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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

Sylvie Fanchette
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 5. Lacquer, wood & horn (south of Hà Nôi)

Texte intégral

Craft villages
Lacquer: Hạ Thái;
Woodturning: Nhị Khê;
Carving and making items from horn: Thụy Ứng;
Woodcarving: Dý Dụ.
Cultural and architectural heritage
Temple and festival at Nhị Khê;
Đậu Pagoda (Nguyễn Trãi Commune).

1This itinerary, between lacquer and carving wood and other materials, will reveal to you the origins of many beautiful things that feature prominently in Vietnamese life, past and present, as well as elements of a rich heritage, both sacred and profane.



2To get to Hạ Thái, a village much famed for the art of lacquer, you must take National Highway no1A that leaves Hà Nội to the south, running alongside the beginning of the railway line that leads without interruption (on a good day) all the way to Hồ Chí Minh City. You will still be in the suburbs when you will be given the option of turning off towards the motorway, which lies further to the east. Resist this temptation: the motorway does indeed go through Hạ Thái, but without any provision for getting off or stopping, so stay on the old road. At kilometre 17 from Hà Nội, there is a bridge that crosses the Tô Lịch River (today a polluted and partially dried-up quagmire, once the natural access route to these villages). Turn immediately left onto the little road to Hạ Thái. If you see a sign on the right of the National Highway for the village of Nhị Khê, then you’ve already gone past the road for Hạ Thái. (Nhị Khê will be our second village on this itinerary).

3The road to Hạ Thái follows the meanders of the grubby Tô Lịch River, with glimpses of the industrial park on the other bank: here workers produce coca-cola and Singaporean beer to quench the cosmopolitan thirst of the capital. Go past the busy trading village of Phúc Am, which is mainly to your right, on a road at a right angle. Go under the motorway and immediately take the road that heads off to the left. Here you rapidly leave behind these visions of Vietnam industrialising and globalising and soon arrive in Hạ Thái, a picturesque village that seems to have a much more traditional feel (we say “seems to” because since September 2008, a craft park has been built and houses the biggest companies).

4Immediately on the left, you will see the buildings of the Duyên Thái Communal People’s Committee, at the bottom of the new craft park, and on the right, the village proper begins. The village divides into two parts: one on the right of the street, divided into several hamlets, and another, Xóm Phố, situated along the river, to the north of the new craft park. Discovery on foot is strongly recommended from here on: the village is very well kept, with narrow, twisting alleyways. The workshops, which are outside the houses, hide behind garden walls.

5Individual village hamlets were once closed off with gates: symbols of village and ancestral self-sufficiency. On the gate of each xóm (hamlet), there are inscriptions in Chinese characters. These gates bestow a distinctive charm on a village that is gradually being invaded by workshops ever more insatiable for space.


6Some say that lacquer has been used in Hạ Thái for a little over 200 years; others locate its advent even longer ago, while still others claim it arrived more recently. The inhabitants of Duyên Trýờng, in the south of the commune, also work with lacquer. There was a time when the village of Bình Vọng (Thýờng Tín) was very famous in the Delta for its lacquered handicrafts, but for at least 50 years now, the inhabitants of this village have ceased production. What we can say without fear of contradiction is that people have not worked with lacquer for such a long time in Hạ Thái; but that, even today, the village lives relatively well from it – but of late by adopting, let’s say, a flexible loyalty towards the raw material of its traditional craft.

My favourite matter just has to be lacquer…

lacquered vessels ready for a second rubbing down, hạ thái

What is lacquer?

7In a nutshell, it is a sort of natural plastic. In addition to Vietnam, several Asian countries and regions have a long tradition of vegetable lacquer, including China (birthplace of lacquerwork about three millennia ago), Japan (where many experts consider that the art of lacquer reached its peak), the Korean Peninsula, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). There are variants in the trees used and the quality of the lacquer obtained, but Vietnamese lacquer is one of the most prized, both for its relative transparency and its flexible and robust finish.

8In Vietnam, traditional lacquer (the ‘real’ stuff: we will discuss synthetic and industrial lacquers later) is made from the milky sap procured by tapping the lacquer tree, cây sõn (Rhus succedanea), often (but wrongly) confused with the sumac, a Chinese cousin. This tree is mostly found in what are now the provinces of Phú Thọ and Vĩnh Phúc (north of the Delta). Resin is collected in the same way that latex is taken from rubber trees (or the way that sweet sap used to be extracted from sugar maples): incisions are made in the trunks of the trees with containers attached beneath, which must be emptied regularly. The natural resin is then decanted, purified and can be tinted. Lacquer thus obtained (before colours are added) is either black (sõn then), or brown (cánh gián: cockroach’s wing). By-products of purified lacquer are used to waterproof baskets and caulk boats, as well as for preparing mastics, in turn used for smoothing surfaces to be lacquered.

Lacquer what?

9Lacquer adheres to many surfaces, including wood (notably bamboo, even when woven or smoked), rattan, leather, copper, ceramics, stone, palm leaves, papier-mâché, dried earth, teeth (see p. 199) and even human skin…

Lacquer why?

10Lacquer provides a high degree of protection: it creates an airtight, waterproof and attractive skin around an object. This protective layer is at once astonishingly flexible, robust and very resistant to the deleterious effects of water, acids, alkalis and abrasion. It protects organic matter from insects (such as termites, wasps or woodworm), and from moulding or rotting. Wood, the most commonly lacquered surface, resists better when thus treated to humidity and heat without swelling, warping or splitting. In addition, the colours of natural or prepared lacquer only fade very slowly under the influence of light and ageing. A lacquered object, be it matte or shiny, has a pleasant appearance that is hard, smooth and elegant.

Lacquer how?

11With precaution: real traditional lacquer, despite being of purely vegetable origin, is very toxic: it contains a cocktail of phenols, highly irritant chemical compounds. Contact between skin and fresh lacquer can result in dermatitis and serious allergies. These reactions are insidious: they never occur upon initial contact, only after repeated exposure. Asian lacquerers of antiquity treated their terrible allergies with seafood; today, oysters are good, but a better bet is to wear plastic gloves, avoid touching lacquer directly or use less toxic substitutes. We should point out however that, once dry, lacquer poses absolutely no danger: eating with lacquered chopsticks on lacquered plates is a lot less risky than cooking with aluminium saucepans…

12With preparation: lacquer already contains water; in very rare cases, it can be diluted with just more water, but usually, turpentine is added (or a similar substance), making it much easier to use. Coloured lacquers must be mixed before use.

13With patience: lacquer must be applied slowly and carefully, in thin, successive layers. The first step is meticulous preparation of the surfaces of an object to be lacquered, taking care when sanding them down that all bumps are smoothed out, all dents and cracks filled in with mastic (which must be left to dry and then sanded down again). The next stage is a cycle of applying lacquer, waiting for it to dry and more sanding down. This must be repeated at least 10 times or so in order to produce a good finish (and can exceptionally be repeated up to 30 times for a high-quality lacquer). All this can take a very long time (several months) and the drying period is both considerable and variable: a particularity of lacquer, which can appear paradoxical, is that it dries more quickly (by oxidation) in surroundings that are warm and above all, humid. Traditionally, activity among Vietnamese lacquerers peaked in the clammy spring, the ideal period for productivity. It is also possible to leave lacquered objects to dry in closed boxes, surrounded by damp cloths.

14With additions: various colouring products (of mineral or vegetable origin) are added directly to lacquer before applying it, for example: cinnabar vermilion (one way of producing red lacquer, a ‘royal’ colour in Vietnam), yellow arsenic sulphur and blue indigo. Lacquer is also inlaid with eggshells or mother-of-pearl, has gold, silver or tin leaf applied to it at various stages (see also Kiêu Kỵ, Itinerary no2), and decorations can be executed with a fine paintbrush.

Lacquer what, exactly?

15If lacquer was initially the prerogative of the nobility or reserved for religious objects, its use has widened and become popularised with the passing of time. Here are some things that can be found coated with lacquer: Beams, pillars, gates, doors, furniture of all kinds, statues (lots of statues), thrones, altars, palanquins, parallel sentences, side panels, candlesticks, books, coffins, screens, oars, shields, spear shafts, horse bridles, water puppets, rickshaws, boxes, trays, plates, bowls, chopsticks, paintings, jewels, pillows, lampshades, flower vases, chessboards, jam jars, teeth and mummies of monks (see box “the return of the Mummy”, p. 217).

Lacquer and the Fine Arts

lacquered plates and boxes on a drying rack, hạ thái

16Lacquered paintings have been produced for centuries in Vietnam, mostly rural or purely decorative scenes. The use of lacquer for painting received an important boost in the 1920s and 30s through contact with Western art, introduced during the French colonial era with the foundation in Hà Nội of the Fine Arts School of Indochina in 1925. This was in large part thanks to Victor Tardieu, a French artist much enamoured of Vietnam, whose famous fresco, recently restored, still dominates the amphitheatre of what is now the National University (formerly the University of Indochina), 19 Lê Thánh Tông Street in Hà Nội.

17A modern Vietnamese art, expressed in part through the medium of lacquer, saw the light of day. Experimenting technically with superimposed layers of different colours, sanded and reworked, adding gold and silver leaf and inlaying various things, a new aesthetic emerged from lacquerwork.

18The Hà Nội school of lacquer painters was born, including several students from the Fine Arts School who became famous lacquerers. Since its beginnings, artistic lacquer has undergone a remarkable expansion: some Vietnamese painters working with lacquer have sold paintings (as well as work in other media) on the world art market and others have followed, while foreign artists and decorators have started to flock to Vietnam, wishing to learn lacquer techniques.

19Hữu Ngọc (2006), a well-known chronicler of Vietnamese culture, wrote these interesting lines about this artistic movement.

20“Modern Vietnamese lacquer, stemming from a tradition several millennia old and the fruit of several acculturations [particularly Chinese, French and Japanese], could give an example of loyalty to the national cultural identity, a loyalty one might call dynamic and flexible.”

21A way of appreciating the quality of this cultural identity might perhaps be to feel the quiet strength, impervious as lacquer to any moral equivocation or cognitive dissonance, of an ethic of belonging, expressed as a “dynamic and flexible loyalty”.


22Hạ Thái enjoys a great reputation (which goes beyond the Delta and stretches abroad) for the quality of its work and has fruitful and long-term dealings with several other specialised villages, particularly those of woodcarvers and wood turners (see p. 202), those of mother-of-pearl and eggshell inlayers (see Itinerary no6 p. 233) and, of course, with the regions at higher altitude around the Delta where lacquer is tapped from trees and where bamboo and other wood is found. In keeping with the country as a whole, Hạ Thái is changing and getting rapidly richer, to the fully justified satisfaction of its inhabitants. However, things are not quite as they seem…

23Let us explain: synthetic lacquer has moved into Hạ Thái (at least a dozen years ago, in fact) and nearly everything that is lacquered in the village is now done with these new products. The attractive lacquered items (at unbeatable prices) that you have already seen on sale everywhere in Hà Nội (and that doubtless come from Hạ Thái)? They are lacquered with synthetic substances: often nice to look at, but they offer no guarantee whatsoever of quality or durability. If someone offers you much more expensive items, then it is not totally impossible that they are truly lacquered with real local lacquer and according to tradition, but there is nothing to prove they are either (we’ll come back to this in a moment).

24There are several different qualities and therefore prices for synthetic lacquer: the cheapest is sõn diều, then comes sõn diều công nghiệp (twice as expensive) and, finally, sõn nhật (a resin, called “Japanese”, and very similar to the natural resin, but produced industrially, and sold for 10 times the price of the sõn diều). As for real vegetable lacquer, sõn ta, it costs about 300,000 VNĐ a kilo, or 15 times the price of the cheapest form.

25We have already described the waiting, the hard work and the skill required to apply sõn ta; an object that would require six months of work and drying to be lacquered with sõn ta will be ready in six weeks if it is only lacquered with synthetic resin. If time is money and that time is at a premium, an artisan who also markets his or her own wares may well be tempted to take short cuts.

26Traditionally in Hạ Thái, the art of lacquer was in the hands of great experts and talented artisans. With the economic liberalisation of the country, mass production of lacquered products exploded; these days, workers with minimal training add layers of lacquer and sand down items on a production line without much heed for craft or quality.

27Another problem: currently there is no quality-labelling. How can you tell if lacquerware marked as “real” is really real? It’s a little like the stories of silk said to be “100%” (see Itinerary no4 p. 176), save that we don’t have an easy test to suggest to you this time. Enthusiasts say that good lacquer can be spotted with an attentive and experienced eye (for example, synthetic lacquer is more opaque, more homogenous and less shiny than sõn ta), but the immediately obvious differences can be subtle (and sometimes deliberately disguised). Some artisans use different types of resin on the same object, the final layer having the distinction of being with ‘Japanese’ lacquer to make it look real!

28Above all, it is the inexorable test of time that will indicate whether it is real lacquer properly applied – or not. Synthetic lacquer will have a limited life: its colours will fade and it will blister on poorly dried wooden or bamboo objects. We should also mention here that utensils coated with synthetic lacquer are not suitable for use with food: they can expose the user to risks of contamination that do not exist with vegetable lacquer (once fully dried).

29Such a shift to lacquer simulacra throws a spotlight on the thorny paradox of Hạ Thái… This village was once famous for its expertise working with a material used to preserve religious objects and works of art, prepared amid worship and asceticism; a material mixed with gold and silver, that was once used to mummify monks in spiritual ecstasy and to beautify the teeth of girls in the first flower of womanhood… – What then of all this today?

30Although a few scattered master craftsmen and women still insist on working with sõn ta (we will give you some addresses), the vast majority now only use a synthetic substance that no longer preserves the objects thus lacquered, especially when it is applied hurriedly by workers who are often under-trained and poorly-motivated.

31For the moment, those who have taken this route are turning a tidy profit. But the historic reputation of the village is fading, not unlike the lacquer of doubtful quality on many products made essentially for export and the tourist trade. In the medium and long term, without credible guarantees of quality or an organisation of lacquerware producers that can facilitate regulation, this village lacquerware, even if it is cheaper, will soon suffer from comparison with, for example, the equivalent Thai or Japanese products. In these countries, it must be said that synthetic lacquer is very widely used, but in general, there is more regulation, so more care is taken, there is less counterfeiting and standards are higher.

32And if it really wants to find a niche with this curious concept of cut-price ‘disposable lacquer’, Hạ Thái and villages like it will have their work cut out to steal a march on some northern neighbours: Chinese industrialists produce lacquered objects in huge quantities, and of all qualities imaginable…

33One consoling thought, amid these reports of decline in craft industries: in marked contrast with a slump in silk skills, the art of lacquer painting is alive and well, thanks to courses at the School of Fine Arts in Hà Nội (which has always maintained firm links with the lacquerers of Hạ Thái: many artisans have taught lacquerwork at the School, many villagers have studied fine arts there). The survival of the lacquerware craft industry in Hạ Thái will perhaps depend upon the fostering or strengthening of these contacts and upon the development of a system of quality-labelling to guarantee quality.

Lacquer artisans who still use sõn ta (traditional lacquer)

In Hạ Thái:

34Mr. Đỗ Văn Thuận, director of the Mỹ Thái Company, who uses sõn ta for paintings and very occasionally for a special order. He says that these days, only a third of his employees (the oldest ones) know how to work with sõn ta.

35Mme Nguyễn Thị Hồi, former director of the Association of Lacquerwork Producers.

In Hà Nội:

36Mr. Phạm Kim Mã (Kima), producer of lacquered objects for sale in his shop, 11 Thi Sách Street, in the Hai Bà Trýng neighbourhood of Hà Nội. He has taught at the Fine Arts School for 20 years and was the only lacquerer in Vietnam who participated in the UNESCO Seal of Excellence (2004-2006).

“My heart longs for the lass with lacquered teeth…”

37For at least three millennia in Vietnam (and elsewhere in East Asia), many men and women had their teeth irreversibly blackened. This practice was always more common in northern and central Vietnam and among mountain-dwelling ethnic minorities. In 1938, the French researcher Pierre Huard estimated that 80% of peasants in “North-Vietnam” still had “lacquered” teeth. These days, you would be hardpressed to assemble even a small handful of men with a coal-black smile, and almost no women under the age of 65: this ideal of beauty has been reversed within the space of a generation or two.

38Why did people lacquer their teeth?

39• The most simple and subjective reason is that people found it attractive, especially for women (as shown by the above quotation, taken from a popular song).

40• According to popular belief, it preserved teeth from caries (possible, but very questionable, especially given that the natural enamel coating on teeth had to be removed in order to apply lacquer).

41• There are theories associated with the chewing of betel quid, a practice loosely linked to that of lacquering teeth (apart from in Japan): the decolouration of teeth brought about by this gentle stimulant is apparently concealed by lacquering, or alternately lacquering mimics this decolouration, a sign of social prestige.

42• There was a time when it is possible that the Vietnamese lacquered their teeth in order to look different from the Chinese.

43Why don’t people lacquer their teeth any more? Maybe because people don’t find it attractive any more; the sometimes normative influence of globalisation even finds its way into consumers’mouths. The traditionalist image and the irrevocable aspect of lacquered teeth seem to put young people off it. Teeth thus treated require a lot of upkeep: the lacquer must be reapplied and polished every two or three years…

44Contrary to what one might conclude from the large dental diaspora in places such as France or North America, there are plenty of Vietnamese dentists consulting in their own country, and with the steady rise in living standards, dental hygiene is becoming more of a priority. It is now known that some substances used for blackening teeth are toxic and that nothing promotes rude health in teeth and gums better than investment in a decent toothbrush.

45But is it really lacquer? We’re very glad you asked that question. In fact, blackened teeth are not the result of any unique technique: each region, each ethnic group goes about it in its own way with the means at their disposal. However, the principle of applying some kind of varnish onto teeth that have first been stripped of their natural outer layer remains the same.

46A little anecdote (from a forgotten source): During the French colonial era, a Vietnamese military officer is invited to a dinner dance. At the end of the evening, one of his French counterparts, his face flushed, asks him:

47- “Well, old chap? What do you think of our French women?”

48The Vietnamese officer bows slowly, cracks an embarrassed smile and replies:

49- “They are very beautiful… But their teeth are white like those of dogs!”

A stroll between lacquer and places of worship

50Knowing all this, now go for a walk round the various hamlets of the village with your eyes wide open! It remains a truly fascinating place and a hive of craft activity.

51When you enter Hạ Thái hamlet, to the right of the road (see map p. 201), you can explore a street lined with several workshops conducting very varied activities. One artisan has even specialised in lacquered paintings of President Hồ Chí Minh, produced to decorate local authority offices. Next door, Mrs Nguyễn Thị Hồi (no1 on the map) offers a wide variety of objects with various kinds of lacquer and inlaying in her workshop. She is one of the first to have reinstated the practice of inlaying eggshell into lacquer. You can buy such things from her.

52On the left-hand side of the street, two very fine gates in succession lead to a maze of streets that can be fun to explore. Through these gates, you can visit a large number of workshops housing various activities. You will see that the workshops carry out one stage in the production process (making bowls and plates from strips of bamboo, applying lacquer, inlaying mother-of-pearl or eggshell, etc. – but also making things from synthetic resin composite, papier-mâché and plywood), before passing items on to other workshops in the village.

53By taking the alleyway that heads into this part of the village, continuing straight on you will come to the spiritual centre of the village: the đình, on the left, reflected in the waters of a large ornamental pond. On the right is a chapel (or small pagoda) on the water, reached by a little stone bridge and housing a big stele, and in front of you stands the village pagoda.

54This imposing group of historical buildings illustrates the glorious past of this village of many crafts. Listed as a cultural village by the relevant ministry, it is reputed for the morality of its inhabitants (a criterion for being awarded the status of cultural village), its cleanliness and its respect of family planning laws (you will see several signs exhorting people not to have more than two children for the good of the family!).

55The other part of the village particularly worth a visit is Xóm Phố, a very picturesque hamlet to the north of Hạ Thái, down by the Tô Lịch River. To get there (see map p. 201), go back up the village’s access road (near the People’s Committee), go along the side of the craft park and then skirt round it to the left. Several big workshops on the right can be visited – including (no4 on the map). Before you get to the river, an alley heads off to the right and enters Xóm Phố.

56If you have set off walking towards the north by the big alley that divides the first hamlet visited in two and starts from the second gate opposite the pond, when you get to the end, turn left. Just keep going straight on, and you will come out opposite the craft park.

57Xóm Phố contains some very beautiful old houses, nestled deep in a skein of alleyways, including the home of a very well-known craftsman and teacher at the Fine Arts School in Hà Nội, Mr. Đinh Vũ Lịch (no6 on the map), who revived the craft in the 1950s. Craftwork is manual and small-scale in this hamlet: religious objects, such as lacquered wooden incense burners or candlesticks, trays, items of all kinds (no5 on the map). Apart from lacquerware, several elderly people make votive ingots with strips of poor-quality wood that they cover with paper. Hạ Thái was once a village of multiple crafts, and the production of votive objects has been preserved: turning a corner in an alleyway, you may find yourself shoulder to shoulder with a pack of wooden horses decked out in coloured paper.

58Retracing your steps, you can rest in the garden of a very sober temple, some distance from any houses. It looks out over the river, along a new road built to provide access to the craft park.

Hạ Thái

Hạ Thái

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department



59You must take the road signposted to the right, on the other side of National Highway no1A from the road for Hạ Thái and just a little further to the south. The road winds for about a kilometre, but there are no real side roads, apart from the road leading to the village of Văn Xá on the right, lost amid vast expanses of water during the monsoon season. When you get to the last intersection, you turn left: an impressive old gate indicates that you have arrived at Nhị Khê.


60Nhị Khê, (Nhị Khê Commune, Thýờng Tín District), a village that has existed for 800 to 900 years, is specialised in woodturning. For several centuries, the village artisans have produced decorative objects designed for religious uses (perfume burners, incense burners, candlesticks, fruit bowls, pedestals) or for the musical arts (in particular mõ, or temple blocks, a ‘musical’ block of wood, hollowed out and decorated with carvings (see box p. 203).

61But Nhị Khê is also known for another reason: this is village of Nguyễn Trãi, a great man of the 15th century, known nationally for his diplomatic and political exploits, his humanism and his ultimately tragic destiny (see biography p. 204).


62The woodturners of Nhị Khê maintain close links with lacquer villages (such as Hạ Thái) and those of mother-ofpearl inlayers (Bối Khê, Chuôn Trung and Chuôn Ngọ, see Itinerary no6 p. 233). When market liberalisation came, the artisans had to diversify their production beyond traditional objects and mechanise some manufacturing stages (for example, pedal lathes have disappeared in favour of electric ones). The artisans make curtains and car seat covers from wooden beads, balusters, blinds, vases, stone chess sets and little statues.

63Production is mainly family-based and individual. Each workshop makes only one type of item owing to the specialisation of machines. In this commune, the woodturners make up 50% of village artisans and rice wine distillers another 20%. There are about 200 households working for a state enterprise that makes soldering irons.

64There are five villages in Nhị Khê Commune, of which two are specialised in working with wood, ivory and bone. The village along the National Highway, Trýợng Ðình, produces bánh dày, a rice cake filled with meat or a sweet paste.

65During the collectivist era, Nhị Khê artisans made grenade handles for the Ministry of Defence and vases that were then lacquered in other villages. When the co-operatives closed, they continued to produce trays, candlesticks and lamp-stands that were then lacquered in Duyên Thái. Today, only a few households still produce these religious objects.

66There are artisans making bracelets and other jewellery, working with bone and ivory, shaping precious stones, stone bowls or pieces for chess sets on the lathe and some even work with plastics. Artisans imitate Chinese products and try to adapt to the market.

Sacred and profane xylophony

mõ, or temple blocks, carved from jackfruit wood, nhị khê

67The is a temple block (‘a non-tuned wooden percussion instrument’) usually of small size but variable, partially hollowed out and carved, often in the form of a real animal (frog, fish) or a mythical one (dragon). By striking it with a beater, the musician produces a rich (and woody) sound that resonates quite astonishingly.

68The origins of the are lost in the mist over the paddy fields: probably for as long as there has been a domesticated water buffalo, he has had a couple of tied around his neck, acting as cowbells whenever they knocked together. Before announcing news and events, town criers of old banged on a in order to attract the attention of passers-by. are still played today during Buddhist funerary rites, various festivals and religious ceremonies, water puppet shows and performances of chèo (popular sung theatre).

69The best are made of wood cut from the heart of a jackfruit tree that grows high in dense mountain jungle. Before being carved, the wood is dried in an oven. Then the artisan begins to shape it, regularly checking the development of the sound that the piece of wood produces.

70A craftsman in Nhị Khê, Mr. Dýõng Công Bôn, is a specialist in mõ-making, maintaining a family tradition several generations old. He has already produced in the shape of fish, 1.6 metres long and 30 centimetres high! A fellow artisan, Mr. Nguyễn Bảo, who introduces himself as a descendent of Nguyễn Trãi (and why not), makes of various sizes in his courtyard.

71In Hà Nội, Tố Tịch Street (formerly Reed Mat Street, then latterly inhabited by woodturners from Nhị Khê), not far from the northern end of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, is famed for musical instruments in general and sells many things made back in the village.

72An address: 13 Tố Tịch Street (in Hà Nội, remember), the home of Mrs. Dýõng Thị Nghinh, who left Nhị Khê 60 years ago. She sells mõ rồng (dragon-shaped), accompanied by a cute little cushion as a base, covered with colourful Chines material.


73Nguyễn Trãi (1380-1442) was a great diplomat, strategist and man of letters. He helped the chief of a popular uprising, Lê Lợi (later made king and the founder of a new dynasty), to organise resistance against the Chinese invaders of the Ming Dynasty.

74A fierce war of independence, which broke out in 1417, dragged on for at least a decade. After the invasion and conquest of the north of Vietnam in 1406, the Chinese pursued a relentless policy of systematic sinisation, forcibly removing the intellectual elite (and even the pick of skilled artisans) to Beijing, destroying Vietnamese cultural heritage and preparing for a big military push towards the south. Vietnamese historians present this conflict in the early 15th century as a turning point, when the destiny of the nation – and indeed the whole region – was in the balance. (Meanwhile, in Europe at almost exactly the same time (1415), England’s King Henry V led a small, bedraggled band of archers and men-at-arms against the massed French forces at Agincourt…)

75Nguyễn Trãi was one of the undisputed heroes of this successful campaign of resistance. He became a very close adviser to Lê Lợi and was the uprising’s propagandist. In a series of letters to the Chinese commanders, he sought subtly to undermine their determination and negotiate an advantageous peace agreement.

76In his writings, Nguyễn Trãi demonstrates great humanity, often showing concern for the sufferings of enemy soldiers and sympathy for civilians on the opposing side. He summed up his strategy as giving priority to the political and moral struggle, itself a source of the collective and unshakeable conviction necessary to triumph through military action, should it become inevitable – even against an adversary vastly superior in numbers and weaponry. His war cry: “It is better to conquer hearts than to conquer citadels.”

  • 1 This statement was made in 1965 by the American Air Force General (and unsuccessful Vice-President (...)

77The comparison with another armed struggle, when a global superpower threatened to “bomb the Vietnamese back into the Stone Age”1 has not escaped the attention of the Vietnamese, who continue to revere Nguyễn Trãi as a patriot and a scholar.

78It was Nguyễn Trãi again who drew up the peace terms signed with the generals of the Ming Dynasty, who thereby saw deep cracks appear in their expansionist projects to the south. His victory proclamation is still considered a seminal text. Having successfully canvassed for peace, the diplomat and military strategist became Lê Lợi’s Minister of the Interior in his new royal court. However, upon the death of the warrior king, court intrigue deprived Nguyễn Trãi of any further position of power. He retired to the country (a house on Mount Côn Sõn) to devote himself to a life of meditation and literary composition (he was also renowned as a poet).

79Alas, his final days were far from peaceful. The young king, Lê Thái Tông (Lê Lợi’s son), after an extended visit to his father’s old friend, fell suddenly ill and died a few days later.

80Probably the victims of a conspiracy, Nguyễn Trãi and Nguyễn Thị Lộ were accused of regicide by the nobles at Court. They were tortured and executed, along with all their families, to the third generation, in accordance with the thorough custom of the time. 20 years later, the great King Lê Thánh Tông, son of Lê Thái Tông, washed Nguyễn Trãi’s escutcheon clean of any blame for his father’s death.

81Nguyễn Trãi is worshipped at an annual festival (on the 16th day of the 8th lunar month) at a temple, đền, in Nhị Khê dedicated to him. Among other interesting exhibits, the visitor can admire a portrait of the great man painted on silk, for which he is said to have posed in person. In 1980, UNESCO organised celebrations for the 600th anniversary of his birth.

A walk through Nhị Khê

82Located just far enough from the madding crowd, Nhị Khê is a delightfully calm place to visit. Cars are forbidden and motorbike traffic is slight. Once you have gone through the entrance gate, a cemented street enters the village. On both sides, you will hear the ‘soft’ sound of saws, sanders and planes of all kinds coming from small workshops in courtyards. These workshops make a wide variety of objects: handles for knives, hammers and… sickles, wooden beads for car seat covers, items for ancestor worship (pots, incense burners, trays). Even the sawdust is sifted for resale to incense producers (probably the ones in Quảng Phú Cầu, Itinerary no7). Within the enclosure of an old house on the right, once you’ve gone through the porch, you come out into an ancient courtyard, thronged with artisans chopping, sawing, or sanding. The family history is inscribed on a stele dating from 1936.

83To the left of the street, a shop sells original sculptures from several villages in the area. Then a bigger shop on the right displays very beautiful items belonging to Mr. Nguyễn Bảo. You can watch being made in his yard and even purchase one, if you ask nicely.

84A little farther on, on the left-hand side, in a small garden, stands the statue of the village’s most famous son: Nguyễn Trãi (see p. 204 about his life with details of the temple that is dedicated to him). There are other well-known writers that came from here, including Dýõng Bá Cung (early 19th century) and Lýõng Vãn Can (early 20th). In fact, Nhị Khê is nicknamed “the writers’circle”.

85Opposite the statue, an old house has been renovated. Then you shouldn’t miss Nguyễn Trãi’s temple, which gives onto a pretty half-moon pond. It can be visited, and the paved courtyard is quite delightful.

86The market for everyday goods keeps many traders-cum-artisans busy: while awaiting customers, they cut up wood. The craft insinuates itself into every corner of this village: tree trunks, sawdust or bead off-cuts are stored on the side of the road: the workshops are too cramped. Once the market is behind you, turn left: a large gate marks the beginning of another hamlet. At festival time, a big sign here welcomes visitors.

87On the right, a very sober đình receives the many festival-goers who come to worship Doàn Tài, the patron saint of woodturners. A big annual festival takes place around the temple in his honour on the 25th day of the 10th lunar month, celebrated as the anniversary of his death, according to legend, in his hundredth year. On the left, there is a temple for the worship of said ancestor where highly codified rites take place, involving offerings and prayers. An amusing detail: Doàn Tài was actually a native of Khánh Vân, the village opposite, on the other side of what’s left of Tô Lịch River, the once-sacred waterway… Doàn Tài, who clearly preferred the folks opposite to his immediate neighbours, turned his wood in the 17th-18th centuries, during the Lê Dynasty. If you get as far as Khánh Vân Pagoda, you can see a statue of the patron saint with the tools of his trade, all carved from a bluish stone.

88Continuing down the street, a gate on the left opens onto an alley humming with workshops: this is where you’ll see the most mechanised craftwork. Meanwhile, you might try to find the home-cum-workshop of Mrs Trần Thị Tiên and Mr. Dýõng Công Hải. This couple live in a big, tastefully renovated traditional house, embellished with fine furniture inlaid with mother-ofpearl (see Itinerary no6). They produce wooden and stone items, including frogs and turtles for making music, stone chess sets, mirrors and all kinds of little wooden and stone statuettes.

trowel handles, made in nhị khê

transporting left-over wood from bead-making, nhị khê



89To get to the village of Thụy Ứng (Hòa Bình Commune, Thýờng Tín District), you have to make a detour of several kilometres, because the dyke road is not passable. If you follow our directions to within 100 metres of accuracy (reset your trip counter!), you won’t get lost. Leave Nhị Khê and turn left (leaving the road that leads to the highway by which you came) and after some 600 metres, cross the bridge over the Tô Lịch River. Go straight for about 500 metres until the Ðâm market crossroads. Then go left on a road at right angles and follow it for 800 metres through paddy fields. At the first crossroads, go left on the road at right angles that also crosses paddy fields. After 400 metres, it bears off slightly to the right. After another 900 metres, you come into the village of Ðỗ Hà through the market. Cross the Tô Lịch River again. Turn immediately right, then left. Then 800 metres through paddy fields and bingo, you’ve arrived in the famous horn-carving village.


90The inhabitants of Thụy Ứng have made items out of horn (combs, various sculptures, etc.) for more than four centuries. With the competition from things made of plastic, particularly for combs, the artisans (95% of village households) have diversified their production towards more artistic and decorative items, mainly exported to Japan and Europe.


91What you should know straight away about combs is that there are two kinds in Vietnam. Firstly lýợc bí, fine combs made of bamboo, used to get rid of dandruff and nits (and simply to clean hair during times before or without shampoo) and secondly lýợc thýa, combs with big teeth made of horn, tortoiseshell or wood, for general use in brushing hair.

92Converting horn into a comb (or into other things) takes time and know-how. Once the horn has been separated from its buffalo, it must be treated, in particular by drying it over a fire. The horn must then be flattened and cut up, before being shaped. Some artisans only complete these preparatory steps and sell the horn on to others who only shape it.

93In Thụy Ứng, in addition to combs of all sizes, artisans make bowls, beakers, spoons (salad spoons, teaspoons and so on), knives and forks, little dolphins, ducks, belt buckles, handbags and wooden devices for giving massages. Many objects are also decorated with mother-of-pearl. With the advent of plastic items of all shapes and colours, it was necessary to diversify, carve out market niches and concentrate on exporting good-quality craft products. As the artisans have machines for sanding, cutting and chopping, they can as easily work with horn as with wood. Nhị Khê is not far away and the woodturning craft has spread to neighbouring villages. There is also diversification into poorquality items, such as simple chopsticks for serving food.


94As usual, we recommend that you walk around as much as possible, in search of real live craft activity (doors are rarely closed) and items for sale at very modest prices.

95When you enter Thụy Ứng after that rally through the rice paddies, nothing particularly special is visible from the road. In fact, you have to find the right alley to get inside this village. Still keeping an eye on your vehicle’s trip counter, calculate about 400 metres. On the left, you will see a very beautiful house that gives onto a large pond. Skirt round this house to the left. You’ll be on course if you can see a handsome đình on the right-hand side of the street, sadly disfigured by commercial excrescences. This building is also worth visiting.

96Once you have gone round the beautiful house, take the road to the left that after 100 metres or so will lead you to a big pond with a pretty little one-pillar pagoda by it, which serves as a place of worship for villagers. On the right of this alley, you will have the opportunity to visit several workshops working with horn, cutting and shaping it to make a host of items. As some workshops are specialised in preparing only horn, some courtyards are piled high with the stuff, which is rather strange, it must be said. A gentle fragrance of aniseed floats over the village. It is possible to buy items and, while you’re there, to visit workshops that are all installed in courtyards of houses. When you get to the end of the lake, turn right. There is a temple to the left: this is where the craft ancestor is worshipped. A festival in his honour is held on the 12th day of the 8th lunar month. Somewhat strangely, it would seem that inhabitants have forgotten the name of this ancestor.

different kinds of horn at thụy Ứng

97After this, you can take the first alley on the left and follow the maze of streets. You can find many workshops, not always visible from the road as they lurk behind walls. If you were planning to make an eclectic collection of horn combs, now’s your chance. The extremely reasonable prices (10-20,000 VNĐ) make it all very worthwhile.



98To get to Dý Dụ (Thanh Thùy Commune, Thanh Oai District), the final craft village on this itinerary, leave Thụy Ứng by the road heading south (you came in from the north), which joins the little road that links Dý Dụ to National Highway no1A. At the junction, turn right and continue for 2.2 kilometres towards the bank of the Nhụê River.


99As you enter the village, on the left you can see several shops-cum-workshops specialised in making smiling potbellied Buddhas, phoenixes taking to the wing, scowling spirits, austere Chinese saints and a few fat little pigs. These workshops were only set up recently.

100Go into the village by taking the first alley to the left, in order to admire the beauty of this village full of old houses, with inscriptions in Chinese letters, ensconced in a labyrinth of little alleys lined with bricks. The calm here is only broken by the sound of chisels chipping away at wood.


101Traditionally, Dý Dụ is specialised in objects carved in wood, horn and ivory for religious rituals, especially Buddhas and the four sacred animals (dragons, eagles, lions and turtles). Since the 1960s, artisans have assimilated techniques from Japanese and Taiwanese sculpture.

102A wood market is held in the village three or four times a month, depending on the needs of artisans. Different qualities of wood are used for different orders. Pó mu and xà cừ are medium-quality woods both from Vietnam; they are used mostly for the domestic market, for making puppets or lacquered statues. For the international market, carvers tend to use wood imported from Laos such as trác or bát xanh.

103Artisans say that each statue, each Buddha, each carved saint has its own history (see box entitled “Divine idols, p. 213”). There is a repertoire of the Buddha types that artisans habitually produce. The one carrying a bag is a symbol of wealth; it’s a very popular model these days. Clients come from China, Korea or Taiwan. Some, such as the Koreans, travel to the village to monitor progress with their orders: eagerly awaited wealth is a serious matter. Others let middlemen do this work.

104People in Dý Dụ say that long ago, many artisans left for Huế to carve pagoda Buddhas (probably during the period when the king requisitioned the most talented artisans for his own needs). Some stayed down there and created another woodcarving village, called Làng Túc (the former name for Dý Dụ). In Dý Dụ today, there are only about 10 artisan-sculptors left, specialised in Buddhas, statues of saints and various assortments of other statues (water puppets, pigs, mythical animals and the 12 animals of the lunar calendar). The others have abandoned this craft in favour of making mats and car seat covers with wooden beads (as people do in Nhị Khê).

105The market for religious sculpture, in spite of its Asian dimension (China, Taiwan…), is not very profitable and targets a limited clientele: a Buddha 60 cm high, made of good-quality wood like trác (mahogany imported from Laos), sells for about 1.6 to 3 million VNÐ. These same statues are resold for double, even triple the price in Hà Nội shops. Shopkeepers make a relatively easy extra profit at the expense of the sculptors.

106Workshops that make wooden mats (to put on beds) and wooden bead car seat covers have a growing market: you only have to observe the new middle class who now drive on four wheels around the capital and enjoy a much more leisurely life than not so long ago. There is a steady demand and poor-quality wood can be found within Vietnam, so there is no difficulty in finding supplies. Another motive for switching activities: woodcarving requires techniques that few artisans possess. Anybody can assemble identical wooden mats.

sanding down the figure of a legendary hero, dý dụ

woodcarvers making statues at dý dụ

Divine idols

107An important part of Vietnam’s religious heritage is composed of statues to be worshipped, important elements in religious rites, especially Buddhist and syncretic ones (worship of the Holy Mother, etc.). These statues are the fruit of collaboration between woodcarvers and lacquerers (no need to remind you of the symbiotic proximity of Dý Dụ, Nhị Khê and Hạ Thái, among other villages concerned).

108The traveller in Asia is probably already familiar with the close links between followers of various religious affiliations (Buddhists, Hindus, etc.) and the sacred statues erected in their temples. These effigies are often washed or even bathed, clothed in fine robes, carefully restored (this is called tô týợng in Vietnam), and are at the centre of other special rites. They are ritually touched, have gold and silver leaf stuck all over them, are brought large quantities of offerings (money, fruit – even beer and cigarettes in Vietnam), receive personal messages and are addressed directly by people imploring their intervention in various aspects of human life.

109At first sight, Vietnamese statues appear to be quite simply made, without much detail or individualisation (save for some notable exceptions: see examples at the Bút Tháp Pagoda, Itinerary no3 p. 146), but the close observer will notice subtle differences and even quite distinct personalities among certain carved figures. In the gentle half-light of a pagoda or temple, a statue gently assumes the patina of centuries and takes on an air of mystery, as if a soul had quietly entered into it…

110Traditionally, artisans considered it a great honour and a sacred task to carve these objects destined for worship. They prepared carefully with asceticism, following a strictly vegetarian diet and praying to Buddha for several days before commencing work. Once statues were carved and lacquered, ceremonies were organised to invite gods to enter the statues and to assume their shape.


111It is very easy to visit the woodcarvers’ workshops, and understandably the possibility of selling a buffalo-shaped water puppet, a pig with a corkscrew tail or one Buddha or another renders the artisans most welcoming.

112At the corner of the road and the first alley on the left is the workshop of Mr. Nguyễn Vãn Huy, a young water puppet maker who used to work for the famous Water Puppets Theatre in Hà Nội. He has been back in his village for a decade. He continues to do business with his former employers, who order puppets from him: buffaloes, princesses, dancers, etc. that he creates in large numbers. He has seven or eight people working for him that he trained or who were already specialised in woodcarving. Together they make mythical Chinese characters, potbellied or austere Buddhas, various sacred and mythical animals – and even unicorns with horns made of horn!

113There is a very pretty little đình at Dý Dụ, giving onto the Nhụê River overgrown with water hyacinths. It is to the west of the village on the right-hand side of the road. It’s a good place to rest and watch the water hyacinths floating in the breeze.

114On the 4th day of the 5th lunar month, a festival is held here in honour of Lỗ Ban, the craft ancestor. At the back of the đình, there is a statue of him in a separate room, hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated. If you wish to make an offering to the statue (a few thousand VNĐ will suffice), you must give it to the đình’s guard who, dressed in sacred robes (he also hides the bottom part of his face), will make the offering on your behalf. You will probably hear the bell ring out and there will be a few moments of prayer and contemplation – perhaps even a surreptitious shot of rýợu (rice wine) –, then you’ll see the guard reappear… There is also a little miếu near the đình where the guardian spirit of the village is worshipped.

the rich architectural heritage of dý dụ


115The last important stop on this itinerary, 24 kilometres from Hà Nội, is Chùa Ðậu (Ðậu Pagoda, Nguyễn Trãi Commune, Thýờng Tín District). From Dý Dụ, you have to take the little road to the east towards National Highway no1A, going past the road that goes back up towards Thụy Ứng, and about 1,500 metres (or a mile) further on, turn right and follow this road (which after a kilometre runs along the Nhụê River) towards the south and then to the bitter end, in the hamlet of Gia Phúc.

116This pagoda, (its official name is Thành Ðạo, and it has several other popular monikers), probably one of the oldest in the country, was build on the riverside, according to popular legend, by a Chinese governor, Sĩ Nhiếp, in or around the 3rd century. (It must be said however that this version is contested by a stele that dates the construction of the pagoda at the time of the Lý kings, in the 11th-12th centuries). It is dedicated to Pháp Vũ, a rain goddess. It was an historic centre for Zen Buddhism (thiền) in Vietnam, imported from China and widespread in the Delta as early as the 10th century.

117We should remind you that alone among Southeast Asian countries, under Chinese influence, Vietnam clambered aboard the “Big Vehicle” of Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen constitutes an important school. (Be this as it may, any Buddhism in Vietnam today is greatly diluted in a syncretism of all-embracing religious doctrines: these include ancestor worship, guardian spirits and historical heroes, Confucianism, Taoism, Catholicism…) The beauty of this site charmed King Lê Thánh Tông (17th century), who gave it the title of first “picturesque site of the country of Annam” (this was before the Ministry of Tourism’s time). Originally, this pagoda was reserved exclusively for kings (and the odd lord) and was only open to the common people for three short days a year, during the annual festival.

118Among the pagoda’s treasures is a bronze book (only ten pages or so, but all of them made of bronze!) that dates from the earliest era of the pagoda, that of Sĩ Nhiếp. This precious book tells the story of the pagoda’s construction and the introduction of Buddhism into Vietnam, between the 1st and 2nd centuries. (These facts and dates are all disputable and are indeed all disputed, but this simply imparts a rich polyphony and, at times, the appearance of a fluid storytelling tradition, to history in general – and to Vietnamese history in particular).

119Access from the riverside is through a fine portico composed of three gates: above the middle one is a two-storey bell tower, eight metres high and topped with two four-way roofs each sheltering a bell cast in 1801. It is flanked on either side by a simple gate. This bell tower gives onto a courtyard from which rises a giant banyan tree with an enormous trunk, which will afford you some welcome shade in hot weather.

120The pagoda’s sanctuary is made up of three juxtaposed rooms: the Hall of Ceremonies (Tiền Ðýờng) where the faithful gather, the Chamber of Perfume Burners (Thiêu Hýõng) and the Upper Sanctuary (Thýợng Ðiện) where the statues of the Buddhist pantheon are kept.

121The walkways on either side of the Hall of Ceremonies house statues of arhats or arahants (la hán), ‘saints’ who have laid down the burden of terrestrial life and who are “free from all the fermentations of defilement”, according to followers; you’ll certainly have to admit that they look very Zen… On a lower plane much closer to earthly existence, there are also five stone stelae, one of which is inscribed with the number of paddy fields belonging to the pagoda.

122The Chamber of Perfume Burners (Thiêu Hýõng) is in the middle of the courtyard. Inside, you can see two bronze statues: a Buddha standing on a lotus flower and Pháp Vũ, the rain goddess, who is seated.

123The House of the Patriarchs (Nhà Tổ) is set aside for the worship of monks who have lived in the Pagoda. On the altars, they are represented by statues. Among these, you can see the star turns of Đậu Pagoda: the lacquered mummies (or are they only copies of the lacquered mummies?) of two monks from the 17th century, called Ðạo Chân (real name: Vũ Khắc Minh) and his nephew Ðạo Tâm (Vũ Khắc Trýờng): see box p. 217.

The Return of the Mummy

124Mummifying the bodies of monks who have died while meditating is a rare occurrence in Vietnam, but not unique (see Itinerary no1 p. 88). However, this very particular method of making statues (týợng tãng) remains shrouded in mystery.

125These two monks led irreproachably ascetic lives, which earned the uncle (Vũ Khắc Minh) the rather unflattering nickname of “the cabbage monk”: he followed a strictly vegetarian diet. He was also known as “the burning monk”, an allusion to an extreme technique of seated meditation, where the worshipper attempts to master a mysterious corporeal energy that will make his own body burn from the inside outwards. By passing away in this manner, a monk manages to maintain a pose of religious ecstasy after death, his corpse releasing only a gentle, pleasant odour without rotting away (toàn thân xá lợi).

Tomorrow, I’ll burn the top…

126The story of these two monks who apparently mummified themselves goes like this:

127“One day, they informed their disciples of their intention to retire to a chapel to pray and meditate and they asked not to be disturbed for 100 days. After this time, and if no more prayers could be heard coming from inside the chapel, the disciples could reopen the doors. The monks shut themselves up and entered into a meditative trance”. (Another version of the story suggests that the nephew only imitated his uncle’s actions after the older monk’s death)”.

128“100 days came and went and the disciples, hearing no more prayers, opened the chapel and found the monks lifeless, sitting in the lotus position, but their bodies had not decayed. The years passed and their clothes rotted away, but the remains of the monks dried up without giving off the slightest unpleasant odour. Their disciples then decided to lacquer them red and gold, in order to dress, honour and preserve them”.

129In 1983, scientists took these two creepily lifelike statues to Hà Nội to study them with the help of scanners and X-rays. Firstly, the presence of human skeletons inside the statues was confirmed. The skulls were intact: proof that the brains had not been removed prior to embalming, if any embalming had taken place. To turn a corpse into a mummy, it is normally necessary to carry out several procedures that leave indelible marks on the body; but the statues showed absolutely no signs of these procedures. From a scientific perspective, the mystery of this transformation remains intact.

Next century, I’ll take off the bottom bandages…

130According to their followers, the monks had arrived at the ultimate level of meditation, employing the tắm muối, this inner fire that consumes alive the entrails of those who reach this state of spiritual ecstasy and who no longer have any use for their merely mortal shell. These mummies, now almost four centuries old, are at last beginning to disintegrate, puzzling scientists who have tried to determine the causes of this in order to find a way of preserving and restoring them. Again according to Buddhist beliefs, it is only the monks themselves who can decide for how long they remain mummified, so who knows, maybe this time is coming to an end…

Notes de fin

1 This statement was made in 1965 by the American Air Force General (and unsuccessful Vice-Presidential candidate), Curtis E. LeMay.

Table des illustrations

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Légende lacquered vessels ready for a second rubbing down, hạ thái
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Légende lacquered plates and boxes on a drying rack, hạ thái
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Titre Hạ Thái
Légende Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department
Fichier image/jpeg, 314k
Légende mõ, or temple blocks, carved from jackfruit wood, nhị khê
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Légende trowel handles, made in nhị khê
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Légende transporting left-over wood from bead-making, nhị khê
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Légende different kinds of horn at thụy Ứng
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Légende sanding down the figure of a legendary hero, dý dụ
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Légende woodcarvers making statues at dý dụ
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Légende the rich architectural heritage of dý dụ
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Légende stupa
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