof, which can also shelter many drying articles, waiting to join the next batch in the kiln.

18The kilns are heated with wood (traditionally the only fuel used by Tonkinese potters), and everywhere in Phù Lãng, you come across dizzying piles of the stuff: skyscrapers and wooden tower blocks, built high against the sky and blocking out the landscape, but also conferring a chaotic charm on the village. Using wood as fuel adds to the craft dimension of the process: it gives limited control to the duration of firing and its temperature (which should be 500-700 °C). Gas kilns will doubtless be progressively introduced here (as in Bát Tràng: see Itinerary no2) – which will answer the more precise demands of artistic ceramics (sometimes complex or fragile articles, a variety of glazes, etc.). It must also be said that the use of wood raises serious environmental problems: people have to go further and further to find any (now as far as the mountainous areas bordering on the Delta) and the smoke pollutes the village air, all the more so given that the volume of production continues to increase (and that when wood is scarce, it is replaced by charcoal).

19Don’t hesitate to go inside a kiln (preferably one with no fire in it) in order to appreciate its dimensions and its detail. In Thủ Công hamlet (located on the dyke), the kilns are grouped round the former co-operative. Save for a handful of private operations, each kiln is shared between 10 to 12 potters who take turns using it for their independent production. They draw lots for their turn, but club together to buy the wood needed for the first batch, when the kiln is still cold (and hoping not to be saddled with the second turn, reputed to give poor quality produce…). It is also important to point out that indirect taxation collected by Phù Lãng Commune is not paid according to the number of windows or staircases per property, nor the right to wear hats or beards, – but is indeed linked to possession (or timesharing) of potters’kilns!

20Another striking aspect of the landscape is the use made of broken or defective items of pottery: these rather aesthetic waste products (mostly burial caskets, but also jars or other pots, which seem so much better than plastic bags or chemicals), are used to build enclosures, make walls higher, fill in holes, or are simply piled up around the village. The use of defective pieces of pottery to make fences between kilns and houses, rather than the usual little hedges made of plant matter, has the added advantage of minimising the risk of fire spreading from the kilns.

The potters’ workshops

21These can be found all over the village – family workshops (some of which have been used for several generations) as well as small companies producing ceramics. By asking permission first (naturally), several of them can easily be visited. Since the revival of the trade with help from the burial caskets, the style of pottery common in Phù Lãng (easily recognisable as hand-crafted with an ash-grey glaze) has become popular once again. For example, several restaurants aimed at a fashionable or artistic clientele in Hà Nội now use it, and here in the village, you will see a wide variety of objects at all stages of production. It is also possible to buy pottery here directly from the workshops, at well below Hà Nội prices.

pottery yard at thủ công (phù lãng)

The Velvet Revolution

22By far the best known craftsman-cum-artist is Vũ Hữu Nhung, known as just Nhung, the name he signs his work with. This personable young ceramist and painter (he was born in the village in 1975, while Vietnam was rising from the ashes of the American War), has clearly hit the jackpot… Of very humble origins, having started out in life with his feet solidly stuck in Phù Lãng’s soft clay, today he has risen to be at the helm of a registered company with over 200 employees. He exhibits and exports his work all over the world; his pieces are bought to decorate boardrooms of big companies, consulates of European embassies, mantelpieces of distinguished guests of state, etc.

23Leaving Phù Lãng to study at the Fine Arts University in Hà Nội for five years, (still a very rare educational path for the vast majority of young people from rural areas), the future ceramics artist Nhung acquainted himself thoroughly with both classical and contemporary influences. Then, instead of succumbing permanently (like many of his generation) to the siren song of big city life, after spending a short but fruitful time in Bát Tràng as an apprentice (to the ‘modern’ ceramists of the Hanoi suburbs), he returned to his quê hýõng, the land of his forefathers. He set up his own business, borrowing when necessary from his family, establishing his reputation as an accomplished craftsman and an original artist. This originality, allied to commercial success, make him a shining example – but also a choice target: imitating other people’s work is a national sport in Vietnam, and many people try to copy Nhung, firstly among those around him in Phù Lãng, and increasingly in Bát Tràng, where the forgery is even more difficult to detect or to denounce.

24However, our Nhung is not so easy a potter to harry… He has registered models of his work with the Service for Intellectual Property (a national body that most definitely has its work cut out). He changes and varies his products regularly, creates a lot of work and economic activity for the commune, attracts foreign buyers and visitors to the village, gets Phù Lãng mentioned in the media, does business with Bát Tràng artisans, etc.

25Nhung’s work sells for high prices (especially the real stuff…); however, his growing international reputation can make purchasing a piece of his pottery an investment, as well as being a beautiful item to admire and display. Original pieces can be found in the village of Ðồng Sài, where young Master Nhung has set himself up in a very large space, hidden from the prying eyes of his imitators (the ceramics are on sale in the showroom of his own business, Gốm Nhung/Công Ty Gốm Sao Bắc/North Star Ceramics Company). You can also get a piece of Nhung in Hà Nội, in the boutiques that line Nguyễn Thái Học and Thợ Nhuộm Streets, but unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing, it’s probably better to buy directly from Phù Lãng. We also advise against buying artistic ceramics, among those on sale in Bát Tràng (Itinerary no2), that resemble strangely (and specifically) those of Nhung (even with the same high prices), but that are sold as the original work of complete unknowns (in fact, mostly former apprentices trained by Nhung who have set themselves up in business or who work for good money with companies in Bát Tràng). Nhung hopes to attract progressively larger numbers of visitors to his showroom (and consequently to Phù Lãng), by indicating the route with some of his ceramic tiles (securely fastened to walls, one supposes) and by opening up a café, offering pottery classes, etc.

26Concerning households that produce artistic ceramics, there are about 20 of them in the commune, of which six have set up declared companies that reap 40% of all the profit made by this activity, but these figures will surely change very rapidly, seeing the success (artistic, yes, but above all commercial) some of them are enjoying.

27We should mention the names of some other artists whose work is not without interest:

28Mr. Phạm Vãn Cýõng (Thủ Công village) lives in a beautiful old house by the river, where, after studying engineering in Czechoslovakia (as it was then), took up his parents’craft. He has his own kiln and produces a small amount of decorative pottery. He regularly receives students from the Fine Arts School on internships.

29Mr. Minh Ngọc is a neighbour of Mr. Cýõng, with a small workshop opposite the hamlet’s big kiln; he makes and sells (though much more cheaply) shameless copies of Nhung’s work. His pieces, created with his son, a student at the Fine Arts School in Hà Nội, are bought up by boutiques in the capital and wholesalers from Bát Tràng.

30Mr. Trần Mạnh Thiều set up a registered company in 2007 called “Thiều Ceramics” that enables him to export his products all over the world. He has built a very pleasant workshop in Phân Trung village, on the hilltop, from whence the paddy fields stretching away across the plain can be admired. He, too, has studied at the Hà Nội Fine Arts School and has exhibitions. His work is very original, both in terms of form and in choice of items made and colours used; in this way, he stands out from most of his neighbours, whose pieces really do have an uncanny tendency to resemble those of Nhung. Thiều’s ceramics can easily be found on sale in the boutiques on Nhà Thờ Street in Hà Nội, but we recommend a visit to his interesting workshop (where about 30 people work) – as well as the (more reasonable) range of prices asked in the village.

31It is also possible to visit workshops where burial caskets and other everyday items are made: there are lots of them (especially in Thủ Công village) and one has only – as always – to ask permission to enter. Take advantage of your wanderings through Phù Lãng to appreciate the special ‘natural’ beauty of this place, with its complementary colours and pleasing perspectives, where waste products add to the beauty of the landscape: a fine exception to a rule all too sadly established by man in his environment.

A few things to look out for:

32• It is nearly always women who work with the potter’s wheel: according to one of the craftsmen we asked about this (a male one, of course), this is not work ‘worthy’ of men… The few men who do put their hands to the wheel do so uneasily. One of them recently died suddenly, and his fellow craftsmen mention the fact that he used to spin the potter’s wheel as one of the possible reasons for his untimely death! He had dared to defy the age-old traditional division of labour along gender lines.

33• Once the basic articles have thus been created by women, it is usually the men who are responsible for decorating them.

34• Articles are then left to dry, wherever room can be found sheltered from the risk of rain. Space is short, as in many craft villages, and its management is in itself a fascinating spectacle.

Annual festivals

35The festival for the founder of the potter’s craft (according to legend), Lýu Phong Tú, takes place on the 7th day of the 1st lunar month. Another village festival is celebrated on the 21st day of the 2nd lunar month.

A walk round Phù Lãng

36When you get to the T-junction, mentioned previously in the directions for locating this hardto-find commune, we recommend that you first go to visit Mr. Nhung. Therefore, carry straight on and leave the road that crosses the paddy fields on your left. You enter into the village of Ðồng Sài. After 400 m, turn right, a sign with an arrow shows the way to the workshop. Then left, and right again. The alley climbs uphill. Continue another 400 m: a second sign indicates the direction to the well-hidden workshop. At the end of the road that continues to climb the hill, there is a wrought iron gate: you have arrived. This very famous young craftsman is used to receiving visitors, so don’t hesitate to go in. If you are led straight to the shop, you can ask to visit the workshop first, made up of a group of buildings, where several hundred young workers and artisans (depending on the orders being prepared) are carrying out all the steps of ceramic production: preparing the pinkish clay, turning the pots on the wheel, drying, engraving of designs, coating of objects with various products, then finally, firing. There are several gas kilns on site. In the shop, you will find all kinds of articles (pots, pictures, jars, plates, tiles, little statues) at prices well below those in Hà Nội.

37The second stop that we suggest you make is a visit to Thủ Công, a village on the riverside (all pottery villages are to be found next to rivers!), where you can see the wood-fired kilns of the old co-operative.

38Go back to the T-junction and turn right. The road sets off straight through paddy fields, then makes a right-angle turn (still in the middle of the paddy fields). After about three kilometres, you come out into the marketplace (to your left). Turn left and go up onto the dyke road. You are overlooking the very wet paddy fields on your left and a large expanse of water to your right (the remains of an old meander in the Cầu river). On either side of the dyke road, artisans have reclaimed land to build workshops, some of which have traditional tunnel kilns, like that of Mr. Hùng Loan (no5 on the map). Space is at a high premium in this village and memories of the terrible floods of 1971, which destroyed part of the village and forced workshops to move up to Phân Trung village, remain vivid in the minds of many inhabitants. Along the road, you will come across those dizzying piles of kiln fuel, wooden skyscrapers and tower blocks built high against the sky that we mentioned earlier, along with equally chaotic piles of burial caskets awaiting their purchasers... Then you will come to the village proper: charming brick houses amid a jumble of piles of pottery of all kinds. An alley turns right towards the wharf (no6 on the map). From this vantage point, heavy barges loaded with sand, clay, wood or pottery can be seen sliding smoothly down the river.

39Carry on down the road that winds through this village of clay and bricks. On both sides, signs saying « gốm mỹ thuật» indicate the potters' workshops that make artistic artefacts. You will also see workshops specialised in burial caskets. Courtyards are covered with moulds and drying caskets (on rainy days, you won’t see much, as these artisans stop work!). A few hundred metres further on, you will come out into the area of the wood-fired kilns (to the left). On your right are the workshops of Mr. Ngọc (no7 on the map) and Mr. Cýõng (no10 on the map) (see p. 98, presentation of craftsmen). Below street level, piles of wood surround the village like medieval fortifications.

40The final stop on this guided walk through Phù Lãng is Phân Trung village, perched on the hillside, out of the clammy reach of potential flooding. Go back to the market. Continue straight on along the dyke road, leaving to your right the road crossing the paddy fields by which you came. After about 500 metres, you will see a pagoda on your left. Turn right here. You will go past the offices of the communal People’s Committee, Uỷ Ban Xã. After another 500 metres through paddy fields, the road begins to climb: you have arrived at the final stop.

41Turn right and take the time to admire this very beautiful village that overlooks the plain, its alleys lined with walls made of broken or defective items of pottery. Immediately on your right is the workshop of Mr. Thiều (see p. 98, presentation of craftsmen). You can continue straight on and lose yourself in the maze of lanes clinging to the hillside.

42To leave the village and return to National Highway no18, we suggest a different route than that by which you came to Phù Lãng. Retrace your steps, passing in front of Mr. Thiều’s workshop and continue straight on, leaving to your left the road by which you came from Thủ Công. Calculate about three kilometres through the paddy fields and the hills to link up with National Highway no18 again. When you get there, turn right and after a little less than three kilometres, you will go past the road that you took on the way up to Phù Lãng. Carry on to the motorway. Go over the motorway bridge and you come to the provincial capital of Bắc Ninh.



43Very difficult to get to by road, we suggest that you go to Thổ Hà by ferry, the simplest (and most enjoyable) way of getting there, leaving your vehicle not far from the crossing point. These rudimentary little boats leave just a few kilometres from Bắc Ninh town centre (although Thổ Hà is today just inside the neighbouring province of Bắc Giang), and only have to cross the width of the Cầu River.

44If you come to the town of Bắc Ninh by the N1 Highway from Hà Nội, look for a church on your right at a crossroads/roundabout. There is a sign on the church railing that says: “Tòa giám mục” (Diocese). (N.B.: if you come from Phù Lãng, enter town through the administrative district, going right to the bitter end of the road you are on, which then crosses the town centre. Then turn left, take the road towards Hà Nội and… look out for the diocesan church on your left).

45At this intersection, turn left (or right, coming from the centre of Bắc Ninh) onto a street called Ðýờng Thiên Ðức. Cross the railway tracks. After 800 metres (the same road is now called Ðýờng Lê Phụng Hiểu), turn right on Công Hâu (Phýờng Kinh Bắc, Bắc Ninh) and continue straight on for two kilometres (leaving the town). You will go over a bridge.

46You are travelling along the bank of the Cầu River (to your right), with Thổ Hà opposite, in the district called Xã Vạn An; there are two ferries that cross here, the first a small one, then a bigger one about 300 metres further on. The first crossing point is especially hard to find: the narrow alley that goes down the bank is three or four houses after a big dark blue/light blue house, with a sign: “Gửi xe” (guarded vehicle parking).


47Continuing our travels back through time and up the Cầu River, we thus proceed to Thổ , a fascinating village, with a rich pottery tradition, alas almost entirely conjugated in the past tense. Thổ Hà is built on a strip of land slightly raised above river level, but outside the protective perimeter of the dyke, within a sharp bend in the Cầu River (well upstream from Phù Lãng). Although pretty much perfect according to the criteria of phong thùy (in Chinese: feng shui) – Vietnamese geomancy, this geographic position exposes the village to severe flooding, normally at least twice a year, and it almost disappears temporarily from the landscape during exceptionally high floods (once every 15 years or so, when both of the ponds that surround the northern end of the village overflow). Another problem linked to the village’s geographic location is the lack of land suitable for growing rice: Thổ Hà is condemned, so to speak, to be a craft village, since it could not feed itself otherwise, but it also lacks room to expand industrial activities.

48Everywhere in Thổ Hà, the traces of a more glorious past can be seen: the host of fine old public and private buildings, in particular the famous đình and the Đoan Minh Pagoda. It is not difficult to conclude that this village has fallen on hard times, without having found the means as successfully as Phù Lãng has to revive its fortune.


49As we have already mentioned, Thổ Hà was once famous in the Northern Delta as a supplier of burial caskets, as well as of non-enamelled ceramic products of a light brown or dark grey colour (such as jars, vases, or perfume-burners). Craftsmen from Phù Lãng ‘stole’ the know-how to make burial caskets from Thổ Hà ceramists at the turn of the century, but the decline of the craft dates from earlier than this.

50Since at least the 17th century (a native of Thổ Hà claims that archaeologists have found traces of kilns dating back to the 9th century) until after the end of the colonial period, Thổ Hà was a very noted centre for the production of ceramic items (and especially these famous burial caskets of which you may have seen the copies made in Phù Lãng). The French geographer and researcher Pierre Gourou, author of a superb in-depth study of the life of the peasants of the Tonkinese Delta recounts, in 1936, that the Thổ Hà craftspeople went down the Cầu River with boats filled with ceramics for sale, going as far as the extreme south of the Delta and coming back up with nýóc mắm (fish sauce) and salt in order to make the trip pay.

large pot drying at thổ hà

51In an admiring passage on the ingenuity of alcohol smugglers, Pierre Gourou tells us that: “jars full of fermenting rice have been found (…) hidden in broken or defective items of Thổ Hà pottery, big jars or small caskets made of terracotta, which make up the walls of many villages west of Bắc Ninh…” Sadly, practically all ceramic production has now ceased in Thổ Hà. Why? There are several reasons, some of which explain moreover why tens of other pottery villages have ‘disappeared’, leaving behind almost no trace of their previous activity.

52First of all, the advent of other, lighter, more robust, less expensive materials, such as aluminium, stainless steel and plastic. New tastes, new fashions take hold. We call this progress. Next, there is the problem of transport, already mentioned in the case of Phù Lãng: Thổ Hà turns its back to Hà Nội, perched on its tight meander of Cầu River alluvia, and road access is astonishingly awkward. Crossing over on the ferry and taking the small roads towards Bắc Ninh and beyond is hardly more convenient. We call this modernity. Finally, there was the collectivist period. The potters of Thổ Hà were made to work in a co-operative, quite far from the village, in keeping with a policy of collectivisation of craft industries. Previously, potters sold their wares directly. Then the state took charge of this, and the artisan was paid mainly with rice. The problem was that the state paid little and irregularly, the marketing of products was not a great success and artisans, less involved and therefore less motivated, did not always produce their best work. In 1991, the co-operative was disbanded. We call this ideology.

53Since then, most of the inhabitants of this very densely populated village, almost without any cultivatable land, have had to find other ways to feed themselves. Thổ Hà has changed crafts en masse and today it is famous for its bánh đa, small, very thin rice pancakes used for making spring rolls. One of the greatest pleasures of a visit to the village is the beauty of the half-light filtering through these translucent pancakes, put out to dry on bamboo racks, forming a delightful roof over alleyways no more than a metre wide. Racks of rice pancakes can also be found in front of the pagoda, on rooftops, balanced on walls, leaning against graves in the cemetery… Therefore, try to arrive at Thổ Hà as early as possible in the afternoon or in the morning, on a dry day… and when the power is on, to admire this sight! The villagers start to take their racks of rice pancakes inside from about 3 or 4pm.

54One of the less vivid delights of a visit through the alleys that all run at right angles to the village’s main street, is the stench of pigs… The processing of rice into pancakes, noodles of all kinds and alcohol is always carried out in conjunction with keeping pigs, which are fed with rice waste products.


55Before its decline, Thổ Hà boasted at least 50 wood-fired kilns within a very dense urbanised space. Pierre Gourou (op. cit.) points out that already in the 1930s, wood being scarce, potters used even dried grass as fuel. Today, only traces of old kilns remain – mainly ‘frog kilns’ (lò cóc, literally ‘toad-shaped ovens’, the smallest and oldest type of kilns found here), still very fine to behold, but all left to fall into disrepair. – All? No, there still remains one household in the village where, with the help of a small frog kiln in their courtyard, they produce a limited quantity of ceramic items.

56This is the home of Mr. Trịnh Đắc Tân, a restorer by trade and formerly of the co-operative (the one from the collectivist era), and of his relative, Mr. Cáp Trọng Tuất, a retired soldier. Together, they are trying to revive ancestral know-how (they are descended from a long line of ceramists) and to train other artisans in order to re-establish the village’s traditional activity. In 2006, about 10 people were active in the workshop, the co-operative beginning once again to produce burial caskets with sophisticated lids (that cannot be found in Phù Lãng), big pots for bonsai trees, tanks for fish, small teapots, flowerpot stands, etc. This co-operative can be visited and simple items of pottery can be bought (teapots, bowls…). Access is to the right of the square with the pagoda on it.

57One can only hope that this brave initiative bears fruit: currently, a significant proportion of the inhabitants of Thổ Hà (as many as 70% back in 2003, according to Le Courrier du Vietnam, the State-owned Vietnamese language newspaper published in French) live in need. The village, already very densely inhabited a century ago, now has a population of 4,000 for an area of only 30 hectares or so. On top of this – adding insult to injury –, the bereaved of this village once famous throughout the Delta for their burial caskets now find themselves obliged to purchase them from the ‘craft robbers’ of Phù Lãng…

58Those who are trying to re-establish production of ceramics in Thổ Hà are beginning to enjoy significant support from several quarters:

  • The village authorities (who are only too aware of Thổ Hà’s decline in fortunes and who, within the traditional public buildings of which they are the guardians, have access to examples of ancient ceramics dating back to the Lý Dynasty);
  • The provincial authorities (who have agreed to hand over a piece of land in order to assist with the revival of the craft);
  • The Fine Arts School (which would like to train students from Thổ Hà and to see pottery traditions re-established there);
  • The Department of Cultural Heritage of the Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism (which has long worked to protect and renovate certain buildings in the village and represents the central government, which itself is becoming very interested in craft villages as a potential means of stemming the rural exodus towards the big cities;
  • The General Department of Cultural Heritage and Fine Arts of the French-speaking Community of Belgium as well as the Royal Museum of Mariemont in Belgium (which have set up a cultural itinerary in the pottery craft villages of the Red River Delta, including Thổ Hà, and have offered to participate in the restoration of the village’s architectural and cultural heritage).


59Even though there is practically no pottery production to be observed currently in Thổ Hà, there is no shortage of things well worth seeing. Let us begin with the remarkable heritage linked to religious and animist beliefs, which dates from the period when Thổ Hà enjoyed exceptional prosperity and fame thanks to its traditional craft:

The communal house (đình)

60If you walk straight ahead with the main ferry (called Van) behind you, you will come almost directly upon the area of the village that contains most of the religious buildings and which splits the village in two. You must first cross the village marketplace, then a large, open space lined with low buildings that have been recently renovated. The đình is now right in front of you: one of the biggest in the whole Delta (27 metres long and almost 16 metres wide), it is really impressive by dint of its imposing size, its decorative detail and its good state of preservation (despite some fairly recent repairs).

61This building is constructed in two parts: first a sacrifice chamber, five arches wide. A stele inside marks the building of the đình, at the end of the 17th century, while two smaller stelae record the financial participation of Thổ Hà families in the construction work. Some of their descendents live in the village to this day.

62Next comes the prayer chamber, a separate building seven arches wide (and with a surface area of 500m2). Here, there are 48 pillars made from lim trees (or ‘iron wood’) that stand on bases made of green stone. The main pillars at the centre are painted red and gold with images of dragons and clouds. In keeping with popular tradition, the beams are decorated with skilfully carved sacred and mythical animals; very comely dancing girls sit astride some of these beasts, accompanied by distinctly less comely male dancers (guess which ones the sculptors had more fun carving).

63This main chamber of the communal house gives access at the back to the sanctuary chapel of the village guardian spirit, through a small, narrow passage, thus giving the group of buildings the approximate outline of the Chinese character «I» (cong).

64Don’t miss the very fine exterior roof of the prayer chamber, with its four wide sections covered with tiles called ‘pointed shoe’ tiles. The tiles along the edges of the roof are curved and decorated with terracotta figurines (made in Thổ Hà, of course), representing water dragons and lion cubs. There are other finely wrought decorations within the hollow bricks that support the roof.

65In October 2008, the đình was in the middle of being renovated, under the guidance of the Ministry of Culture within the framework of the “Cultural Itinerary of Pottery Villages” project. (see Part 1 p. 56-57).

The Đoan Minh Pagoda

66If you carry on further through the village, you will come to the pagoda (chùa). Predating the communal house by about 60 years (built in 1633), it betrays a strong Chinese influence, similar in design to the superb Bút Tháp Pagoda (Itinerary no3), and is made up of several fine elements, such as its magnificent statues and censers (ceramic incenseburners, ones with ‘eel-skin’ coloured glazes). A stele, erected in 1693, records the commercial ascendancy of Thổ Hà (already mentioned in the Part 1): “…during the last dynasty, our village already had a ferry crossing to its Buddhist market, which was held 12 times a month. Glazed earthenware and pottery were sold there: traders stockpiled their wares, money and goods circulated freely and abundantly. Each household had its own kiln for making tools and a festival was held every autumn.” In the 18th century, (according to Nguyễn Đức Nghinh, 1993), a large pottery market was still held in the courtyard of the pagoda in Thổ Hà, up to 12 times a month.

67Today however, the position of this pagoda in the village leaves it very exposed to flooding. It has an exceptionally heavy roof that is beginning to cave in and numerous repairs (alas not always of the most respectful nature for a heritage site) have not prevented the building from falling into a critical state of disrepair. Ambitious renovation projects are currently under consideration.

Other interesting buildings and constructions to be seen throughout the village

68• The imposing entry gate to the village, on the north-west side, near the pagoda;

69• The small điếm, temples, found in each of the four xóm (hamlets) of the village. These little temples serve as places of refuge during rain, for prayers, as gathering points before attending funerals, as meetinghouses… Every fortnight (the 1st and the 15th days of the lunar month), incense is burnt here for the ancestors. They are even used as storerooms for the bamboo racks on which the bánh đa are put out the dry.

The annual festival

70The village’s spring festival begins on the 20th day of the 1st lunar month and goes on for three days, with traditional games, entertainment, quan họ singing (see box Itinerary no1 p. 89) and tuồng opera.

encounter in the backstreets of thổ hà

crossing the cầu river to thổ hà

Table des illustrations

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Légende assorted pottery, phù lãng
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Légende funerary urns piled high at thủ công (phù lãng)
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Légende pottery yard at thủ công (phù lãng)
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Titre Phù Lãng
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Légende large pot drying at thổ hà
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Légende encounter in the backstreets of thổ hà
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Légende crossing the cầu river to thổ hà
Fichier image/jpeg, 569k

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