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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

Sylvie Fanchette
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 3. Prints, metalbeating & burnt bamboo (Bắc Ninh)

Testo integrale

Cultural and architectural heritage
The temples dedicated to Lady Y Lan;
But Thap Pagoda Pagoda;
The đình at Đông Hồ;
The đình, pagoda and mausoleum at Đại Bái.
Craft villages
Traditional woodblock prints: Đông Hồ;
Metal beating: Đại Bái;
Burnt bamboo furnitures: Xuân Lai.



1Exit Hà Nội to the east via Gia Lâm. Go straight through the Nguyễn Vãn Cừ/Nguyễn Vãn Linh crossroads and turn right towards the motorway (National Highway no5) towards Hải Phòng. Leave the motorway access for Bắc Ninh on your left and at about 11 kilometres from the Nguyễn Vãn Cừ/Nguyễn Vãn Linh crossroads, take the ramp signposted Ðýờng Kiêu Kỵ. At the little roundabout, turn left to get up onto the bridge that goes over the motorway. Follow signposts to Phố Sủi. You are on Road no182. Two kilometres further on, you will arrive at the village of Phú Thụy (Dýõng Xá Commune), where you will find Lady Ỷ Lan’s Temple.

2In Dýõng Xá and Phú Thụy Communes (Gia Lâm District), there are about 20 temples dedicated to Lady Ỷ Lan, the wife of King Lý Thánh Tông (11th century), born into a family of weavers and silkworm farmers. Both of these communes hold festivals in her honour.

3In the political sphere, Lady Ỷ Lan, who lived in the 11th-12th centuries, was an important stateswoman and first concubine to the king. She is worshipped by the Vietnamese in at least a hundred temples dedicated to her memory, especially in her native province of Bắc Ninh.

4The pagoda, built by Ỷ Lan herself in 1115, bears the name of Linh Nhân. The temple dedicated to her worship dates from the same period. Among the historic relics preserved in the temple complex and in the pagoda since the 11th century are a stone staircase, Buddhas seated on two lions and another magnificent lion more than a metre high, also carved in stone.

5There is a well where, according to legend, Ỷ Lan/Tấm kept a little magic fish, calling it to the water’s surface every day by singing to it. Far from being a mythical character, Ỷ Lan is an historical person. Her real name was Lê Thị Yến. She was a farmer’s daughter who lost her mother when very young. However, she is inextricably linked in the Vietnamese collective imagination to Tấm, the national Cinderella.

6According to the Annals, King Lý Thánh Tông, who aged 40 had still not produced a male heir to guarantee the continuity of the royal line, made a pilgrimage to Dâu Pagoda (2nd century), via Dýõng Xá in order to ask for the Buddha’s assistance. Strolling in the fields, he noticed, in a thicket of mulberry trees, a beautiful girl leaning against a magnolia (lan). He approached her and was surprised to find that she was not in the least overawed and could answer his questions with aplomb and intelligence. He decided to bring her back to his court and gave her the title of “First Royal Concubine Ỷ Lan”, this name meaning: “she who leans against a magnolia”.

7Unlike the other women in the harem, Ỷ Lan showed an interest in affairs of state and public life. She made an effort to study and become conversant with the people’s concerns. In 1069 her husband, setting off to do battle with the Cham, left her in charge during his absence. She reigned with wisdom and courage during troubled times. The grateful subjects called her Mother of Mansuetude and built a temple in her honour. In 1072, the King’s death caused a fresh national crisis. Once again, Ỷ Lan became Regent and ran affairs of state while General Lý Thýờng Kiệt repelled an invasion of the Chinese armies of the Song Dynasty.



8Continue down Road no182. On your right, you will see a very beautiful gateway. One kilometre further on, take the road on the right signposted Phố Keo market. Keo Pagoda is in the marketplace. Two kilometres further on, you leave Hà Nội Province and cross into Bắc Ninh. You will go past big brick kilns and an industrial park. Three kilometres from the border between the two provinces, to the right of the road, in the village of Công Hà, is Tô Pagoda (Chùa Tô). On the left, a road leads to Đình Tổ, a village where, after continuing for three kilometres, you will find one of Vietnam’s most famous pagodas, Chùa Bút Tháp.

9Bút Tháp Pagoda, (Chùa Bút Tháp) or Paintbrush Tower Pagoda, (in the village of the same name, Đình Tổ Commune, Thuận Thành District) is an architectural and sculptural treasure. The pagoda is a large but harmonious collection of 10 buildings of which several date from the 17th century, including two towers of five stories each, one of which is the striking, 13-metre-high tower that gives its name to this religious complex.

10Among the things worth looking at here, there are several finely sculpted bas-reliefs and a plethora of polychrome statues. The most famous ones are the gigantic guardian spirits at the entrance, three very fine Buddhas at the centre of the Grand Hall and the highlight, to the side in this same room, is the very Indian-looking statue of Quan Âm, with her thousand eyes and thousand arms, the work of a sculptor named Trýõng, crafted in 1656 and symbolising the union of the beautiful and the sacred in Buddhist beliefs.



11Return to Road no182. Leaving the village of Công Hà, you come to a crossroads, then a road full of shops and stalls. You are entering Phố Dâu in the village of Khýõng Tự, site of another of the region’s very famous pagodas, Chùa Pháp Vân Tự or Chùa Dâu. A sign at the beginning of the line of shops announces that the pagoda is 200 metres further on, to the right.

12Chùa Dâu (village of Khýõng Tự, Thanh Khýõng Commune, Thuận Thành District), its common name, or Pháp Vân Tự, its real name (or Chùa Diên Ứng according to some free spirits), is the oldest Buddhist temple in Vietnam. It was built around the beginning of the Christian era, at a place where several important trades routes intersect (and on the site of the administrative, military, cultural and religious centre called Luy Lâu by the Chinese, from where they dominated the whole of northern Vietnam). The first great Indian Buddhist missionaries to travel to Vietnam came here. A market that follows the Yin principle is held in front of this pagoda at dusk. They say that the souls of the dead return to do their shopping here!

13The imposing Dâu Pagoda is at the centre of a remarkable geographical concentration of village pagodas (you will have already noticed that the Bút Tháp Pagoda is practically next door). Many of these places of worship are linked up when the pagoda holds its festival (see box p. 147).

14With regard to the architecture of this site, the pagoda was almost entirely rebuilt in the 14th century and has undergone several other renovations since then. In the main temple, there are only a few sculptures remaining from the Trần and Lê Dynasties. There are several striking statues there, including the most famous, in the centre, representing Lady Dâu or Pháp Vân (the Cloud Goddess). Almost two metres tall, elegant and slender, seated on a lotus, this statue is considered a masterpiece of Vietnamese statuary (18th century).

15Another of the pagoda’s interesting features, also dating from the 18th century, built 17 metres high with plain bricks, Hòa Phong Tower can be seen from afar, even if there are only three of its (allegedly) nine original stories still standing. This tower was built to entreat the divinities to organise favourable weather for a good harvest. Inside are a bell and a gong, and in front of the tour, to the left, can be found a stone statue with an unusual subject (for Vietnam, at least): a sheep. Historians speculate (as is their wont) that it is a relic of the era of Chinese domination.

Festival at the Dâu Pagoda

architecture and geomancy: the sacred role of water

16The pagoda’s festival takes place on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month (Buddha’s birthday). Four other pagodas in the same district celebrate their festivals on this same day and the activities are closely interlinked by a whole skein of intertwined beliefs and traditions.

17As the story goes, the Cloud Goddess had three sisters, the Rain Goddess, the Thunder Goddess and their little sister, the Lightning Goddess. At the culmination of lavish processions, the villagers reunite the (statues of the) three younger sisters to go and visit big sister Pháp Vân at Dâu Pagoda, and together, they pay a social call on their mother Man Nýõng (who was mysteriously – but accidentally – fertilised by a monk of Indian origin, called Khâu Ðà La: see Itinerary no2 p. 140 (Ninh Hiệp) for more of his Vietnamese adventures) at Tổ Pagoda in the village of Mãn Xá.

18It is easy to see that these divinities are closely associated with very ancient beliefs concerning fertility and water rites. It is a major and impressive festival, with many processions, contests, games, dances, (stick, turtle, lion and stalk dances), wrestling, chess games with human pieces and fireworks.



19Continue down Road no182 and after five kilometres, at the crossroads on the far side of the village of Phố Khám, a road to the left leads, after about a kilometre, to the village of block prints and votive offerings made of paper: Đông Hồ.

20Ðông Hồ, (Sông Hồ Commune, Thuận Thành District) is a very ancient village about 40 kilometres east of Hà Nội, famous throughout Vietnam for making traditional woodblock prints on paper (see Itinerary no1 to discover the mysteries of this paper) and more recently, paper votive offerings.

21Every year, a few weeks before Tết (the Vietnamese new year), a market of traditional prints takes place in and around the village’s communal house (đình). Under the Nguyễn Dynasty, a competition for making votive offerings was also held in the đình. These events attracted artisans and clients from all over the sub-region and established Đông Hồ’s reputation. Only a handful of craftspeople still make these famous “Đông Hồ prints”; most of their neighbours devote their energies to making votive offerings such as those sold on Hàng Mã (or Votive Offerings Street), in the Old Quarter of the 36 Streets in Hà Nội.


22In spite of the inevitable decline in sales of Đông Hồ prints, they remain a reference in traditional popular culture. They depict scenes of village life or spring landscapes, scenes taken from stories and legends, pictures featuring the animals of the Vietnamese horoscope (especially those of the upcoming and current lunar years). The prints are produced with pictures carved into wooden printing blocks. The paper is decorated and strengthened with a double coating of a pearly white paste made from mussel shells (điệp). The prints’five colours are of natural origin, the black being from charred bamboo leaves, the orange from gardenia flowers, the blue from indigo and so on.

23Some historians locate the origins of this practice at the beginning of the 17th century, under the reign of King Lê Kinh Tông; others (perhaps fonder of round numbers) say poppycock, Ðông Hồers have been stamping on paper for 500 years (or 20 generations): take your pick… Whatever the facts of the matter, the craft’s steep decline is undeniable: before 1938, 200 households in the village were still colouring in prints. Apart from the three last remaining ones, nearly all the other craftspeople have thus switched to making paper votive offerings, and it must be said that this activity is very successful.


24Đông Hồ’s two crafts are interesting to watch. There are still a couple of workshops where one can observe the production of traditional woodblock prints, as well as a museum (see box p. 151). Simple, cheerful and amusing, the prints possess a definite charm, are not at all expensive (prices begin from around a pretty reasonable 3,000 VNĐ) and make presents that are easy to carry in a little cardboard tube or kept flat at the bottom of a suitcase.

25Votive offerings and votive paper are made from recycled matter, which is collected and sorted in Dýõng Ổ, another Bắc Ninh village famous for its paper products (see Itinerary no1). Here, the sheets of paper are coloured and decorated and, when the weather is fine, one can very often see a dazzling display of coloured paper drying in the sun.

26The đình at Đông Hồ, where the village’s guardian spirit is worshipped, is worth a visit, especially if you are lucky enough to be here just before Tết for the woodblock print market, (the 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 22nd days of the 12th lunar month) or just afterwards, for the Đông Hồ village festival (from the 4th to the 7th day of the 1st lunar month), because since they have once again become popular, the competition for making votive offerings has been restored. It takes place in the đình’s courtyard, where the families of Đông Hồ display both their finest pieces of paperwork and the baroque scope of their imagination. These giant and extravagant objects are also paraded through the streets, there are games of Chinese chess, wrestling, cockfights: a typical village fête, if you like. The show’s climax, which gives it an undeniably original touch, is the culmination of the competition in a ceremony where the winning objects are… you’ve guessed it, burned to a sooty crisp.

Money to burn?

27As if there weren’t enough people in the house already, traditional Vietnamese beliefs place the dead firmly among the living, except that they simply exist in a parallel world. Now in this other dimension, one still needs to work and travel, to eat, clothe, house and even amuse oneself (sounds a little like hell, doesn’t it?).

28In order to keep showing due respect to their ancestors, and above all to ask for their continued benevolence, the living are expected to ‘look after’ the dead by, among other ways, sending them presents, via smoke signals, in the form of paper votive offerings. The most common of these inflammable offerings are fake banknotes (50,000 VNĐ or 500,000 VNĐ notes for villagers, 100 USD for urban nouveaux riches, often printed on one side only), which are burnt on several occasions, beginning with the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month. These dates are also moments for going to the pagoda and presenting offerings at the ancestors’shrine at home. If you rent a house in Vietnam, the lease will often include a clause guaranteeing the landlord (or landlady) access every fortnight to the shrine left in the house. The ghosts of former owners are apparently not keen on moving house – and moreover, their presence discourages other, mere tenant ghosts from setting up home there: property dealings in the next world are clearly as complicated as they are in this one.

29The other important ceremonies where one puts a match to one’s money and similar simulacra include ancestors’death anniversaries, the Tết Trung Nguyên festival (15th day of the 7th lunar month, the festival of wandering souls) and occasional rites to plead for little things like a good harvest, a child, peace… This practice is a symbolic extension of an ancient one, where the deceased was buried with money, clothes, rice and salt, his favourite betel box, even his tools. In the Central Highlands, some ethnic minorities still adhere to similar traditions, often adding old bicycles (badly damaged or at least broken: it’ll be as good as new in the Empire of Shadows, so no need to waste a vehicle in working order).

30After 1945, in an attempt to reduce superstitious observances, trade in paper votive offerings was forbidden. Decades of deadly war and famine followed, many young people died in the jungle and in their villages. Those who survived did not wish to live with their backs turned to their dead and these practices returned.

31As can be easily observed in Hà Nội’s Hàng Mã Street, trade in these objects is once again flourishing: tradition and modernity live side by side, since one can buy, all made entirely of paper or cardboard, those genuine fake banknotes, a mandarin’s official robes, mythological animals, golden or silver trees, shoes, horses, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, houses – even flying saucers… Many of these objects are made in Đông Hồ and can be bought here. If you decide to buy some for your forebears, don’t forget to bring along a box of matches, then you can send them off directly.

money from the bank of the «dead»

making votive ingots: a job for the elderly

“Come up and see my polychrome etchings…”

32Long ago, virginal village girls from Đông Hồ posed as highway sirens for passing travellers making their way up the dyke or sailing down the Đuống River:

Dear traveller on your way,
Stop to admire the view and end your sadness.
Please buy our paintings, brightly coloured
With cosy scenes of pigs and chickens.

33Makers of woodblock prints don’t perhaps have the same marketing budget they once had, and these days it’s mainly producers of votive offerings who have the prime high street locations, but the invitation still holds good: we particularly recommend the workshops of Mr. Nguyễn Đăng Chế and Mr. Nguyễn Hữu Sam. For 30 years, the former was a lecturer at the university of aesthetics and is credited with having revived the craft in his village. The latter was director of the old Đông Hồ woodblock print co-operative and owns a collection of some 600 woodblocks for making prints, some of which are antiques.

34With a little luck therefore, you may see one or other of these craftsmen busily carrying out the various stages of woodblock print production: putting a wash of pearly paste on the pieces of dó paper, inking the prints coated with điệp to give the contours of the traditional subjects, then colouring them delicately by filling in the shapes with the five natural colours (white, black, pearly blue, gold and silver dust).

35In July 2008, at the initiative of Mr. Nguyễn Đăng Chế, a Centre for Cultural Exchanges about Đông Hồ prints was opened in the village. This museum (let’s call it that), is made up of three houses of traditional construction: in the first are displayed more than 100 woodblocks made of old wood representing various series of popular scenes and 170 different prints; in the second, one can look at prints made by Mr. Nguyễn Đăng Chế’s family over the last 15 years or so, as well as restored pictures; finally, in the last house, you can buy prints, woodblocks and pearly dó paper, so that you, too, if the place has inspired you, can take up this ancient and… almost obsolete craft.

aluminium, yellow copper, red copper…, đại bái



36Get back onto Road no182. Go through a major intersection leaving the road to the town of Bắc Ninh to your left. Keep straight on, travelling eastwards. After about five kilometres, on the right, the village of Đại Bái is mentioned on a sign: “Cụm di Tích lịch sử vãn hóa, Làng Nghề gò ðùc ðồng ĐẠI BÁI”. Access to Đại Bái Commune is through the village of Đoan Bái.

37As you approach Đại Bái (Đại Bái Commune, Gia Bình District), here it is more your ears and nose rather than your eyes that will give you the state of play: you will be greeted by a deafening noise level, acrid vapours and thick smoke. You are among specialists in metallurgy: for more than 1,000 years, the inhabitants of Đại Bái have mastered the technique of copperbeating, and for even longer they have been smelting, subsequently supplying the metalbeaters.

38Materials have evolved: the Vietnamese have been making bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) for perhaps 4,000 years (see the history of the craft’s origins p. 155), brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) came later and aluminium arrived only this morning. Craftspeople also work with gold and silver in Đại Bái. Associated techniques have also changed: mechanised production of metal plates and bars, competition from plastics and stainless steel. However, the main craft has survived: metalbeating is an entirely manual activity, requiring few tools (and thus little capital investment), but a lot of skill and a large, well-trained workforce.

39Ðại Bái (also commonly known as Býởi and formerly as Vãn Lãng) is one of the best illustrations of the fascinating craft village paradox: in a very rural setting, well away from Hà Nội, you are about to experience an unusually high level of human promiscuity and semi-industrial craft activity. To echo the words of a fellow researcher: “They don’t mess about making conical hats here… In Africa, there are casts of metalworkers, living in separate tribes; you feel something similar in Đại Bái.”

40Since at least the beginning of the 17th century, Đại Bái was made up of four hamlets (xóm), each one more or less specialising in a single kind of utensil:

  • Xóm Sôn = copper bowls, religious objects;
  • Xóm Gĩua = teapots, kettles, small pots;
  • Xóm Tây = trays, bowls;
  • Xóm Ngoài = big cauldrons for making alcohol.

41Things have become progressively more complicated, interlinked, overlapping, with extensions to some neighbourhoods and the industrial park that has been added (in a semi-organised way…) and workers who specialise in the making of just one part of something (like kettle spouts: see box entitled “Mission: the Quest for the Holy Kettle” p. 162-163) – or in one aspect of the item’s production, such as smoothing and polishing (after the beating and assembling). Note also that at least 40% of workshops are now mechanised to a certain degree. Then there are inevitably articles that nobody buys any more and new ones that pop up onto the market. Check our production map, or just follow your nose…

The Interbellum Generation… A description of Đại Bái

piles of aluminium ingot at đại bái

42Under French colonial rule in the 1930s, the geographer Pierre Gourou contended that:

43“Of all the villages in the Delta, Đại Bái is perhaps the most significant one from an industrial point of view; it probably wins out through the value of its products over the pottery villages (see Itineraries no1 & no1 b) and over the big village for silk products, Vạn Phúc (see Itinerary no4) near Hà Ðông.

44And he proceeds to bash out a striking portrait of a strangely metallic village in what was such an organic (or non-mineral) society at that period that you could not yet find a single nail or screw used in a local construction anywhere in the Delta:

45“A copper market is held in Đại Bái every five days. Under the roof of the narrow covered market supported by rough columns of grey limestone are piled a muddled heap of merchandise, both for sale and already sold, that the copper infuses with a red or yellow lustre. Not far from the finished objects are heaped the raw materials that the artisans will buy once they have sold their produce: wood charcoal in small pieces, scrap zinc, old copper; one can admire an interesting display of old boiler pipes, copper wire, perforated plates that were used to make opium boxes by the Saigon factory, cartridge cases; there is an extraordinary diversity of these, as if all the battlefields and all the shooting ranges of the world insisted on sending a few samples of their metallic waste to Đại Bái.”

46The lie of the land has completely changed since the era of this description. The buildings of Đại Bái, a fertile breeding ground for nationalist warriors, were almost totally destroyed during the succession of wars that broke out barely 10 years later. Nothing new about that: previous wars had already razed Đại Bái several times over. (It is even said here that the village was voluntarily moved a few kilometres at least once, in order to escape the highly toxic water pollution caused by the copper).

47Once again, everything was rebuilt, renovated, converted. Since the warring parties have buried the hatchet (post-1975) and economic liberalisation has come knocking at the village gates (post-1986), people have expanded and modernised: there are now brand new neighbourhoods, an industrial park, the river and several ponds filled in with gravel or covered over with concrete. In order to make it more accessible than it was in the dense, enclosed centre of the village, the market has also moved. Over the years, many people have left in search of an easier, more peaceful life. Some have returned, still others have left to start life afresh in Hà Nội or elsewhere. Meanwhile, through all this tragic tumult and upward mobility, the traditional activity keeps in shape and still packs a hammer punch. The profusion of metallic waste retrieved from the world’s battlefields and rubbish dumps continues to arrive here by the skipload…


48Metalworking has indeed been going on for a very long time in Đại Bái. In 1989, 1,000 years of copper and bronze beating were celebrated in Đại Bái. The craft ancestor is said to be a certain Nguyễn Công Truyền, a military mandarin under the Lý Dynasty, born at the village in 989 (but, just to spice it up a little, 989 according to the lunar calendar). As usual, popular and oral history offers several explanatory versions of the occurrence of the craft in this village rather than in another one. The interest (because frankly, there isn’t always one) in the divergences between these stories that the villagers tell lies in the two main variants:

49This activity may have been inspired by and imitated from the Chinese (as has been ascertained in many if not most of the Delta’s craft villages), with our hero bringing back and sharing the secret of a Chinese community where, as an emissary, he had to wait for letters of introduction, take shelter while having his horse exchanged, or recover from a bout of ‘flu (Asian ‘flu, of course, so especially virulent).

50The other version gives a more nationalist spin to the origins of the activity.

51During the formative years of the craft ancestor, his family may have lived in the hilly province of Thanh Hoá, which rises from the Delta to the southwest and is closely linked to Ðông Sõn, an important Southeast Asian culture, generally accepted to be of homegrown Vietnamese origin. Now Ðông Sõn culture is above all famed for its remarkable drums, made of bronze. The Ðông Sõn era actually coincides more with the Iron Age (c. 2,000 BC – 200 BC, just after the Bronze Age: the Dongsonians also used iron), but it is their delicate bronzework that has given them a prominent place in Vietnamese cultural prehistory. Upon his father’s death, Nguyễn Công Truyền gave up his position as mandarin and took his mother back to live in their native village. He then began to introduce the craft of copperbeating and to teach it to the other villagers.

52The hammer-wielding mandarin is thus considered as the pioneer of metalbeating and is still worshipped during the annual festival, which is held on the 29th day of the 9thlunar month, the day of his death. The specialisation of hamlets in the production of specific articles is also attributed to other retired mandarins from Đại Bái, five of them, who are said to have founded corporations of craftspeople in the 17th century, during a relatively peaceful period. These men are also worshipped as the craft’s ‘post-ancestors’.

53This worship of craft ancestors is always a local and popular initiative, as in originating among the people: a village seeks to thank the perceived source of its prosperity. Formerly in Đại Bái, the most important official annual festival (lễ hội) was that of the village’s guardian spirit (thần thành hoàng), Lạc Long Quân, or the Spirit of the Dragon, celebrated on the 10th day of the 4th lunar month. These festivities have fallen out of favour, supplanted by the craft ancestor’s festival (ông tổ nghề): since metals have been shaped and sold in Đại Bái for centuries and villagers are still at it hammer and tongs today, they feel indebted to and proud of their illustrious ancestor. This is a fine example of the flexibility and pragmatism that typify certain religious practices in Vietnam. The shift in local guardian spirit is tied to age-old local concerns that the market has empowered (see first part p. 44 and 45). Try to imagine the employees of a truck factory abandoning the Harvest Festival in order to celebrate the birthday of Rudolph Diesel!


54There are four types of artisans currently working in Đại Bái:

55• Those who produce objets d’art: this is a familial workforce training others through apprenticeship contracts. They work to order and in particular for the Japanese.

56• Those who produce religious objects for ancestor worship and pagodas (about 10% of the total). Copper and bronze production in these first two categories is mainly concentrated in Sôn hamlet. They sell their produce in the workshopshowrooms located along the main street.

57• Those who make aluminium kitchen utensils (80% of the total). They are mostly small-scale producers who work either manually, or using simple machines. The majority of manual workers lack the means to mechanise their production. They even encounter difficulties in purchasing raw materials. Older villagers no longer have the energy to beat out large pots and cauldrons by hand. They can only shape smaller objects, such as saucepans.

58• Those who smelt the copper or aluminium to sell it on to artisans: smelted aluminium that is sold to artisans who don’t have the means to smelt their own metal, as they only need small quantities. These craftspeople use machines. They obtain supplies of salvaged aluminium from collectors. They smelt it and then make it into sheets. This mechanised activity pays better than metalbeating. However, it is limited by the poor quality of the electricity supply in Đại Bái (a long-standing bone of contention here).

59It is clear that copper and bronzeworking is in decline: few people today prefer a bronze tray to an aluminium one: it’s more expensive, it’s heavier and it oxidises when left out in the air, requiring regular cleaning and polishing. Moreover, aluminium is definitely less dangerous to human health than copper and bronze, it is easier to work with and its production can be mechanised, if one has the means to do so.

6060-70% (if it isn’t 80%) of all activity in Đại Bái today therefore revolves around aluminium. Even the gates to one of the communal houses are in aluminium! The biggest exception to this general rule is the category of religious objects (including statues and bells): here, bronze objects are still preferred (more noble, but also nicer to look at) when they are intended for the pagoda, the temple, the communal house, or for the shrine to the ancestors (bàn thờ) which has pride of place in every Vietnamese home. In addition, on a more profane level, you may notice a few key cutters scattered through the village. During the wars meanwhile, Đại Bái often supplied precious items for the national cause: copper helmets, belt buckles, jerricans, spare parts for bicycles, etc.

61Ðại Bái is also an important centre for production of bronze gongs: gongs occupy a key place in the religious and social life of several Vietnamese ethnic minorities, especially those of the Central Highlands (Tây Nguyên). The Thái and Ede ethnic groups also buy gongs from Đại Bái, while many others are exported to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. You can hear craftsmen busy testing and adjusting the sound of gongs that they are in the process of hammering into shape – an especially tricky and exhausting task (and another item to add to the list of noise pollution in the box p. 158). Look out for the workshop of the deaf (and dumb) craftsman who makes aluminium gongs (you won’t find it…).

62Aside from metalbeating activities, a very limited number of artists continue to make, in accordance with tradition, objets d’art, such as jars, pots, boxes made of chased copper or inlaid with gold, silver or copper wire. It’s expert work for a gold or silversmith, to which some add decorative techniques with patterns or landscapes in natural colours produced by metallic alloys. The most well known craftsmen sometimes produce ornamental pictures to order with copper ideograms or even light fittings in smoked bronze. These artists run workshops in which they train young people, usually from their extended family, through apprenticeship. The market is very limited; since economic liberalisation, this sector has suffered greatly from the competition of Chinese products made of plastic and enamel. In addition, copper bowls, for example, are no longer used for reasons of hygiene.

63Several master craftsmen have won prizes and Đại Bái has been the beneficiary of several cultural events within the framework of a development programme organised by the Japanese co-operation agency (JICA) and the Vietnamese government. Several craft shops attract tourists and tradespeople along the village’s main street.

64Let us not forget that this glamorous aspect of local production only concerns a small minority of the village elite involved in metallurgical activity. The ordinary worker continues to beat aluminium to make saucepans or ladles, to operate machines or to carry out a small part of a lengthy production line. These everyday objects are for the most part sold by weight: 60,000 VNĐ (roughly €3) for a kilo of saucepan and 90,000 VNĐ (€4.50) for a kilo of kettle. Once you know that the metalbeater buys the pre-cut aluminium sheets for 50,000 VNĐ (€2.50) a kilo, you can judge the effort expended, the risks involved and the meagre profit that may be trousered when making a kilo of saucepan…

sheets of brass being cut prior to beating over a form, đại bái

workshop making copper keys, đại bái

Going environmental

scrap metal merchant’s yard, đại bái

65If you are reading this guide systematically from beginning to end, you may be not entirely normal, but you will certainly have noticed a leitmotif of concern linked to certain almost intractable problems, deriving from the very concept of a craft village: a place of residence with already restricted space, coexisting with a core of intensive production, sometimes fully industrial.

Let’s begin with some positive stuff

66The recycling cyclists: about a hundred women earn a living in the village by collecting metal (they often use a bicycle just to bear the weight of their booty, so to speak). To supply raw materials to the craftspeople, they collect a lot of metal waste from all kinds of sources: production waste, broken objects and used metals of many sorts, carefully sorted and rapidly recycled. People have been known to bring surreptitiously here the remains of heavy munitions from Laos, sometimes with… shattering consequences, but hey, let’s hope that such things just never happen any more!

67Aluminium foils future bronze age: doubts persist about the long-term use of aluminium in contact with foodstuffs, but these worries pale in comparison with the undeniable damage done to humans by working with and using copper, an essential ingredient of bronze, brass, etc. Close contact with copper and with its fumes is associated with problems of sterility, embryonic malformations and even damage to the nervous system. If the boom in the use of aluminium has limited the use of copper in such a densely inhabited area, this can only be a good thing.

Now for the less positive stuff

68Pollution in Đại Bái comes in at least three main forms: water, air and noise pollution. The smelters can often be found near water, in order to make it easier to wash their produce clean of chemicals. This wastewater, containing acids and trace minerals, goes directly back into the countryside and since these pollutants are rarely biodegradable, the problem is unlikely to solve itself. In addition, these ponds are the favoured bathing spots of an armada of ducks, who finish life on a plate come feast days… (It should also be noted that the proportion of the commune covered with water is very high: almost 20%). The act of smelting metals produces fumes, often very toxic ones, and smoke from the charcoal used as fuel in the furnaces. Care should be taken to evacuate these pollutants with tall chimneys, ideally located far from where people live. We have already mentioned the noise of the metalbeaters in Đại Bái; let us add the automated machinery, the smelters, vehicles of all kinds, televisions, karaoke machines, mobile phones, mynah birds, cicadas, crickets… Deafness could sometimes almost come as a blessing in this village!

69The dangers for the most vulnerable members of village society are many. You can see children playing among baths of acid and crucibles of white-hot metals, surrounded by the deafening noise of machines. Accidents sometimes happen. The young and the elderly in particular seem to be frequently victims of chronic respiratory infections, lung diseases, etc. The live-in workshops are often surrounded with visible piles of waste produce, also dangerous for the health of those who live there.

A stroll around Đại Bái

70The road that enters the commune is lined with the houses and shops of craftspeople from Đại Bái village who used to live off the beaten track in the village centre. You will get a good idea of the very wide variety of objects made in this famous village as soon as you visit your first shop: alembics, ladles, large copper and aluminium bowls, pots and pans of all sizes are displayed out front… To get a foretaste of the types of scrap metal used to make all the fine ritual objects that until last century made Đại Bái famous, we suggest that you have a look at the two scrap metal merchants located to the right of the road: a bric-a-brac, a real apothecary’s list of shell cases retrieved from the Indochinese War (there is still a regular supply from Laos), buckled bicycle wheels, gas bottles, rusty bed springs, old saucepans…

71500 metres further on, boutiques adjacent to art workshops display all sorts of decorative objects made of bronze and copper for shrines to ancestors, pagodas and temples: incense burners, phoenixes, Buddhas, pots, jars incised with gold, silver and copper wire, framed brass Chinese characters, sets of four pictures showing the seasons… Some workshops make very fine items to order for Hà Nội shops specialised in interior design. It is unfortunately not always possible to buy certain things, particularly those made of smoked bronze, as the copyright to these models is jealously guarded… A fast-vanishing practice in Vietnam! In contrast with your visit to Đông Hồ, where the woodblock prints go for a song, this one to the boutiques of Đại Bái could cost you a lot more…

72You can take a short break to count your silver in the café-shop on the left (see map p. 160). There is a pleasant little arbour out the back, which opens onto a small pond. Before the bend in the road, on the left, about 600 metres from the entrance to the commune, we suggest you go into Đại Bái’s first hamlet, Xóm Sôn. Most of the artisans, specialised in copperbeating, have their workshops and shops on the side of the road, but this hamlet with its narrow paved streets is well worth visiting. Firstly, a little miếu (or điếm) at the hamlet’s entrance is dedicated to the cult of the guardian spirit that protects this western part of the village. Three điếm protect the other three compass points around the village. Women from the neighbourhood regularly burn incense here. An impressive number of nhà thờ họ lie hidden in the depths of this thousand-yearold village’s alleyways (you can find about twenty in Đại Bái), of very old families: in that of the Nguyễn Văn lineage, a plaque made of… copper shows the family tree going back over more than 13 generations. If you visit this hamlet on a day of ancestor worship (the 1st and 15th of the lunar month), you could request to visit one of them without difficulty. You will find an abundant quantity of ritual objects made of bronze, of course... If you stick to our very detailed map, drawn up by our two intrepid investigative architects, you’ll find it difficult to get lost.

73A little further on, to the right of the road, the shop of Mr. Quang Tỷ sells various kinds of gongs, cymbals and other musical instruments made of beaten bronze for Vietnamese ethnic minorities (Ede, Thái, etc.), who have nearly all lost their craft skills. He sells them by the kilo. He could even give you a demonstration of his prowess as a musician by playing oriental pentatonic scales, unless the metalbeaters in the neighbouring workshop are already preventing you from hearing yourself think…

74At the bend in the road, a big company, the Công Ty Ðại Thành, makes keys and locks in brass for a large state-owned enterprise. If you feel up to asking the guard permission to visit this minifactory, you won’t regret it. This will give you the chance to see with your own eyes the division of labour between the fifty or so Daibayers trained to work under one roof for a ‘modern’ industry (there are those who smelt the copper waste to make ingots, others who turn these into sheets, other still who cut up the sheets, who fill the moulds and then empty them before cutting the keys)… You will also witness the difficult conditions in which these workers operate.

Đại Bái

Đại Bái

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department

75You will see molten copper flowing into the moulds with the help of big ladles “made in Đại Bái”, machines cutting and shaping brass bars, and the waste from molten metal flowing out through a little opening into a pond from which the ducks have long since fled. Along this main road, it is possible to see many craftspeople busy working, hammering and engraving, seated on the ground in front of their workshops-cum-boutiques. Most of the work done by these craftspeople who produce copper and brass objects is carried out at their place of residence. The new industrial park built to the right of the entrance to the commune is left almost unoccupied.

76Once you get as far as the large stretches of water that surround the groups of houses on every side, you enter the centre of this village atomised into hamlets: the đình Văn Lãng Mới on the right, place of worship of the guardian spirit Lạc Long Quân, father of all the Vietnamese people. Then on the left, the đình Diên Lộc, reserved for the worship of the founding ancestor of the metalbeating craft, Nguyễn Công Truyền, opens out onto a big pond. A statue of the ‘founding founding father’ is in the đình. However, it is difficult for foreigners to get to see it… its apparition is a heavily ritualised event. These two buildings have been entirely rebuilt, with a very contemporary aluminium gate for the former, following their destruction during the war.

77The local market is to the right. A little farther on to the left, you come to the Nguyễn Thụ Pagoda. It was also completely rebuilt after the war. Behind the central building, a small temple is dedicated to the post-ancestor of bronzebeating, Nguyễn Công Hiêp. This mandarin (and eunuch), having travelled abroad as an ambassador to China, on his return to the village in 1647 (with his jam jar) apparently gave money to the villagers to build this pagoda and a bridge that straddled the river that used to flow through Đại Bái. On the 10th day of the 2nd lunar month, anniversary of the date on which he left the village, a festival is organised. Copper objects of great value, including two swords, are said to be hidden somewhere in this building. This rich artistic heritage could be the subject of an exhibition in a museum, but in spite of appeals to the village diaspora scattered throughout the whole country since the war, it has not yet been possible to collect the necessary financial backing.

78A treasure hunt in Xóm Tây Giũa will be a chance for you to understand the spatial and social organisation of the division of labour in this hamlet specialised in aluminium, and for you to discover a rich architectural, religious and… craft heritage (the furnaces throw long shadows here), amid the sometimes unpleasant emissions specific to metallurgy!

Mission: the Quest for the Holy Kettle

aluminium pots, pans and plates, đại bái

79Your mission, if you accept the challenge, will be to follow in the footsteps of our two intrepid apprentice researchers-cum-architects Lý & Sen in order to piece together the life cycle of a kettle. So let yourself be guided by this story and the clues given at the end by the assembly diagram. For sensitive souls, earplugs and gasmasks are recommended…

80Curiously enough, it is a waste of time trying to follow the production process by beginning at the beginning, namely when the aluminium is smelted and made into blocks: the trail will soon go cold. Finding the furnaces is a piece of cake: just look over the top of your nose or simply let the latter guide you, you will soon find chimneys from which billow greyish, choking smoke. If you attempt to ask what is going on in these workshops, someone will reply (if anyone deigns to respond at all) that your clients come from all over, from other villages, that the produce is sold in Hà Nội or worse still that the furnace that you are watching in action and that, in ten minutes, will turn your lungs into those of a hardened smoker, is not a “real furnace”, it is only a temporary one.

81In spite of everything, if you are extremely stubborn and you finally manage to find a workshop where people kindly agree to answer your questions, you’re out of luck, because this one almost certainly only makes support stands for mosquito nets… Well, if you’re still determined to follow the production line in chronological order, you can always move on to the second stage and look for workshops that turn the aluminium blocks into thin sheets of metal. This time, follow the deafening noise of the machines. You won’t have any trouble finding these workshops at the beginning of the trail, near the road. However, to get answers to your queries, you’ll need a loudhailer, because production won’t be stopped just for you, and even if someone did answer you, you’d be regaled with the same very vague type of responses offered in the previous workshops, or possibly an old lady, convinced that you wish to purchase some blocks of aluminium and trying to be helpful, leads you back to the “mosquito net support stand” workshop… Grrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!

82So, do you still fancy following this trail in chronological order?

83In fact, the easiest thing to do is to look for the ‘finished product’, so long as frustrations haven’t brought you to a falling-out with your fellow adventurer (s)… So anyway, Lý & Sen found a workshop that made kettle spouts. Mrs. Văn Long will give you some precious clues to help fit the pieces of the puzzle together. She buys scrap aluminium that comes by truck from Hải Phòng. Her husband, with whom she lives and works, smelts it down in a small furnace in their little covered courtyard that serves as a workshop, and then simply pours the molten liquid into a spout-shaped mould. Mrs. Văn Long takes care of sales in her house (50,000 VNĐ/kilo, or about 25 spouts), to clients who come from “everywhere”, naturally. If you press her a little, you will learn that most of her clients come from the same xóm (hamlet) as her (in this case, Xóm Ngoài) and if you press her still further, you will get the name of one particular client, the Minh family (Hýng and Hạnh). You will thank this lady sincerely and stop complaining when you learn that she gets up at four o’clock in the morning, day in day out, to earn three million VNÐ (or 140) a month

84After having found the Minh family and having ascertained that they do indeed buy kettle spouts from Mrs. Vãn Long (phew!), you will now have the pleasure of following the whole production process. Mrs. Minh Hýng will be only too glad to describe the obstacle course she follows and to give you the names of her accomplices. Here is the recipe for bringing a kettle to the boil:

85• First of all, you must buy the raw materials, namely scrap aluminium, in her case more precisely used aluminium wire, from the trucks that come directly from Hải Phòng to deliver their “piles of scrap” to the village.

86• Next, you must take this aluminium wire to the Hoàn-Nghĩa family, who will see to smelting it and pouring the molten metal into little block-shaped moulds (circular ones to make the body of the kettle and rectangular ones for the handle).

87• Then you will take these blocks and give them to the Hoa-Thâp family, whose machines will flatten them into thin plates of the shapes and sizes that you ask for.

88• You’ll take these plates to the Tuyềt-Thu family who will shape the body of the kettle with the help of machines and to the Châu-Hồng family who will make the lid.

89• After this long journey, you can, at Mrs. Minh Hýng’s place, hammer the body of the kettle in order to give it a ‘hand-made’ look and put a hole in it so that you can add the spout (the one you had the good idea of buying earlier from Mrs. Văn Long, you know, you remember her, the first person who was nice to you this morning). You ask Mr. Minh Hạnh very nicely to make you a handle from a thin sheet that you have cut into strips with a pair of tin snips. Finally, you put it all together and you sell it to Mrs. Bà in Xóm Ngoài or Mrs. Ánh in Xóm Giũa.

90We’ve got to the final stage, that of finding the top of the production chain. Mrs. Ánh in Xóm Giũa cannot be found anywhere, you’ll be sent on a wild goose chase from alley to alley, until finally someone tells you that this person does not sell kettles… (Lý & Sen apparently didn’t find the right password, maybe you’ll have better luck). So we strongly advise you to look for Mrs. Bà and to do so at lunchtime, the only time of day – or so will say Mr. Thúc, who doesn’t seem to know much about his wife’s movements – when you can be sure to find her at home. Mrs. Bà spends the day going round the workshops with her bicycle to collect various items made in the village (pots, bowls, saucepans, etc.) and in particular your Holiest of Holy Kettles… She then sells her stock of objects in Bắc Giang Province, 45 km from Đại Bái, travelling there in a rented truck (if she’s got a lot) or by bus (if she’s got a little). If you miss lunchtime, you can always try talking to any ladies on bikes weighed down with mountains of things made of aluminium. With a little luck, you may come across Mrs. Bà…

91Finally, a trying morning may culminate, who knows, in a fit of giggles when your driver, who had no idea what you were up to, turns up brandishing… you’ll never guess: a kettle!

92After this wearing treasure hunt amid the staccato of machines and hammering, go and find some restful peace and quiet in front of the mausoleum of the founding founder, looking out over the paddy fields, with its back to the chimneys. It was built on the edge of the farming land to the south of the extension to Xóm Tây Giũa. The craft ancestor is buried in a coffin made of… bronze.

different types of bamboo and a background of burnt bamboo from xuân lai


93Not far from Đông Hồ and Đại Bái is the village of Xuân Lai (Xuân Lai Commune, Gia Bình District), specialised in making ‘burnt’ bamboo furniture, with a natural colour ranging from light brown to a shiny black. This village has been through some very lean times after economic liberalisation and the arrival of industrial products, such as “karaoke furniture” (the little, square armchairs and modular sofas upholstered with imitation leather, ill-suited to the Vietnamese heat and humidity, that one finds in the lobbies of budget mini-hotels – or in karaoke bars…). However, its lucky star is once again climbing over what’s left of the bamboo thicket.


94Leave Đại Bái Commune and turn right onto Road no182. Pass through the recently established administrative centre of the district, Gia Bình. This little town, with its wide avenues, contrasts sharply with the layout of the old village upon which it is built. Past the sign indicating the end of the village, about five kilometres from Đại Bái, you enter Xuân Lai Commune. Just after the offices of the communal People’s Committee, the Xuân Lai Uỷ Ban Xã to the left, turn left. A dirt and concrete track heads north. Little more than a kilometre from the turning, you will come to a small intersection. The concreted road to the right is fortified with two bollards (to block the entrance to trucks and wider cars – 4x4s cannot get through). This road also leads to Xuân Lai. So if your car is too wide, you’ll have to follow the same route on the way there and on the way back. If not, you can reach the village from the north and come back by the southern route. Continue straight on (towards the north). On the right, you will see the gateway to Phúc Lai (another village in the commune, some of whose inhabitants do subcontractual work for companies in Xuân Lai). A little farther on, you will come to the dyke road. This dyke protects the area from flooding from an old meander in the Ðýớng River, isolated since the collectivist period. Follow it towards the right. You will see the vast expanse of water of the ‘dead’ meander to the left. You are looking down on the villages of Xuân Lai Commune to the right, with the sun glittering off the multitude of little ponds where the bamboo is being soaked. After about a kilometre, to the right of the road, you will come to a little yellow and red house. Just after that, a concreted path comes off the dyke to the right towards Xuân Lai. Turn right, a shady path leads you into the village: this is the northern access. Straight ahead towards the south, you will go through the gateway into Xuân Lai.


95Although the history of the craft seems to have been forgotten, this activity has apparently existed for several generations and probably for at least a hundred and fifty years. Originally crafted for villagers, Xuân Lai furniture is of simple construction, made in just the same way as all the other items of bamboo furniture in the Delta, except for this eye-catching finish in dark colours that gives them their unique look.

96This village is easily identifiable thanks to its large pools of water in front of each house where the still-green bamboo is soaked over a period of several months in order to drown the parasites in it and to render it more flexible. Several companies here are specialised in cleaning, drying, and then scorching the bamboo. It must be cleaned, have the knots removed, be dried and then scorched. Lengths of bamboo ready for use are sold to the village artisans, but also to basketwork villages in Hà Tây Province (Phú Túc and Phú Nghĩa Communes, see Itineraries no7 p. 262 & no8 p. 274).

97The bamboo used here comes from the mountainous regions of Lạng Sõn or Cao Bằng, up on the Chinese border. Where once people only made baskets for rice, beds, benches and tables, they now produce all kinds of furniture imaginable, often of amazingly sophisticated designs, as well as lamps, trays, screens, swings and decorative photo frames. Some craftspeople even produce bamboo pictures depicting Vietnamese legends, following the example of Đông Hồ with its polychrome woodblock prints on paper (see p. 148).

A walk through Xuân Lai

98The village is split into two by a road running about 800 metres ‘north-west/south-east’, from the gateway near the dyke road, to the north, to the narrow concreted road that links up by turning right with the intersection where, on your way in, you saw the two bollards blocking access to larger vehicles. The gentle stroll that we suggest here mostly uses this main road and the three side roads that will enable you to make incursions into the maze of streets that weave among the soaking ponds.

99Once you’ve got to the northern entrance to the village, you will see from the dyke these numerous ponds used to soak the bamboo. As you enter the village, you will see a multitude of ponds and pools of various sizes that give this place a special feel. The craftsmen’s capacity to work is determined by how much space they have, both underwater for soaking and above for drying.

100Once you are on the main street, you cannot miss the numerous signs leading you to specialised workshops making ‘burnt’ bamboo furniture, which convey an impression of fevered activity. Most of the craftspeople work together in co-operatives (Hợp tác xã). However, only two ‘real’ co-operatives, which we suggest you visit, produce on a serious scale.

101Mr. Nguyễn Tiên Dụng’s co-operative can be found on the main street, on the left, not far from the gateway into the village. In his living room, samples of the various kinds of furniture made in the village (tables, benches, shelves, etc.) are displayed and on the walls, there are scraped bamboo etchings, some of them quite naughty! Mr. Dụng buys his bamboo directly from suppliers and treats it himself in the pools behind his showroom. The various parts of a piece of furniture are made by members of the cooperative or subcontractors, then are assembled in the workshop right next to his office.

102For each part of a piece of furniture, a particular kind of bamboo is required:

  • for the armrests of large armchairs, luồng from Thanh Hóa;
  • for chairs’feet, hóp đá from Lào Cai;
  • for chair backs, trúc (hollow) from Cao Bằng, or a bamboo of better quality, tầm vông from Tây Ninh.

103Nearly all the action takes place in the heart of the village, near the soaking ponds. Along the main street, you can visit workshops that etch onto bamboo. They make pictures taken from popular images, landscapes, or Chinese characters. The artisans, mostly women, cut the burnt bamboo up into strips, assemble them, then etch onto them with a sharp tool a drawing that they will then hollow out. These workshops sell much of their work to passing customers for a song.

104When you get to the first real crossroads, turn left. Go past a school, where during our explorations here, a bomb casing dating back to the Indochinese War was hanging from the sacred tree outside, acting as a bell. You will come to the village’s biggest pool where hundreds of bamboo poles are being soaked. It’s a very attractive place, with ‘castles’ of drying bamboo stretching into the distance. If you poke around a little in the labyrinth of blind alleys and pools, you will find:

105• Lengths of bamboo everywhere, at all stages of processing: in ponds, along alleys, on the ground, in courtyards, in houses…

106• The kilns used to produce a nice ‘burnt’ finish. They are made of clay and straw, and the only fuel used is straw. For too long, you have laboured under the misconception that there is no smoke without fire; the kilns of Xuân Lai are about to lift the scales from your eyes… Once the straw is alight, the bamboo is left sealed inside the kiln – for several days if a shiny black bamboo is sought – and lo and behold: when it emerges, it has taken on a dark and singularly smooth lustre.

bamboo stacked to dry after soaking in the lake, xuân lai

a xuân lai furniture maker’s workshop

sealing a bamboo kiln, xuân lai

drilling an edge moulding at a furniture workshop in xuân lai

107To the north of this lake, on your left, there is a delightful nhà thờ họ belonging to the Nguyễn Định family. One pavilion serves as a resting place. When we visited, in the middle of the rice harvest, this place was being used as a drying area by the inhabitants and was open. If you wish to visit it, it is possible to ask for the key from the head of the family lineage, Mr. Nguyễn Định Hậu who lives next door. Inside, a stele tells the history of Nguyễn Quận Công, mandarin during the feudal era. When you leave here, to the right, by the pond, there is a little temple dedicated to the worship of the water spirit.

108Backtrack as far as the road with the school and turn left, then immediately right. Another small miếu, built over a small lake, with a resting place, is accessible by passing over a small bridge. Once again, craft activity and religious observance are closely interwoven: the little lake is full of bamboo being soaked. However, to keep the bamboo underwater, sandbags are placed on top of them, which, it must be admitted, are a blot on the landscape, but do create somewhere for the children of the village to play!

109To visit the other co-operative, that of Mr. Lê Vãn Xuyên, go back to the main road, past the school with its war memorabilia… and turn left. Once again, you will see workshops-cum-boutiques specialised in making and selling bamboo pictures. At the first intersection, on the left, are the village’s đình and pagoda. This small đình indicates the modesty of the village’s affluence: bamboo is not a very lucrative activity.

110Turn left and after 50 metres or so, on the right you will see a sign indicating the way to the co-operative of Mr. Lê Vãn Xuyên. This craftsman has managed to combine efficiency and aesthetical charm in one place: he has preserved his traditional house, tastefully renovated, and built a big workshop at the bottom of his garden, over a filled-in pond. His agreeably cool house is like a small museum of furniture made in Xuân Lai. A very fine bàn thờ in lacquered and gilded wood, framed by parallel sentences made of burnt bamboo, is an excellent example of the very pleasing marriage between bamboo (cheap and plentiful in Vietnam) and wood, a fast-disappearing commodity. In this living space, objects of modern design rub shoulders harmoniously with more traditional pieces of furniture. Bamboo proposes a large range of possibilities, at once technical, aesthetical and practical. In the garden, bonsais and sculptures make this a pleasant place to linger. We hope you are lucky enough to visit the workshop, where an impressive jumble of as yet unassembled chairs and furniture of all sizes is piled high. Behind, three pools have been dug to treat the bamboo: 15 days of total immersion in water with added chemicals here is sufficient to treat bamboo that needs six months in the big village ponds. Each method has its advantages and drawbacks, depending on whether the craftsman has the time and space to dry the bamboo or whether he wants high-quality materials.

111The story of Mr. Xuyên, young entrepreneur in his forties, illustrates the extreme dynamism and the spirit of enterprise demonstrated by these young village artisans who have seized the opportunities offered by economic liberalisation and the government’s incentive policies. To scale up from local production of bamboo ladders and poles to a full-scale co-operative, producing furniture for sale throughout the country and capable of exporting, you need imagination, contacts and a cool head for business, especially in a village like this one, with very limited access and located more than 60 kilometres from Hà Nội!

112Retrace your steps as far as the đình, then turn left again towards the southern exit from the village. On your right, you will see a large well in front of the village’s cultural centre. At the end of the road, turn right and after a kilometre or so, you will find yourself back at the crossroads with those bollards.

Indice delle illustrazioni

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Legenda architecture and geomancy: the sacred role of water
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Legenda money from the bank of the «dead»
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Legenda making votive ingots: a job for the elderly
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Legenda aluminium, yellow copper, red copper…, đại bái
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Legenda piles of aluminium ingot at đại bái
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Legenda sheets of brass being cut prior to beating over a form, đại bái
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Legenda workshop making copper keys, đại bái
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Legenda scrap metal merchant’s yard, đại bái
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Titolo Đại Bái
Legenda Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department
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Legenda aluminium pots, pans and plates, đại bái
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Legenda different types of bamboo and a background of burnt bamboo from xuân lai
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Legenda bamboo stacked to dry after soaking in the lake, xuân lai
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Legenda a xuân lai furniture maker’s workshop
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Legenda sealing a bamboo kiln, xuân lai
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Legenda drilling an edge moulding at a furniture workshop in xuân lai
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