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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

Sylvie Fanchette
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 2. Pottery, goldbeating & traditional medicine (Gia Lâm)

Texte intégral

Craft villages
Ceramics: Bát Tràng, Giang Cao;
Goldbeating: Kiêu Kỵ;
Medicinal plants and trade in textiles: Phù Ninh and Ninh Giang (Ninh Hiệp Commune).
Cultural and architectural heritage
Ðiếm Kiều Temple and Chùa Cả (Phù Ninh) Pagoda; Three temples dedicated to the spirit Gióng and its festival (Phù Ðổng).



1It is the closest of our villages to Hà Nội and the easiest to get to. Exit Hà Nội to the east by crossing Chýõng Dýõng Bridge and immediately turn right onto the dyke road that follows the Red River towards the south. Follow the ‘meanders’ of this road for about 10 kilometres. Soon afterwards, you will see the new bridge sitting astride the river. On the right (outside the dyke’s protection), a large sign tells you that you have arrived. In fact, you enter via the village of Giang Cao, which has become something of a market town, reselling ceramics from the famous village of Bát Tràng, located on the riverbank (see map, p. 123).


Chinese ceramics please the eyes; Vietnamese ceramics please the heart…

2Bát Tràng, located on the Red River, about 15 kilometres downstream from Hà Nội (but on the left – opposite – bank), is prime real estate in the craft village domain. It is the most famous ceramics village in the Red River Delta, way ahead of Phù Lãng and Thổ Hà (see Itinerary no1 b), let alone other significant centres of production in the Delta (particularly Chu Ðậu, near Hải Dýõng), which have all sadly long since gone to pot Bát Tràng (this relatively recent name can be translated as ‘bowl makers’, ‘bowl workshop’ or even ‘of 100 kilns’) today dominates the handcrafted ceramics trade in the north of Vietnam. It is without any doubt one of the most visited craft villages in the entire Delta. Its success is assuredly a deserved reward for the hard work and ingeniousness of its inhabitants. However, one might be permitted to observe that Bát Tràng, located as early as the 15th century on the waterway between Thãng Long (Hà Nội) and Phố Hiến, the two biggest towns and commercial centres at that time, has never wasted time bowling to the fielding side, nor (if you will pardon the expression) throwing pots just to see whether they will fly.

3Its current success as a tourist attraction (with consequently positive economic effects) stems from the proximity of Hà Nội, the ease of getting here by road or by river (see box, p. 110), the buzzing and omnipresent activity in the village and the profusion of ceramics (made according to various techniques) that can be admired here – and of course purchased.

4In fact, the origins of this success story can be found in a geographical location that in principle is far from ideal for a Delta village: firstly, Bát Tràng falls outside the dyke wall, thus rendering it prone to flooding, and it has little cultivatable land. Worse still, this village is terribly exposed, perched above a bend in the river on a mound of accumulated alluvia (and once on deposits of white clay, long since exhausted). The Red River is notorious for the huge volume of water that surges down a narrow channel with speed and strength in times of flooding, carrying off or swamping everything that it finds in its path.

5It was therefore necessary to find an activity that could take root and flourish here, without being too vulnerable to the hydrological risks and the geomorphologic configuration of its position. In 1352, when the environs of Bát Tràng were already established as a ceramic-producing region, the very first specific mention of the village in the Vietnamese annals recounts a severe case of flooding in the area. In the middle of the 1950s, much of the old village was carried off by floodwaters; during digging to cut a canal to the south of the village, remains of inhabitations and broken pottery were found at about 12 metres below ground. When you walk to the western side of Bát Tràng, overlooking the river, you will be able to judge the severity of the erosion endured here for yourself.

6Ceramics have been made near the current site of Bát Tràng since at least the 14th century (according to certain sources, even since the 13th century – during the Lý Dynasty, after the foundation of Thăng Long/Hà Nội, in 1010). During the Lê Dynasty, in 1435, the village had to supply a set of 70 plates and bowls as a tribute, presented to the Emperor of China. Porcelain and glazed earthenware from China had long been the Far-Eastern model (all legends concerning craft ancestors in the Delta’s pottery and ceramics villages attribute Chinese origins to this Tonkinese know-how).

Eaux Rouges in first gear

from workshop to kiln, bát tràng

7A pleasant and original way of getting to Bát Tràng is to take a boat with the agency Du lịch Sông Hồng (Red River Tourist Agency). Boats leave from the Chýõng Dýõng Pier, opposite the Vietcombank Tower. The price, lunch included, in 2008: 150,000 VNÐ per person. A boat leaves at 7h30 am and comes back at 4h30 pm. To find out on which days it sails, call the agency on 3826-1479 or 3932-7094.42 Chýõng Dýõng Ðộ, Hòan Kiếm, Hà Nội.

8Such an event leads us to conclude that Bát Tràng ceramics must already have reached a certain level of sophistication at the beginning of the 15th century for a tribute of this kind from a vassal state to be deemed acceptable.

9It should however be noted that this coincides with a period (1371-1567, during the Ming Dynasty, like the vases) when China forbade its citizens to engage in all foreign trade. This ban had the effect of severely limiting the export of the renowned Chinese porcelain and other ceramics of the time, leaving the field open to other producers at the periphery of the Middle Empire. Other political restrictions and turbulence in China later favoured Vietnamese ceramists and potters, in particular furthering a sustained trade with Japan, where Vietnamese influences can still be seen to this day (kochi ceramics).

10Nevertheless, with or without the Chinese, the spread and success of Vietnamese ceramics were undeniable. A blueand-white Vietnamese vase, made in 1450 at Bát Tràng by a member of the Bùi family and acquired by an Ottoman sultan, is on display at the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. On Java, at the centre of the island, a latter-day decoration of the Great Mosque of Demak (15th century: reputed to be the oldest in all Indonesia) is made from pieces of Vietnamese ceramics, retrieved from the mosque at Mantingan (erected in the 16th century: – it’s complicated, as they say on Facebook…). This second mosque is on the north coast of Java, where, at that time, reigned the Sultan of Majapahit, who had married a Cham princess, a native of what is now part of southern Vietnam, where the survivors of her people still live today. Similar traces have been found in Thailand, at Malacca and on Sumatra.


11Today, even more so than the day before yesterday, Bát Tràng devotes itself exclusively to this ancestral craft and to the marketing of its produce (at the turn of this century, 86% of village households were found to be directly involved in production). However, in the shadow of the shiny new Thanh Trì Bridge spanning the Red River, inaugurated in 2007, Tradition and Modernity scuffle for pole position in the village’s narrow alleyways. While some inhabitants begin to grasp the importance of preserving traces of a heritage bursting with traditional charm – and thus a magnet for tourism –, production of ceramics is becoming increasingly intensive and sophisticated. Some positive news: a project to restore 37 ancient houses in the commune is under way within the framework of marking Hà Nội’s millennium (2010) and hopes to reinstate some distinction to this village, which is already very popular with tourists, but is beginning to lose its authenticity.

12Charcoal patties made mostly of coal dust (the fuel used in the older kilns) are stuck up to dry, like midnight cowpats, over kilometres and kilometres of the village’s walls (when it rains, the alleyways look like something out of Germinal or The Road to Wigan Pier). Big wooden crates block the streets, filled with ceramics wrapped in straw. Fluorescent mansions rear up behind high brick walls (Bát Tràng bricks), each one sporting a gleaming showroom giving onto the street, in order to present the wares made in the family workshop.

13In contrast with the lumberjack camp atmosphere that prevails in Phù Lãng, eminently modern gas kilns (liquefied petroleum gas: LPG) began to appear here 20 years ago. Gone is the period when Pierre Gourou (op. cit.) could observe: “piles of firewood towering seven or eight metres high in Bát Tràng. Today, those that don’t run on coal, fire up with gas. Large numbers of temporary workers are employed (mostly women, as is often the case), natives of other surrounding villages and especially from neighbouring Hýng Yên Province. Large companies produce orders on an industrial scale that leave by truck for Hà Nội, Nội Bài (the capital’s international airport), Hải Phòng (the Delta’s main seaport) and elsewhere.

14Always short of space, the village is very tightly-knit and buildings are placed very close together, with the ceramics workshops mixed in among residential housing, reached through a skein of exceptionally narrow alleys. A saying dear to the inhabitants of Bát Tràng summarizes the situation:

Live in cramped conditions, die on borrowed land…

15Not only do they have few paddy fields or none at all, but there is not even a piece of land available to make a cemetery in the village: a plot is literally rented for this purpose from their neighbours in the village of Thuận Tôn.

16Much of the ceramics and porcelain is sold at the many shops in Giang Cao, located near the dyke, but a very lively market siphons off a growing proportion of Bát Tràng’s production and saves artisans having to depend on their neighbours to trade their wares. In addition, boats filled with merchandise leave regularly from the village pier. Many of them sail upriver to Hà Nội. Once there, the crates of ceramics are loaded into tiny vans (which are permitted to pass through the capital’s saturated streets) and itinerant hawkers on bicycles or scooters, equipped with big wickerwork panniers, fill up with bowls, vases or teapots and set off in search of local and tourist customers. Most shops on Bát Ðàn and Bát Sứ Streets in the Hà Nội’s Old Quarter were originally the property of Bát Tràng natives: ordinary bowls, found everywhere in the Red River Delta were sold in the former; more refined porcelain and earthenware pieces were to be found in the latter.


17The maze of alleyways: take the time to get lost, asking yourself why do you think the villagers built such a baffling skein of pathways…?

18The planning is similar to that of many villages in the north of Vietnam where space is restricted: the village is a place of refuge and retreat on this plain where there is no natural citadel, nor dense forest. Faced with invaders or pillagers (and frankly, these have never been in short supply), villagers flee and hide themselves down a twisting alleyway. It’s a way of deterring any intrusion by those who are foreign to the village, including thieves. The maze of alleys in Bát Tràng also reduces the force of floodwaters.

19The kilns: Bát Tràng has a profusion of kilns of a different sort to the tunnel kilns in Phù Lãng or the frog kilns once used in Thổ Hà (see Itinerary no1 b). In the handcrafted category, there were certainly also frog kilns here once, but no traces of them have yet been found. Later came the lò dàn, similar to tunnel kilns, but with multiple chambers, enabling high firing temperatures. An impressive variation on this kind was the enormous lò rồng or dragon kiln, with chambers in the shape of giant, overlapping shells. It is possible to admire a fine example of such a kiln, preserved in the compound of the Hamico Ceramics Company, north of the pagoda and the ceramics market, just before the water-lily pond on the other side of the street.

20Moving on down the family of handicraft kilns, someone came up with the chimney kiln (lò đứng or ‘upright kiln’ in Vietnamese, also called lò hộp, ‘box kiln’), still very widespread in the old quarter. However, this style of construction is not really very old: the “four or five kilns in use” recorded by Pierre Gourou in the 1930s were all very big tunnel kilns, none of which has survived. The chimney kilns appeared in Bát Tràng only about 30 years ago, doubtless in reaction to the lack of space and wood. Made of local bricks, they are about ten metres high and these days sport a charming little corrugated iron roof. A kiln of this type only has a useful life of about six or seven years, maximum: they are not made to last, undergo huge changes in temperature and you will see some in a very dilapidated state. The fuel, namely the charcoal patties (in fact, it’s coal dust from the mines near Hạ Long Bay, mixed with sand or ceramic waste) is piled up at the bottom of the kiln or stuck to the walls by agile workers.

21These charcoal-fired handicraft kilns create a lot of pollution (see box on the environmental issues in Bát Tràng p. 121). Gas kilns are cleaner and more efficient for complex and delicate firing, which often needs more regular or higher temperatures (multicoloured glazes, fine porcelain and so on). These kilns, much smaller, but much more expensive (200 million VNĐ in 2002), have begun to replace the chimney kilns, at least among those who find the necessary funds to procure them.

Bát Tràng in the 1930s

diversification at bát tràng: terracotta ware

22Thanks once again to Pierre Gourou, the French geographer who scoured the craft villages of the Delta with an attentive eye and a perspicacious pen in the pre-War years (a biography of Gourou is currently being written), we have a rather surprising portrait of a downturn in the village’s fortunes: “Bát Tràng is certainly the village of the Tonkinese Delta that gives the strongest impression of industrial organisation, with its monumental kilns (…), its cramped houses, where there are no buffaloes or ploughing tools (…). But this almost exclusively industrial village, which has almost no cultivatable land at all, is in decline: there are only four or five kilns in use; the inhabitants ascribe this decline to the difficulty in obtaining clay and to the inflated prices that they have to pay for it. (…) It would appear that the inhabitants of Bát Tràng expend more energy on complaining than on taking action. Some of them have set themselves up outside the village as brick-makers and the women of Bát Tràng do a roaring trade in areca nuts [an essential ingredient in a quid of betel leaves] and in nýóc mắm [the famed national fish sauce]. (The Peasants of the Tonkinese Delta, p. 502-3) This lacklustre activity, among ceramists chastened by an industry largely gone to pot, was certainly not limited to Bát Tràng: in 1936, Gourou counted more than 20 pottery villages still active in what he calls the “Tonkinese Delta”. Twenty years later, as witnessed by two more French researchers, Pierre Huard and Maurice Durand, while the colonial era was coming to a close and the struggle for independence was taking hold, there were only three important centres left: Thổ Hà, Phù Lãng and Bát Tràng.

23Currently, only the inhabitants of two of these Delta villages – Phù Lãng and Bát Tràng – really produce handcrafted ceramics. Đông Triều (a village near Hạ Long Bay that features in the Potters’Itinerary: see p. 56-57) is not mentioned by Pierre Gourou. A local tradition relates that the craft dates from the 18th century, but the first kilns were built there in 1955.

A potted glossary of baked clay

cup moulds in a workshop in giang cao (bát tràng)

24Pottery in its strictest sense signifies everyday containers made of a treated and fired clay paste, but more commonly, it refers to all non-vitrified ceramics made of clay paste, with or without a coat of varnish.

25Ceramics (in Ancient Greek, kéramos: ‘clay’ or ‘potters’ earth’) refers to all items made with clay (or other substances in the form of a damp and plastic paste) that have then undergone an irreversible transformation while being baked at relatively high temperatures. More generally, the term ‘ceramics’ refers to the art of pottery.

26Faience or glazed earthenware is a form of ceramics, coated with an enamel (or glaze) containing tin that gives it a white, shiny appearance. Faience is one of the oldest and most common of all techniques used in ceramics. It is less compact, less hard and more porous than porcelain.

27Porcelain is a delicate and translucent ceramic, produced by moulding. It is usually coated with a white glaze. It is the most sublime of ceramics, fired at high temperature. The mixture prepared for making porcelain must contain kaolin, among other ingredients. (Kaolin is a word of Chinese origin: Gaoling, or ‘high hills’, is a quarry located in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, the birthplace of porcelain).

28And since we’re on the subject of etymology, here is the origin of a word that you won’t forget in a hurry: the term ‘porcelain’ comes from a shell of the same name, so called because it resembles a sow’s vulva (porcella: sow in Latin). When the Italians brought back porcelain from China in the 15th century, they thought it was made of crushed shells of this type, and baptized it ‘porcellana’, porcelain in Italian.

29An incontestably fascinating snippet of information, but one you’d better keep to yourself during Sunday lunch, when the mother-in-law brings out her Wedgwood china…

30The production process offers several interesting aspects to be observed and can be divided into four main phases:

1) Preparing the clay

31Bát Tràng once possessed generous deposits of white clay. Since their exhaustion, potters have to obtain supplies from elsewhere, mainly by road from the Hải Phòng region, along with kaolin, a whiter and more refractory variant, essential for making porcelain and better-quality ceramics. Once these two ingredients have been lengthily mixed with sodium carbonate, it is all left to decant through a series of four tanks, in order to extract impurities and to improve its physicochemical properties. This stage lasts a minimum of three to four months; there is no maximum limit to obtain ‘perfect’ clay for making ceramics. (A brief aside to our chemist readers: the chemical composition of this perfectly chimerical clay would be: Al2Si2O5(OH)4. There will be a test later). You can set off in search of this earthy paradise, at the clay-processing centre, directly opposite the water-lily pond.

2) Shaping

32The potters of Bát Tràng shape either with a potter’s wheel, or by moulding. Hand-throwing pottery on the wheel (vuốt tay), a very ancient technique, remains the best way to make light and unique items. Using a wheel is a real craft (a woman’s craft in Vietnam). Contrary to Phù Lãng (Itinerary no1 b), where this skill is still prevalent, even with non-motorised wheels, it is gradually dying out in Bát Tràng. For bigger and heavier items, a coiling technique can be employed (bể chạch): it is usually men who build up long, sausage-like coils of clay on a slow-turning wheel and finish them off by hand.

33Various forms of moulding (or slipcasting) are on the up-and-up in Bát Tràng: these are modern techniques that make it possible to standardise and accelerate production. Slip (liquid clay) is poured into a plaster-of-Paris mould made up of two or several parts, created from an original mould, which will give the exterior contours of the item or of a part of the item and will absorb a good deal of the water in the mixture. The artisan will later carry out the delicate assembly of the parts thus moulded (đắp nặn or appliqué moulding). Another technique: a plaster (or wooden) mould is placed on a wheel, clay is placed inside it and when the wheel turns, the clay is pressed against the sides by a sort of levered punch that is inserted into the mould (Khuôn in: ‘in’meaning ‘print’). The item is removed from the mould, from ten minutes to two hours later, depending on the nature of the object, then begins the work of correcting imperfections and adding handles, spouts or extra designs etched into the clay, with or without the help of the wheel. The liquid clay mixed with kaolin comes from the workshops on the small industrial park opposite the water-lily pond. Next, ‘acrobat-porters’ carry this milky liquid through the maze of alleys to deliver it to the workshops. Watch out for your shoes when you pass them in the narrow labyrinth near the river!

34Items thus shaped must now be left to dry. Traditionally left out in the open air in order to guarantee a drying process that was slower, complete and less dangerous, the march of progress has begun to render this process too slow and uneconomical. Many artisans now use their kilns to accelerate the drying process.

3) Decoration and glaze (enamel, varnish)

35Decoration is something that you can admire without need for much help from us. Let us simply note that there is a wealth of designs and subjects used in Bát Tràng. There are animals, real or mythical, landscapes, famous or imaginary, characters from folklore, allegory or history, Chinese ideograms, flowers and trees and more abstract or contemporary decorations (such as artistic works, but also characters from Korean soap operas). You can even have almost anything you want drawn to order: several days will be necessary for firing and door-to-door delivery (in Hà Nội, or even back home). This decoration confers great charm to Bát Tràng ceramics: usually anonymous painters, who do a lot of mass-produced work, but who are often very talented draftsmen and women, draw complex and elaborate images freehand in a medium that leaves no room for error: impossible to erase a bungled drawing cleanly from a porous clay surface.

36Glazing is the stage at the heart of the production process. Traditionally, the secrets of the craft were jealously guarded in Bát Tràng, to the point of forbidding a girl from the village to marry outside, or of not teaching her the key rudiments of the craft, for fear that she would carry off this precious know-how with her and share it elsewhere. The secrets of how to prepare and use glazes were assuredly the most important ones.

37The glaze breathes life into the clay: it clothes it, makes it waterproof, more robust, with a smooth and shiny finish. It can have a radical or a subtle effect on the colours of the decoration applied previously, it can add a little or a lot of colour itself, or if it is transparent (entirely colourless glazes are rare), it can give a pleasing impression of depth to someone admiring the pattern underneath – or it can even be the pattern itself, so to speak: like the famous Bát Tràng crackled glaze.

38The glaze, applied as a dry powder or as a damp paste and ‘cooked’ at high temperature, undergoes an irreversible physicochemical reaction. The craft history of Bát Tràng is studded with patient research, ingenious adaptations and successful discoveries in this field. Of course, we have succeeded in unveiling the secrets of these preparations and we could reveal them to you (only you), but this will be the subject for a future book.

39Suffice it to say that from the 14th century to the 19th, five main kinds of glaze were developed and used in Bát Tràng, with extremely varied ingredients. Ashes (tro) have been much used: ashes of rice husks, ashes of buffalo bones (and maybe human bones?), ashes of mangroves and other trees, sometimes of very distant origins. At the time of a study by A. Barbotin on Indigenous pottery in the Tonkin Region (1912), there was at least one village (in Hà Nam Province) that “burnt the wood of certain specially-chosen trees with the sole aim of selling the ashes in Bát Tràng”.

40A glaze also contains kaolin, lime – and often brighter colouring agents, such as an iron oxide that gives a chocolatebrown hue, probably used in Bát Tràng since ceramics were first made there, or cobalt oxide (a powdered red stone that becomes blue at 1,250° C – therefore even in an old frog kiln). Cobalt, which appeared in the 14th century, is also much used for decoration: a ceramic is adorned with a hand-painted pattern (you can easily see this being done) and will then be coated with glaze and fired in the kiln, where the cobalt assumes its final hue. Items made in this way have been one of Bát Tràng’s trademarks for centuries. Pierre Gourou (op. cit.) notes:

41“[Bát Tràng potters] make bowls and various containers for daily use from clay covered with a film of kaolin and coated with a whitish varnish containing a crude blue pattern”.

42What struck more than one observer of deltaic society, before the modern era, was precisely this use of attractive everyday utensils, humble items certainly, but decorated and unique, and lovingly fashioned by human hand. It was possible to see Bát Tràng bowls filled with rice gruel in a remote mountain village to the north and west of the Delta.

43Then came a time when the Chinese arrived with their explosive marketing of plastics and duly blew away these handcrafted artefacts. Today in that mountain village (the one we know), ubiquitous instant noodles, seasoned with a certain artificial flavour enhancer (the one you know), are served in polychrome polymer bowls, all these three items probably produced at factories in Guangzhou Province, China. But all is not lost: in Hà Nội alone, it is noticeable that those members of the new middle class with a taste for things artistic and aesthetic are beginning once again to show an interest in this beautiful, local and culturally traditional produce.

44It would be impossible to close this chapter without mentioning two other glazes. The first is the crackled glaze. This striking effect, which first appeared in Bát Tràng at the end of the 16th century with the help of a pale pink kaolin from the Hôi Pagoda, achieved by getting the clay and the glaze to contract at different rates, is a technique unique to Bát Tràng among Vietnamese pottery villages. A true crackled glaze is more decorative than functional, since it does not seal the porous surface of the clay.

45The other glaze that deserves a special mention is celadon. This attractive decoration, invented by Chinese potters to look like jade (the favourite precious stone all over this part of the world) has a colour described severally as varying from bluish-white to bright green, or from a turquoise hue to olive green. It first appeared in Bát Tràng in the 16th and 17th centuries, often combined with brownish and ivory-hued glazes (and called a tricolour glaze), but it has recently come back into fashion, as you can see for yourself. It is apparently the presence of ferrous particles, transformed by firing at very high temperature, that gives a celadon glaze its subtle tints.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

46To illustrate the covetousness and mystery that can envelop those enamoured of an enamel, we cannot resist the temptation to quote a work by a colonial veterinary surgeon, Louis-Eugène Douarche, entitled The Bovines of the Tonkin Region (1906): “The bone ashes were used to concoct a sort of paste or enamel with which items of pottery were coated to give them the appearance of porcelain. The secret of this process was brought from China by potters who gave to Bát Tràng comrades the formula of this men bát or enamel. Unfortunately for this thriving industry, the mandarins quickly decided to tax it heavily; they themselves placed orders with the potters, for which they then neglected to pay, so much so that the craftsmen, disgusted, stopped making enamelled pottery, pleading that the few artisans who knew the secret had taken it with them to their graves. However, it is rumoured that a few old potters do indeed possess this Chinese recipe and still make vases, for their own personal use, which they use among themselves, during intimate ceremonies, and which they then smash just as soon as they have finished.”

coal-dust cakes drying on a wall, giang cao (bát tràng)

Etymological interlude

47Celadon: what is the derivation of this term for a pretty glaze, green as a patch of sky, or blue as a blade of grass? (In Vietnamese, ‘green’ and ‘blue’ share the same address in the dictionary (xanh): you have to specify ‘blue like x’ or ‘green like y’). The origin of the word ‘celadon’ is apparently a character from a French novel of the early 17th century, at the time when these ceramics started to become fashionable in Europe. Celadon (despite being a male character, we should point out) has a habit of wearing green ribbons and appears in L’Astrée, an interminable, precious and excessively romantic novel (5,399 painful pages, totally devoid of Ugandan diplomacy) by Honoré d’Urfé. Celadon’s never-ending adoration of his Astrée is once again in vogue: aging French auteur Eric Rohmer made a version for the cinema in 2007, with Andy Gillet beribboned in the role of Celadon, presented in the official competition at the Venice Film Festival.

48Dán: this Vietnamese word for glaze or enamel has a much more contemporary usage.

49If you look closely at the scooters of the youthful fast set in Hà Nội, you will notice that many of them are coated with a very thin film of protective plastic, which is sometimes also decorative. It is exactly the same principle as a glaze and is even applied using heat. Signs bearing this word can be seen at places that offer to install one of these films (with the help of a hairdryer), for example in Cao Bá Quát Street in Hà Nội.

bricks and walls, bát tràng

Bát Tràng ‘Bricks’

50In a very well-known Vietnamese folk song, a young man declares to the object of his affections:

One day, I would like to marry you.
I would buy Bát Tràng bricks to build our house,
I would lay them lengthwise and crosswise
And around a half-moon-shaped pond where you can wash your feet.

51One would be hard-pressed to find an equivalent serenade in contemporary English, where seduction of the loved one is attempted by promising to purchase her some plywood and have a Jacuzzi installed for her dirty feet, but this is precisely where the force and fascination of cultural differences reside.

52No, the only problem here is that ‘bricks’ is a poor (but tenacious) translation: Bát Tràng bricks (and there have been lots of them) are nothing special; the song is actually talking about the square Bát Tràng tiles – once used several times over as saggers in the kilns (see p. 120) and thus hardened like stoneware and called ‘iron-skinned’. Although they were by-products, these tiles were much prized for building, paving and lining – including ponds for foot washing. They can be found used in the construction of pagodas, citadels and even in the tombs of emperors around the town of Huế. Under the Nguyễn Dynasty, inhabitants of Bát Tràng were even taxed in ‘iron-skinned’ as well as ordinary tiles.

53We salute here the excellent research in a monograph entitled Bát Tràng Ceramics (Phan Huy Lê and al., 2004), which resolves the true meaning of the Bát Tràng ‘bricks’ in the song and a host of other mysteries related to the emblematic pottery village.


54We have already discussed the kilns. There remain a few other points of interest to be mentioned:

55Items to be fired must be placed in such a way as to maximise the use of space and heat. They are also protected from the direct flames in the kiln by saggers (or saggars), once rows of simple, dried clay tiles (see box about Bát Tràng ‘bricks’ p. 119), today mostly cylinders of low-grade ceramic matter (that can be used about 20 times). In the past, guilds existed that were expert at filling kilns in Bát Tràng. Specialised teams came from two villages in Hà Tây Province where the dominant craft was this specific technique.

56Traditionally, lighting a kiln was an important ritual, prepared with libations, conducted by a kiln master, who then watched over the whole process of firing, assisted by other members of his guild. Even though today a kiln batch still represents a significant investment of time, energy and money, the vagaries of firing have diminished (especially in a gas kiln) and this tradition is fast dying out. Firing can last from 48 to 72 hours, depending on the kiln and the items to be fired. For an ideal batch, the heat should rise at a regular rate until the maximum temperature is attained and then gently fall again in the same manner.


57The ceramics themselves: In Vietnam, handcrafted ceramics have a deep cultural, historic and social importance and have for centuries played a significant role in the material and spiritual life of the people. The first articles were probably pot-bellied jars to hold water or alcohol, cylindrical jars for rice, kitchen utensils and lime pots used in making quids of betel leaves. These objects were once presented as wedding gifts and sometimes accompanied the dead in the afterlife, along with candlesticks and perfume-burners on the shrine to the ancestors. On the market stalls and in the shops and showrooms of present-day Bát Tràng, you will see many objects made of ceramics. Bowls, vases, pots of all sizes, cups, plates, platters, coasters, trays, tiles, teapots, ashtrays, animal statuettes, jewellery (bracelets, earrings), artistic works, articles in mixed media (for example, pottery and wickerwork) and many other things. In corners less frequented by tourists, you can find tools: spinners, crushers, weights for fishing nets and even the friction parts (made of ceramic material) on a potter’s wheel. There are some truly beautiful things to be bought here, at very competitive prices. For DIY enthusiasts, many artisans sell seconds for a song, often with only very minor defects; these items are often fine as they are, or can be used as raw materials for making mosaics or similar. A word in your shell-like ear, however: an accumulation of items can soon weigh very heavily in your suitcases – and on your wallet when the time comes to pay for excess baggage at the airport.

58A museum of ceramics: At no 253 Giang Cao Street, in a handsome traditional house, more than 360 ceramic pieces of a collection dating from the 18th and 19th centuries are on display. The compact Vạn Văn Museum was founded by a private Hanoian collector, Mr. Trần Ngọc Lâm, who preferred to return his antique ceramics to their original context. It is open to the public seven days a week. In the little courtyard, bamboo chairs and tables are available for visitors who wish to have a rest or to enjoy a drink.


59The village’s spring festival begins on the 15th day of the 2nd lunar month and lasts about a week. The festivities are preceded by a procession on the river (quite a common agricultural rite in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia). A small boat sets out, carrying a jar made by a Bát Tràng craftsman. Once in the middle of the river, a descendant of Nguyễn Ninh Tràng (the village’s oldest family of artisans and notables) has the honour of filling the jar with water, using a copper ladle. This water is used for the symbolic washing of the sacred tablets kept in the sanctuary behind the communal house. Then, the founding families (beginning with the descendants of Nguyễn Ninh Tràng) make offerings of food to the other villagers. The festival continues with games of human chess (using “young and pretty” girls!) in the courtyards of communal houses (there are other, smaller ones, in each neighbourhood), quan họ singing and other traditional games. In contrast with many villages, Bát Tràng does not hold a festival for its craft ancestor. But this remains a very tightly knit community, as evidenced by the major role played by the ancient lineages and the persistence of certain craft guild traditions.

You break it, you pay for it

60A guide that prides itself on promoting sustainable development cannot avoid discussion of the environmental issues associated with village industries.

61Before gas (LPG) ovens began to appear in Bát Tràng, the potters all used coal as fuel or, until relatively recently, wood. Laws and shortages have put an end to wood; use of coal persists. Every 1,000 kg of fired ceramic products can generate 1,400 kg of ashes, 800 kg of dust and 140 kg of solid waste. In recent times (Traditional craft village in industrialization and modernization processes, Trần Minh Yến, 2004), on an average day, Bát Tràng emits 1,470 kg of dust, 1,199 m3 of CO 2 and a large quantity of coal ash into the environment, while broken ceramics are thrown into the river.

62One of the direct consequences of this is that we know that children who grow up in Bát Tràng suffer more from respiratory illnesses than the average. Even before it is burnt in the kilns, coal poses severe environmental problems here. With a limited production area and more than 1,400 coal and gas kilns working almost continually (there is only an annual break for Tết, the Vietnamese New Year festival), the temperature in Bát Tràng is on average from 1.5 to 3.5oC higher than in surrounding areas, higher even than in Hà Nội’s city centre (Trần Minh Yến, 2004, op. cit.).

63The good news, save for dogged lovers of the picturesque, is that despite the high installation costs, gas-fired kilns are progressively replacing coal-fired ones: as well as being more economical, heat is generated more uniformly, is easier to control and is potentially higher (up to 1,360° C). A modern kiln produces little pollution (to be nonetheless a tad pessimistic, it must be said that explosions do occasionally occur because of gas leaks!), less rejected items and eases the difficult conditions under which artisans work. A shiny new gas-fired kiln even boasts a closed circuit system, recycling the heat of the main chamber and making it easier to dry items before firing.

64It would be a shame to see the traditional kilns disappear altogether: these typical and practical structures are an important part of Bát Tràng’s heritage. In concert with the authors of Discovering the potters of the Red River Delta: A cultural itinerary (a handsome, richly illustrated work, published by the Royal Mariemont Museum in Belgium, 2006), one must however agree that:

65“No kiln was ever built to defy eternity. Most of the time, archaeologists locate ancient production sites by finding piles of fragments from broken pottery and not by unearthing traces of kilns and even less the remains of workshops.”

66Let us hope then that Bát Tràng potters and local authorities are in time to see the interest in preserving examples of traditional kilns as an integral part of village heritage, while welcoming the technological and ecological advances that enable Bát Tràng to move with the times and to respond to current and future preoccupations.

porcelain ware in a giang cao workshop (bát tràng)

A walk through Bát Tràng

67A preliminary note: if you wish to spend more time in Bát Tràng and obtain further details on the sites and workshops to be visited, we recommend the excellent Bát Tràng, Traditional Pottery Village. A Self-Guided Walk, published at Thế Giới Publishers by the Friends of Vietnamese Heritage Foundation. In 47 pages, this little book can open many doors for the reader.

68The entrance to the village that everyone wrongly believes to be already Bát Tràng is actually called Giang Cao (see map, p. 123). This recent extension consists principally of row upon row of ‘concrete box houses’ of several storeys, with the ground floors given over to ‘supermarkets’ of standardised ceramics. Some of these ceramics, made as subcontracted work in the workshops of the Delta’s oldest ceramics village, give an erroneous idea of ‘the real Bát Tràng’, huddled on its outcrop of alluvia on the banks of the Red River. We suggest you leave visiting these shops until the end of your walk to better understand the many facets of these two villages with their contrasting histories.

69Nevertheless, this first village, much more marked by the ‘modernisation’ of its housing and a more recent integration into the world of ceramics, is still worth a visit, even though traditional dwellings are now few and far between amid modern ones devoid of charm.

70At the end of Giang Cao’s main street, you will see the village’s đình on your right, which despite its modest size is an appealing place that contrasts sharply with the buildings around it. Take the first road on the right, then the first alley on the left, and follow it down to the river, admiring as you go the vertical kilns and the many handprints on the coal patties drying on the walls. You will reach the pretty nhà thờ họ of the Nguyễn lineage and a temple that overlooks the river. If you go down to the river by turning left in this coal-begrimed alley, you will come to the coal landing stage. Here you can clearly see for yourself the grave consequences to the environment of this fuel and the tough working conditions of the endless chain of men and women who unload the grimy stuff onto their heads for 30,000 VNĐ a day.

71Go back to the đình (see map, p. 123), but not before admiring the huge, white jars drying in the back passages (wider in this village) behind workshops to the left of the alley. These workshops have specialised in a single product: jars. They cannot diversify within the same batches of ceramics to be fired, as they use coal, whose heat is difficult to control.

72When you get back to the small crossroads opposite the đình, turn right and take the road full of shops that leads to Bát Tràng. Don’t hesitate to ‘lose’ yourself in the side alleys, where a few vestiges of rural life and the odd ribbon of garden will help you catch your breath after threading through the ballet of motorbikes overloaded with pots of all sizes or breathing in the heady fug of the workshops.

73An original potter, Mr. Nguyễn Xuân Nguyên at ‘Delicious Ceramics’, in his very nice (to Western tastes!) workshop-cum-shop at no227 of the street lined with shops, sells small plates, bowls and other objects of a very different design from those you will have seen up to now. Unfortunately, originality comes with its own price tag attached. A little further on, you can visit the Vạn Văn Museum (see p. 120) and at last have a drink in a very peaceful spot. We wish we could propose such a place for a mid-tour break in every village on our itineraries! Alas, this is yet another unique feature of Bát Tràng-Giang Cao…

Bát Tràng

Bát Tràng

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department

74Follow the map and especially the bends in the road that will take you to the village of Bát Tràng (the real one). At the crossroads, leave the little pond to your left and plunge into the maze of tiny, twisting alleyways that lie before you. You would be hard-pressed to find passages narrower than these. It is not easy to get past workers carrying liquid kaolin in buckets tied to their balance poles. Watch out for those fancy shoes.

75You will come out onto the riverbank, opposite the pier where the tourist boats come to land. By following the river upstream (to the right) towards the northernmost village limits, you can reach Đền Mẫu, the temple of the Holy Mothers. Originally, it was dedicated to a young village girl, who died aged 18 in the 16th century. The gate has undergone recent renovation and the temple is of no particular architectural interest, but it offers a great view of the river and the reinforcements made to counter the ferocious erosion of the village’s foundations. If Bát Tràng is flooded during your visit, this is the best place from which to watch the waters rise.

76Retrace your steps and follow the river to the đình. This communal house that gives onto the river is a brand new building (finished in 2007), modelled on the one that was here in the 18th century (the perimeter wall is original), itself based on the famous đình at Đình Bảng (see Itinerary no1, p. 65). It is located in the heart of the action, close to the river in the part of the village that juts out into the water.

77Just behind the đình, there is the Văn Chỉ (Temple of Literature). Thanks to its craft, Bát Tràng has long been relatively affluent and its inhabitants able to attend to the education of their children. Many village scions passed the exams to become mandarins. The interior courtyard is paved with Bát Tràng ‘iron-skinned’ tiles and the temple is used as a small library and as a place for educational and cultural ceremonies.

78Continue to follow the river’s contour to your left. Before the bend, you can visit the workshop of Mr. Hòa Hiền, an original craftsman who makes black ceramics that imitate bronze, particularly the famous Ðông Sõn drums. You can also find little tea containers and various objects that are easier to carry.

79Then walk round the headland that marks the mouth of the Bắc Hýng Hải River, which enabled boats to enter the Delta. It constitutes the southernmost point of this village heavily subjected to the risks of river flooding. After about 200 metres, a road heads off to the left and leads to the market. Little danger of getting lost here, several signs point you the right way. On the right, the Kim Trúc Pagoda gleams. It is a recent construction. The original, which dated from the 17th-18th century, was moved from its risky perch on the bank of the Bắc Hýng Hải River.

80Finally, turn to the right where Bát Tràng’s beating heart and commercial centre are now located: the ceramics market. Unfortunately, you won’t find the nicest things to buy here, despite the presence of most village artisans. The bus stop for Hà Nội is opposite the market. To go back to Giang Cao and its many china shops, consult the map, p. 123.

tall porcelain jars, giang cao (bát tràng)

enamel glaze painted onto cups, giang cao (bát tràng)

beating gold leaf at kiêu kỵ

final separation of gold leaf from dó paper, kiêu kỵ


81There is an old saying that states:

Alive is to be a Bát Tràng man;
Dead is to be a guardian spirit of Kiêu Kỵ.

82Are the dead better treated than the living in Kiêu Kỵ? Maybe not, but it is true that the dear departed lead the good life here: you will soon see why…


83Kiêu Kỵ is about eight kilometres from Bát Tràng. As you leave the latter, backtrack along the same dyke road towards Hà Nội, then immediately turn right onto the road that leads to Ða Tốn. Just before leaving this commune, the road describes a wide arc to the right before making a 90-degree turn to the left. Then a few hundred metres further on, there is yet another very sharp bend to the right. Here, you come to a pretty country road that leads directly to Kiêu Kỵ. Traffic is rare: the roar of motors and the trumpeting of horns gives way to the lugubrious lowing of buffaloes and the metallic clicking of dragonflies. Next, if you are lucky, at the entrance to the village, this pastoral symphony will fade before the rhythmical and syncopated hammering of the goldbeaters.


84Kiêu Kỵ has been for a long time now the only village in the Delta where there still exists the traditional craft of beating gold and silver to obtain gold or silver leaves. These leaves, made from pure precious metal, are produced to cover sacred statues (Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, saints…), to decorate religious objects (parallel and horizontal sentences) or to restore monuments (pagodas, temples and communal houses) and furniture, pictures and various lacquered objects.

85To paint objects and even buildings, nothing is more costly than gold. According to a stele in the communal house of the famous village of Thổ Hà (see Itinerary no1 b, p. 105), solely during the year 1692, the volume of gold used to gild the đình’s carved doors cost as much as the entire labour expenses for the building’s construction.

86Artisans who make gold leaf manually can still be found elsewhere in Asia, for example in China and in Burma. This ancestral craft has existed in Kiêu Kỵ for more than 250 years. Very hard and poorly paid, the work of transforming golden nuggets by beating them into leaves has an uncertain future. However, thanks to the revival in restoration of religious heritage, the craft is in better shape now than at the end of the American War: according to the magazine Vietnam Cultural Window (2006), about 50 families are still currently involved in making quỳ, or gold leaf, by traditional methods. According to other sources, 90% of artisans beat silver and tin (fake silver), the market for golden quỳ having become extremely limited. Imagine that to lacquer an average bàn thờ (a shrine to the ancestors) in real gold you would need 50 quỳ, or almost 50 million VNĐ!

87By the middle of the 1970s, nearly all the villagers had turned to the other established craft in the village: making items from leather (and later, mainly from imitation leather), such as bags, suitcases, etc. This activity is still very well represented in Kiêu Kỵ, which is a national centre for the sector, and, still according to Vietnam Cultural Window, some 300 households are engaged in it.


88First mastered by the Egyptians five millennia ago, making gold leaf is long and arduous work. In Kiêu Kỵ, the first phase consists of preparing a type of ink made with soot, glue taken from the skin of buffaloes and pine resin. This preparation is difficult to make: the most skilful artisan only makes one mortar a day. The ink strengthens leaves of paper (see Itinerary no1) inserted between the leaves of gold in order to stop them from breaking up or sticking together during beating. (Instead of strengthened paper, the Egyptians used pieces of cow intestine, but today, ‘modern’ goldbeaters in China use a synthetic substance, such as Mylar). Once coated, this preparation of paper (giấy vo) is rolled up with some fabric and itself beaten until it becomes transparent. Then a tenth of a tael of gold (a weight used in the Far East, slightly less than 40 grams), is flattened using a mallet to form a sheet that is then cut into 20 smaller squares called điệp. Note that this gold (or silver or even tin) must be almost pure in order to be malleable enough for what comes next.

89Once this nugget has thus been flattened and cut up into pieces about one centimetre square, they are then inserted between leaves of paper (four centimetres square) in batches of 500 and beaten on an anvil. Two hours later, the leaves – now burning hot – cover the entire surface of the paper. They are left to cool down, then they are separated, cut up into nine pieces and inserted between sheets of paper (giấy quỳ) of a higher quality. This cycle, punctuated by beating, is repeated several times until a very delicate, almost translucent leaf is obtained. With the sweat of his brow (and the cliché regains its full force when you see it being done), with thousands of sledgehammer blows, a good artisan can produce an incredible twenty square metres or so of quỳ (and as many litres of perspiration) from one tael (about 40 grams, remember) of gold.

90The last phase requires as much (feminine) dexterity as the previous one needed (masculine) brute force: the final separation of the gold leaves from the paper and their packaging (in units or quỳ of 500). The gold leaves, now only about 100 nanometres thick, are extremely light and fragile! The person who carries out this task (it is indeed nearly always a woman, or a young and hence cheap labourer) usually does it inside a thick mosquito net, deployed as a protection against draughts. This person may even suck on a baby’s dummy, a bizarre but effective way of minimising the danger of breathing upon the leaves being handled… It is also difficult to keep cool under a fan or a capricious breeze during the worst moments of the hot season, given the dangers of seeing all one’s hard work blown away!

91Once they are ready, most of the gold leaves are dispatched all over the Delta, the country – and as far as several other Southeast Asian countries, for occasional renovation and maintenance work on religious heritage sites, but also regularly to craft villages that use gold leaf in their trade. Examples include Hạ Thái, the lacquer village (see Itinerary no5, p. 193), and Sõn Ðồng, a woodcarving village (see Itinerary no9, p. 289) specialised in religious statues.

92If you wish to buy some gold leaf, some will probably be found for you, but careful! Don’t forget that times are hard, that both silver and especially tin leaf are also produced in Kiêu Kỵ, and that even if they don’t have the warm, fiery lustre of gold leaf, carefully tinted with yellow and red dies, they could easily fool a neophyte like you… Between fake quỳ bạc (fake silver, i. e. tin), real quỳ bạc and quỳ vàng (made of gold), prices range from 20,000 VNĐ, to 70,000 VNĐ… and to 950,000 VNĐ for the last one! In the light of these astronomical differences in price, depending on the various qualities of quỳ, one might suggest that the lacquered trays inlaid with ‘gold’ leaf on sale in the touristy parts of the capital for about 10 dollars each might in fact be inlaid with ‘beer can’ leaf (to translate tin into local slang), recycled and lightly tinted.

93To find out whether you are buying a fake quỳ vàng at 950,000 VNĐ, take out your lighter (just as in the silk village, Itinerary no4, see p. 177). If the gold leaf burns, then it’s a fake: real ones don’t burn!


94The metal-beaters work increasingly to order and it is sometimes difficult to see them active in their workshops, but the artisans are trying to save the craft and will be delighted to let you watch if there is anything to see. Here are the names of three of the most noted artisans: Messrs. Nguyễn Anh Chung, Lê Vãn Vòng and Lê Bá Chung. The first lives in the second perpendicular alley that goes off from the main street to the right, at the end on the left (at the bottom of a little blind alley). Before you get there, you pass by the nearly brand new Kiêu Kỵ metal-beaters’co-operative (opened May 2008), where Mr. Chung presides. The co-operative has been set up in the courtyard that houses the shrine dedicated to the craft ancestor.

95Don’t forget to have a look around at the shops and stalls selling leather and imitation leather accessories: this is the place to purchase them (you have to go back to the main road and turn right): here, you can buy almost at source!

96To return to the saying quoted at the beginning of this section, not only do people in Kiêu Kỵ busy themselves with beautifying and maintaining religious heritage items, but also there is no shortage of places to worship the dead here. The village houses a pagoda, which contains about 40 old statues (richly gilded ones, it goes without saying), a đình dedicated to its guardian spirit and a ðền for worshipping spirits or genies (the religious site is located to the left of the entrance to the village). Kiêu Kỵ has preserved 29 royal edicts from the Trần, Lê and Nguyễn Dynasties, awarding the title of guardian spirit of the village to General Nguyễn Chế Nghĩa, one of Trần Hýng Ðạo’s trusty officers who twice took part in the struggle against the Mongols.

97The village festival takes place on the 12th day of the 1st lunar month, a major event, as this village has a large diaspora. Craft ancestors Nguyễn Quý Trị (end of the 18th century) and Vũ Danh Thuận (beginning of the 19th) are honoured on the 17th day of the 8th lunar month, with a celebration in the đình.

using ink to prepare dó paper (giấy vo)




99Take the road towards Bát Tràng again. Cross the village of Lê Xá (Ða Tốn Commune) then, when you get to the village of Thuận Tôn, turn right. Go straight through the village. Cross a bridge that spans a small canal. Continue, then at the end of the road, turn right, and after a kilometre, turn left in the village of An Phú. For about two kilometres of windy road, you will travel through the villages of Trâu Quỳ Commune and come out onto the Hà Nội-Hải Phòng motorway. This is one of the only ways to get to a junction that allows you to turn left (towards Hà Nội).

100Once you are on this motorway, you have to get onto another one that goes to Bắc Ninh, the provincial capital, by turning right after a kilometre. You will cross over the Đuống River and on the far side, you can see for yourself the size of the area outside the dyke’s protection. Once you get to the dyke on the Red River’s left bank (having driven about five kilometres along this motorway), turn right immediately and leave the motorway. Take the dyke road that follows the river and after less than a kilometre you will come to Phù Ðổng.


101The village of Phù Ðổng, situated in the commune of the same name, lies south of Ninh Hiệp. There are three temples there dedicated to the spirit Gióng, built during the reign of Lý Thái Tổ in the 10th century. The Holy Mothers Temple, on the far side of the dyke, is dedicated to the worship of Gióng’s mother and dates from the 17th century.

102Gióng was a legendary hero who once repelled the invaders from the North. His is celebrated and remembered from the 6th to the 12th day of the 4th lunar month with a series of processions, rites and shows. On the 6th day takes place the ceremony of carrying water from the Mother Temple to the Upper Temple. On the 7th day, flags are carried to the Mother Temple. The same day, offerings of boiled rice and salted aubergines are carried to the Upper Temple, a ritual that commemorates traditional rural fare. In another remnant of ancient practices, on the night of this same day, the young men and women play at running after each other on the Red River’s dyke. In addition, on the 7th day, a water puppet show takes place in front of the Phù Ðổng Temple. On the 8th day, 28 women are chosen to represent the generals of the Yin invaders.

103The festival’s climax comes on the 9th day. The flags are carried from the Mother Temple to the Upper Temple and sacrifices are made to the spirit. Artists perform songs and ritual dances and there is a show that mimes a tiger hunt… The battle against the Yin invaders is re-enacted and there is a solemn procession by the Văn Lang army. Finally, the two battles against the invaders at Ðống Ðàm and Soi Bia are symbolised by flag dances and victory feasts.

104On the 10th day, the ‘troops’ are inspected and the invader-generals, after their defeat, make offerings to Gióng. On the 11th day, the ceremony of cleansing weapons with holy water is held. On the 12th day, a procession leads to the inspection of the battlefield. On this last day of the festival, tributes are offered to the gods of the heavens and the earth.



105Take the dyke road once again and go under the motorway. Continue towards the northwest for about seven kilometres and you will come to National Highway no1A. Turn right and after two kilometres of suburbs and industrial parks, then some remains of fields, a war memorial and a little bridge, take the narrow road that goes off, once again, to the right. No, you are not going round in circles!

106You will cross a few remains of paddy fields for two kilometres (you are right in the middle of a peri-urban area!) then you will see the extensions of a textiles market that dare not speak its name… You are nearly there. You go over a pretty bridge that crosses a canal and enter one of the most densely populated communes in the Delta, 227 inhabitants per hectare, or 50% more than the old quarters in the capital!


107Ninh Hiệp is not a craft village like others. Ninh Hiệp is not a village like others. In fact, Ninh Hiệp is not even a village. Ninh Hiệp is a commune of the Hanoian peri-urban area, made up of nine multi-craft and multi-disciplinary hamlets, with at once centuries-old and ultra-modern expertises, which is today a magnet for researchers in the social sciences, both Vietnamese and foreign.

108In addition, Ninh Hiệp was one of the first communities to have a specialised craft co-operative during the collectivist era (or “the period of collectivisation under the mechanism of concentrated economy and state subsidy” to its close friends). There was a time in the north of Vietnam (the beginning of the 1960s) when, if you played football with a leather ball, it was more than a fair bet that it was made in Ninh Hiệp. A few years later (the end of the 1960s), a bộ đội (regular soldier of the revolutionary army) who was lucky enough to wear “socks resistant to attacks from terrestrial leeches” could also claim, without danger of contradiction, that they had taken their first steps at Ninh Hiệp.

109There was another time in this commune, namely the end of the 19th century, when many of the women were so busy spinning silk or cotton and weaving cloth on looms (including tributes destined for the Chinese Imperial Court), that they did not even know how to transplant rice (still seen today as essentially women’s work). It was the men who carried out this task in Ninh Hiệp. Someone (a woman, probably) even wrote a catchy little song about it:

Cửi canh khuya sớm em lo
Ruộng ðồng tát nýớc be bờ phần anh
Me, I’ll look after the weaving loom,
It’s your job to finish the work in the fields.

110There was yet another time, in the 11th century, when the Vietnamese kings exclusively consulted experts in traditional medicine from Ninh Hiệp. Their knowledge of medicinal plants and herbal remedies had no equal south of the Red River. Today however, the tombs of these great scholars and the sumptuous monuments dedicated to them at Ninh Hiệp are hidden by rolls of Nippono-Chinese cloth of questionable quality, spread out in front of the architectural finery to snag the passing punter on his Sino-Japanese scooter. The merchants have invaded the Temple and there ain’t no Baby Jesus to tell’em: “Leave my Father’s house”…

111The history of Ninh Hiệp is full of twists and turns, not all of them positive, but always most instructive: it is a tale worth telling (and, we hope, worth hearing).

assorted herbal remedies and lotus seeds, ninh giang


112Let us begin with some specifics. Originally, Ninh Hiệp Commune was made up of three villages:

  • Phù Ninh (today divided into 7 xóm, hamlets, numbered from 1 to 7);
  • Hiệp Phù (now Xóm 9);
  • Ninh Giang (now Xóm 8).

113Phù Ninh and Hiệp Phù were once specialised in spinning silk and fine cotton. The spinning craft is said to have begun here during the Lý Dynasty (1010-1225) and to have established Phù Ninh’s reputation during the Lê Dynasty. There was also a very important market here, called Nành market, which supplied artisans who did not have their own sources of raw materials. Up against competition from textile mills established by the French colony, weavers could no longer obtain supplies of thread nor sell their cloth, henceforth considered too coarse (and at 40 cm in width, too narrow, because woven on small looms). The inhabitants of these old villages switched crafts to trading in medicinal plants, then at the beginning of the 20th century started working with leather. Ninh Giang is the birthplace of the craft of processing medicinal plants for traditional medicines. The names of famous Phù Ninh doctors are carved on the Pháp Vân Pagoda and evoke this village’s great renown.

114We will continue with a dose of mythico-historical founding narrative (or should that be historico-mythical?). The ancestors of the Commune’s two oldest crafts, the one who is said to have introduced spinning of silk (and fine cotton) and the one who is said to have started the processing of medicinal plants for the preparation of traditional remedies, are purportedly one and the same person – and, to cap it all, a woman!

115At the time when she arrived in Ninh Hiệp (which in fact wasn’t called Ninh Hiệp at all at that period, but Làng Nành), this woman was known by the name of Lady Thái Lão. It is certainly not by chance that she is also said to be originally from Thanh Hóa Province. This region is a prodigious source of founding cultural narratives in the north of Vietnam: see for example (the builder of Đình Bảng) (the ancestor of the copperbeaters), no6 p. 233 (the post-ancestor of mother-of-pearl inlayers) and no8 p. 274 (the training of the ancestor of bamboo weavers). Note that Thanh Hóa contains the site of Hoa Lý, one of the first capitals and centres of civilisation in the north of Vietnam.

116Lady Thái Lão settled in the village of Phù Ninh, where apparently a house was even built for her, so much did the locals want her to stay and share her multifarious skills and crafts. A document preserved in the village that tells her story claims that she “taught the villagers to weave silk to make them self-sufficient”. In truth, the origins of spinning and weaving in this neck of the woods seem so distant that one story is pretty much as good as any other.

117Nonetheless, in our view, Lady Thái Lão has a more serious claim on the title of craft ancestor for the processors of medicinal plants (moreover, Ninh Hiệp Commune is not the only place where she is worshipped for this). So legend has it that she taught the villagers the rudiments of the southern (i. e. Vietnamese) pharmacopoeia. Despite the fact that she carried out her decoctions in Phù Ninh, today it is particularly Ninh Giang (Xóm 8) that is specialised in medicinal plants. She taught them to pick wild medicinal plants that grew in profusion in Quế Lâm Forest, which in those days started directly beyond the village limits. Lady Thái Lão then showed them the main methods for preserving these medical ingredients. Sadly, adhering to the axiom concerning physicians and their limited self-healing powers, she died young, some years later, on the 18th day of the 1st lunar month of an unknown year (see the “things to be seen” p. 138). King Lý Thái Tổ, an admirer of the healing powers of her young wives’remedies, and clearly saddened by her untimely passing, solemnly declared her to be: “Lý Nhũ Thái Lão ðýợc sý thần linh, which means roughly: “powerful spirit Thái Lão with miraculous medicines” and gave her the posthumous name of Lý Nhũ Thái Lão. This is how she has been known ever since.


118We have already mentioned several of them, but in order to show the movement, the reactivity and the protean flexibility of this group of multiple-craft villages, during a period of entropic upheavals with exponential accelerations, let us sketch a general chronology of events, starting from the decline in spinning and weaving activities:

1191930s/1940s: the shortage of raw materials and the lack of markets, both precipitated by French colonial competition, seals the demise of spinning and weaving in Ninh Hiệp. Some artisans continue to work with textiles, putting their skills and contacts to good use to go into trade. Others switch to different crafts flourishing in the village – the old ones and the new.

120Processing and trading in medicinal plants in Ninh Giang/Xóm 8 – the source of the increasingly flourishing practice of traditional medicine in Phù Ninh and Hiệp Phù (see p. 137) and then the emergence of a wider clientele (reached via markets and through intermediaries) – continues apace. It could even be stated that these activities increase in scale compared to previous eras and lift themselves permanently out of the category of being a secondary moneymaking occupation for underemployed rice farmers.

121Given that raw materials have already become hard to find nearby (a few precious plants are grown in the commune, but space is very limited), during this period a certain number of villagers begin to travel further afield in the North (and even to China, often without papers) in pursuit of sought-after plants. Simultaneously, other people leave for the South to set themselves up as traders in medicinal plants in the bigger and smaller towns, like those for example who open up shop in Hà Nội in the 36 Streets Old Quarter, on Lãn Ông Street (still the best place – with Thuốc Bắc Street – to find these products in the capital), named after a great theorist and practitioner of traditional medicine of the 18th century: see box p. 135).

122During this same period (still the 1930s/1940s), a brand new craft starts to establish itself in Ninh Hiệp: leatherwork. The origins of this craft go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when some villagers were summoned to work in the French army’s leather factories, including a certain Mr. Thạch Văn Ngữ. Some years later, he opens a shop selling leather items on Hà Trung Street in Hà Nội. Business is so good that Mr. Ngữ has to take on a whole series of young apprentices from his native village, some of whom then set up shop on their own account, not only in direct competition with him but also, in keeping with ruthless local commercial practices, on the same street…

1231946-1954: During the armed struggle for independence, many of those making leather goods in Hà Nội return to Ninh Hiệp while continuing their work and are soon supplying the Vietnamese army with very useful items. Meanwhile, medicinal plants also become part of the war effort: a patriotic movement promotes traditional Vietnamese science to the detriment of Western influences – and the army is forced to find ways of treating its wounded in the jungle, while sources of Western medical supplies rapidly dry up. Promotion of a local solution leads to national campaigns, encouraging the cultivation of medicinal plants, and from this period onwards, plantations of this kind can be found in national parks and in many villages, which also often boast a dispensary of traditional medicine.

1241960: A craft co-operative making leather items and tarpaulins is established in Ninh Niêp. Out of leather, it produces hand-stitched balls of all kinds (footballs, volleyballs, basketballs…), sandals, suitcases, etc. From 1965, the co-operative works mainly for the army: rucksacks, tarpaulin shelters, cartridge belts, grenade holders, radio carriers, holsters and straps for pistols, rifles, or AK machine guns… This model of a co-operative working flat out to produce military supplies is a successful one: while urban production units are attacked, destroyed or evacuated, small-scale craft industries, dispersed in rural areas, demonstrate their value and are worth their weight in gold for the collective war effort. As early as 1973 (the signing of the Treaty of Paris), production is redirected to civilian needs: once more, the co-operative begins to make balls, bags, briefcases, gloves, bicycle seats, etc.

The reluctant herbalist

a mixture of traditional medicines at a ninh giang herbalist

125Lãn Ông (born Lê Hữu Trác in 1720) was an original and iconoclastic character of Vietnamese traditional medicine. Born with a pair of silver chopsticks in his mouth, he turned his back on a career as a mandarin, spending most of his life in the village where his mother was born, in Hà Tĩnh Province (Central Vietnam). He produced his masterpiece there, called Treatise of Medical Knowledge of Hải Thýợng, setting out his observations and analysis of more than 700 native plants and herbs. He identifies 29 different drying techniques, each devised to preserve or to alter the properties of active agents contained by the plants. He presents advice for their use in traditional medicine, enriched with references to history, literature and philosophy. He was also one of the first to advise a more integrated approach between southern medicine (purely Vietnamese, using only local plants and with relatively simple preparations) and the northern discipline (with plants from mountainous regions and China in more complex and sophisticated preparations).

126Invited to join the Royal Court by Crown Prince Trịnh Cán, whom he had previously cured of an illness, Lê Hữu Trác refused and retired permanently to the country to continue his research and his practice of medicine, until his death in 1791. By assuming the name Lãn Ông (‘Mister Lazybones’), he signalled his reluctance to exchange his simple lifestyle for the luxurious existence at Court, peopled by crowds of sycophants and hangers-on. He also indicated his refusal to get embroiled in the political struggle at that period taking place between the Trịnh and the Nguyễn lords. In the preface to his book, he wrote: “Medicine is a human art that must seek to preserve life, attend to man’s sorrows, rejoice in man’s joys. A physician’s duty is to bring succour to others without thought for riches or fame…”

127Where are the doctors of yesteryear?

A worker mixes lotus seed husks and spices at ninh giang

finely chopped plants on a ninh giang doorstep

128An anecdote from this collectivist period that we cannot resist passing on. Some co-operative officials occasionally dabbled in some bartering or did a little bit of business on the side: they had the contacts and the freedom of movement, and did not always act solely for personal gain. In Ninh Hiệp, co-operative officials in charge of deliveries and marketing devised an original scam: they illicitly exchanged traditional medicines and textiles for state products, including thermos flasks (those that you still see everywhere in Vietnam today) and… monosodium glutamate! These treasures were sold to villagers who then went and swapped them in the mountains for more medicinal plants. The inhabitants of mountainous areas thus exchanged the ingredients for sophisticated and ancestral natural remedies in return for poor-quality, mass-produced thermos flasks, along with allergenic and possibly carcinogenic flavour enhancers...

129The 1960s: During this period, yet another craft begins to develop (especially in Ninh Giang/Xóm 8), already very familiar to villagers, but one that begins to take on a whole new semi-industrial scale: processing of lotus seeds and dried longan pulp. Longan pulp is renowned for its restorative powers; in terms of volume, it is principally lotus seeds that are processed – removing them from their black shells and detaching them from their brown membranes – to make them, once laid bare, into crystallised sweetmeats, or to use them for other traditional recipes. Once again, in Ninh Hiệp, there are neither ponds to house all these lotus plants, nor land to grow longans; but to process these products requires skill and experience (especially for the longans). The people of this commune have the know-how and buy untreated produce from all over the Delta, selling on the processed products in Hà Nội and elsewhere. You will see that this craft is currently blooming.

130Since 1986: economic liberalisation creates shock waves in Ninh Hiệp, like everywhere else. The leather and tarpaulin craft co-operative, abandoned to market forces, soon finds itself in operational difficulties and puts the key under the gates for good in July 1990, just in time for everyone to go home and watch the celebrations for the reunification of the two Germanys on the telly…

131With the advent of Đổi Mới, the processors of medicinal plants steal a march on potential competitors by organising about 40 commando groups of roving plant collectors. But the opening of the Chinese border for trade once again modifies the situation: from now on, traditional Chinese remedies become available at unbeatable prices, even after export, and the craft of processing such products suffers a severe blow. However, Ninh Hiệp artisans know their trade and have contacts, so once again they manage to bounce back, this time as traders in specialised Chinese products. Later, the market for local products revives a little, helped in part by a Western enthusiasm for all Eastern traditional medicines, stimulated by a rejection of chemico-pharmaceutical allopathic drugs.

132One final new craft, or a descendant of an old one rising from the ashes: dressmaking and trade in Chinese and Japanese cloth. Since Đổi Mới, this activity has boomed exponentially in Ninh Hiệp: no need to give you lots of figures, as you can’t avoid the reality, even when you are looking for Phù Ninh’s pagodas, bursting with the tombs of illustrious doctors from a bygone age. It is not very interesting, or nice to look at, but it’s everywhere: a decade ago, already one-tenth of all the commune’s households declared themselves as dressmakers or tailors. Proximity with Hà Nội (which every year creeps a little closer to Ninh Hiệp) means that young city-dwellers come here on shopping sprees to find cut-price clothing.

133Let us complete this gallop through the thicket of crafts in this uncommon commune by a quotation, taken from the conclusion of an excellent article about Ninh Hiệp, by Dýõng Duy Bãng (2002):

134“The preservation and promotion of traditional technological heritage demonstrates once again the importance of its role in the development of craft industry in Ninh Hiệp. The richness of experience concerning processing of medicinal plants enabled the inhabitants of Ninh Hiệp to successfully develop the commodity chain for processing high-quality agricultural products. Technical skills acquired from making balls during the 1940s-50s created the basis for villagers to operate the leather and tarpaulin co-operative during the period 1960-1986. In turn, the members of this co-operative were able to put their experience to good use in the clothing industry that has developed very rapidly these last years. This explains why, in spite of inhabiting a similar environment, neighbouring communes have never managed, after the manner of Ninh Hiệp, to establish a co-operative specialised in leather, nor to develop the craft of making clothes or processing agricultural goods. It is therefore necessary to maintain and continue promotion of these traditional crafts and to grant them the attention that they deserve”.


135Everything should be seen to be believed, of course, but especially the village of Ninh Giang/Xóm 9, for its display of drying and processing of exotic and sometimes mysterious products, as well as its sublime scents (see our suggested walk through the village p. 140). Don’t forget that the festival for the crafts ancestor is held on the 18th day of the 1st lunar month (the day of her death), and go and see the beautiful religious buildings, mainly concentrated in the large village of Phù Ninh (Xóm 1 to 7), including Điếm Kiều Temple, built to pay homage to Mrs. Lý Nhũ Thái Lão.

preparing glazed logus seeds, ninh giang

A stroll through time in Ninh Hiệp

136The eventful and very dynamic history of this illustrious commune is visible everywhere in the streets. The French School of Far-Eastern Studies has counted more than 100 stelae bearing witness to the prestige of famous men and women from here, to their expertise and the very ancient prosperity of this commune, even if it is sometimes hidden by expanses of low-quality cloth. This walk will end amid curls of smoke from spices and suffused with the aroma of star anise and liquorice, bathed in the slanting, golden light of late afternoon sunshine.

137We suggest you begin by visiting the architectural and religious heritage sites, so as not to be demoralised by the unrestrained invasion by the cloth market of one of the villages with the richest heritage in the environs of Hà Nội.

138Once you have crossed the bridge, you will find yourself opposite two roads at a Y junction (see map, p. 141); take the one to the right and cross the street of traditional medicine without stopping, in order to keep the most calming part for last. Then stay on the road that runs along the paddy fields and follow the sharp bend to the east. Another 500 metres and you can park in the car park near the market.

139Crossing the cloth market is tough going, both on mind and body: there are a lot of people and the spectacle of temples hidden by assorted cloth prints of Winnie the Pooh, Pokemon and Batman is hard on the senses!

140Chùa Cả, or Pháp Vân Pagoda (also called Nành Pagoda, after Ninh Hiệp’s old name): you can see nine stelae from the later Lê Dynasty that tell the story of some famous doctors, signs of the excellent reputation of this village for medical science. They are dispersed in the courtyard and in the main building.

141Opposite the pagoda, there is a smaller one on the water: Đền thờ công chúa is dedicated to Princess Lê Ngọc Hân (1770-1799), daughter of King Lê Hiển Tông and wife of Quang Trung (founder of the Tây Sõn Dynasty). After the death of her illustrious husband, she wrote a long poem in nôm (former Vietnamese writing system) entitled Ai Tý Vãn, expressing the pain of a young wife losing her husband, of a woman grieving for her lover, of a subject mourning her dead king.

142A treasure hunt could be organised in this village to look for stelae, temples and other architectural wonders hidden by ‘modernisation’. However, we will let you find them for yourself while crossing back through the cloth market.

143In the small, triangular garden that marks the end of the market, a beautiful little pagoda houses the ‘bed of stone’ or thạch Sàng used by A Ðà La, the Indian monk who came to spread the Buddhist doctrine in 187, before making his way to Mãn Xá. Over there, he had a hand in the “birth of the four goddesses” of which you will hear more when you visit Dâu Pagoda (Itinerary no3, p. 147). This building is a mysterious, sinister place where nobody wants to live. It houses, among other things, Phù Ninh’s cultural centre.

144Turn right into the shopping street where stalls of cloth alternate with shops selling traditional remedies. After about 300 metres, on the right is a small temple, Điếm Kiều, built to pay homage to the craft ancestor for silk and medicinal plants, Mrs. Lý Nhũ Thái Lão, especially, as you will remember, on the 18th day of the 1st lunar month. It is a small building with a handsome wooden structure, which was reconstructed in the 1990s with private funding.

Ninh Hiệp

Ninh Hiệp

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department

145As you get closer to Xóm 8 (or Ninh Giang), traditional medicine activities begin to intensify: you will see several shops giving onto the street. A striking gate marks the separation between Xóm 6 and Xóm 7. Then on the right, a small đình with a pink door houses a very fine stele. Opposite, on the left-hand side of the street, is Khánh Ninh Pagoda. Then a little further on, a small pond on the right with many lotus flowers in it is a reminder of the importance of this medicinal plant.

146When you get to the end of the street, you will find yourself opposite the bridge giving access to the commune. Turn sharp left, and enter the street of traditional remedies that you crossed when you were setting out earlier. There, the noise fades and you can follow your nose. In the village of Ninh Giang (or Xóm 8), you can at last inhale the fragance from liquorice and all kinds of spices in the relative calm, far from the hoards of motorbikes that zigzag between passers-by with mountains of cloth and clothes poorly attached to them.

147All house frontages are used as places to dry aromatic barks, piles of sticks of liquorice cut into strips, heaps of turmeric. Girls slice up unidentified barks, chop up plants or sort through flat baskets full of lotus seeds. In front of shops, signs display the double originality of the village: the sale of both northern and southern medicine: Thuốc Bắc and Thuốc Nam. Several little monuments can be found in the maze of streets. You will see a very beautiful đình with orange doors and a very ancient canopy (with charming old gentlemen who play badminton outside, a chance to have a casual chat about the history of the craft and the origins of the đình…). There is no association of herbal remedy makers, but during a game of badminton, there must be some discussion of trade and of ancient recipes for making some magic potion or other! Homage is paid there to the founder on the 9th day of the 1st lunar month without much fanfare (no games as in the other festivals).

consultation with a ninh giang herbalist

herbalist’s shop ninh giang

Table des illustrations

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Légende from workshop to kiln, bát tràng
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Légende diversification at bát tràng: terracotta ware
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Légende cup moulds in a workshop in giang cao (bát tràng)
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Légende coal-dust cakes drying on a wall, giang cao (bát tràng)
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Légende bricks and walls, bát tràng
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Légende porcelain ware in a giang cao workshop (bát tràng)
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Titre Bát Tràng
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Légende tall porcelain jars, giang cao (bát tràng)
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Légende enamel glaze painted onto cups, giang cao (bát tràng)
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Légende beating gold leaf at kiêu kỵ
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Légende final separation of gold leaf from dó paper, kiêu kỵ
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Légende using ink to prepare dó paper (giấy vo)
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Légende assorted herbal remedies and lotus seeds, ninh giang
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Légende a mixture of traditional medicines at a ninh giang herbalist
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Légende A worker mixes lotus seed husks and spices at ninh giang
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Légende finely chopped plants on a ninh giang doorstep
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Légende preparing glazed logus seeds, ninh giang
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Titre Ninh Hiệp
Légende Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department
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Légende consultation with a ninh giang herbalist
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Légende herbalist’s shop ninh giang
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