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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

Sylvie Fanchette
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 6. Embroidery and inlaying (south Hà Tây)

Texte intégral

Cultural and architectural heritage
Đại Lộ Temple, Chử Đồng Tử Temple;
The đình at Tự Nhiên;
The temple and festival at Quất Ðộng.
Craft villages
Embroidery: Quất Động;
Mother-of-pearl inlaying: Thôn Trung, Thôn Thýợng, Thôn Ngọ and Bối Khê (Chuyên Mỹ Commune).


1Before discovering the craft industries on this itinerary, we begin with the temples. The first, Ðền Ðại Lộ, (in the village of Ðại Lộ, Ninh Sở Commune, Thýờng Tín District) is dedicated to the worship of the Holy Mothers, in order to protect boats and traders on the Red River.


2The route is initially the same as for Hạ Thái (Itinerary no5 p. 193), but once you have gone under the motorway bridge, continue straight on (in fact, it’s a tight little right-left) eastwards. You follow a narrow, tarmac road for about two kilometres to the village of Bằng Sở. Once through this village, go left and then immediately right. You come out opposite the dyke. You must get onto the dyke road by a track that goes up to the left. Go left along the dyke and over two kilometres from this vantage point, you can admire the area outside the dyke and in the distance, to the right, the Red River. On the left, the villages are tightly gathered behind the dyke that shields them from flooding.

3After these two kilometres, a sign on the right indicates the Temple (Đền Đại Lộ) in the area outside the dyke. Come down off the dyke and follow a track to the left for about 200 metres; another sign announces Đền Đại Lộ. (To avoid possible confusions, be aware that you can also find a pagoda and another temple in the village of Đại Lộ…).


4Đại Lộ Temple was built at the end of the Trần Dynasty (1280 is a popular date) and has been restored many times, including in 1925, then in 2003, thanks to the contributions of villagers. It is well preserved and has retained its original architecture. It also contains many original items (statues, bells, decorations, etc.).

5According to legend, during the occupation of the Song Kingdom by the Mongols, the royal family committed suicide by throwing themselves into the sea (no doubt to avoid a fate worse than death); only the bodies of four women, carried by the current towards southern shores, were returned by the waves. They were given the name “Holy Mothers” and a temple was erected and devoted to worshipping them because, it was believed, they protected trading boats. They are worshipped in other temples dedicated to them on the banks of the Red River. Other goddesses associated with traditional local beliefs are also worshipped at Ðại Lộ Temple, such as Lady Liễu Hành.

6The temple of the Holy Mothers has close ties with the Red River and is located close to it: Vietnamese and foreign tourists go there regularly by boat. There are tours on the river that go to the potters’village of Bát Tràng (see Itinerary no2) before stopping at several ‘river’ pagodas.


7The numerous offerings made here are eclectic, symptomatic of changes in mentality and above all of the youth of many supplicants. You will notice mountains of Coca Cola Light on trays, piles of pot noodle soups, and of course, from more traditional temple-goers: plucked and basted chickens, fruit, confectionery, bottles of Ðà Lạt wine (the Beaujolais Nouveau of the Central Highlands), etc. All this is brightened by large paper votive objects, such as red, yellow and green horses, or mandarins perched solemnly on their thrones.

8The temple is much frequented by Vietnamese of all origins, because it has the reputation of actually granting many of the wishes that are made there… Merchants come here to do good business, students to pass their exams. You see many young women in tight jeans and high heels who, once they have parked their fashionable scooters, slightly dusty after the trip down from Hà Nội, lose themselves in the spiritual fervour of the place.

9You will probably see monks at the temple, but they are in fact thầy cúng, animist priests of a sort (different from pagoda monks). They make special prayers for the faithful, who pay them for this service. The village has its own thầy cúng, but worshippers can choose to bring their own. This is a very Taoist place.

10The thầy cúng accompany their prayers by beating on (temple blocks, or ‘musical’ blocks of wood carved into shapes of dragons, fish or frogs: see box entitled “Sacred and profane xylophony…” in Itinerary no5 p. 203). These make a rather monotonous and intoxicating “glock… glock…” sound, no doubt designed to soothe the souls of ancestors.

11Many đình, pagodas and temples were destroyed during the war of independence against the French or during the “cultural revolution”, the new communist regime waging its own war against religions, dubbed “pollutions of the spirit”. Đền Đại Lộ survived relatively intact, even during the American War, when the village was badly damaged by bombs. During the war period, then the collectivist era, religious monuments were not much frequented. The đền was used as administrative offices and boats plying up and down the Red River were repaired here. It is only since Đổi Mới that people have reinvested these places.

12A big festival is held at the temple over a 10-day period from the 1st to the 10th day of the 2nd lunar month (with a peak in activity on the 4th and 5th days). This festival is also a chance to witness a very interesting ritual: lên ðồng séances, when a medium becomes possessed by spirits (see box about lên ðồng p. 221). Thousands of people converge from all over the country on the festival and pilgrims’motorbikes and cars back up as far as the dyke. There is usually a big ceremony at the temple about once a month.


13This little temple, near the village of Tự Nhiên, (in the commune of the same name, Thýờng Tín District), dedicated to the worship of a famous local couple (see box entitled “Kind hearts…” p. 223), is listed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as is Tự Nhiên’s đình (see p. 222) and Đa Hòa Temple (in the village of Đa Hòa), just opposite on the other bank of the Red River, where the same couple are also worshipped.


14When you leave Đại Lộ Temple, retrace your steps. Take the dyke towards the south and go past the village of Bằng Sở that you came through before going up onto the dyke on your way out. Follow the dyke road for about four kilometres. The dyke follows the meander in the Red River and you can see the river far off to the left. A sign points to the Hồng Văn jetty 200 metres distant to the left, which provides access by ferry to Đa Hòa Temple opposite, on the river’s left bank, dedicated as we said to the same couple of guardian spirits (but that temple does not feature in this itinerary).

15At the place where there are white bollards to limit access to cars on this narrow dyke road, and a few metres after the intersection from where the road to the right leads to the administrative sub-centre of Thýờng Tín District, turn left to get off the dyke, then immediately left again. A few metres further on, the road turns sharply to the right. Go through the village of Tự Nhiên. The road then makes another sharp turn left, running alongside sandbanks.

16A few tens of metres further on, you arrive at the đền. From one season to another, the landscape is very different: during the monsoon, the sand is under water and the Red River licks away at its banks. In the dry season, the sand is all exposed. People grow maize here at this time. In September, there is an expanse of sand in front of the đền. Tourist boats coming from Bát Tràng (see Itinerary no2 p. 110) stop there.

17The place is remarkably peaceful and little frequented (it’s especially the main Đa Hòa Temple on the other bank that receives visitors). This temple is quite small and has bonsais everywhere. In the well-maintained little garden, many very original statues allude to the story of princess Tiên Dung. The temple overlooks the edge of the river (giving a very fine view of it), but it has already been flooded when the river is in spate (as in 2002). It is very restful here after the effervescence of Đại Lộ Temple. Mr. Đãng Quang Thự, delegated by the Ministry of Culture, guards the temple and lives there. Pilgrims worship the spirit couple here to obtain luck, happiness, success: in their own couple or elsewhere. Most of the time, this temple is only visited by people from the village or the province. However, at festival time, a host of worshippers beat a path here from all over the north of Vietnam. Later, they take the ferry to Đa Hòa Temple opposite (which holds its festival at the same time).

Lên ðồng: the medium is the message

18Lên ðồng is a very ancient form of pre-Buddhist shamanism peculiar to Vietnam, linked to the worship of the Mother Goddesses. Like all religious and superstitious practices, this activity was not well regarded during the post-revolutionary era, but since Đổi Mới, a growing tolerance, associated with social upheavals that foster soul-searching and uncertainties, have spawned a spectacular revival of these practices.

19Lên ðồng means: climbing onto the medium. It is the spirits that ‘do the climbing’, taking complete control of the medium’s words and actions. This possession of the medium’s body enables the living to communicate with those who have already departed for the Empire of the Shadows.

20These ceremonies, usually quite discreet, take place irregularly and the mediums are mostly women, even though star lên ðồng mediums are often male, for the occasion of major ceremonies or pilgrimages to remote temples.

21The action begins with the medium entering into a trance, accompanied by special music and songs (in theory, a trained ear can even recognise the identity of the spirit possessing the medium from the melody), played by musicians called cung văn. The medium is also helped by assistants, known as hầu dâng (often young men), who prepare and dress the medium with various clothes, headdresses and other accessories (offering, for example, lighted cigarettes to male spirits).

22Next, the faithful put questions to the entranced medium. They ask the spirit about the future, request news of their loved ones in the afterlife and seek remedies for illnesses. The medium ‘receives’ several spirits in turn, with different characters and contrasting behaviour. Employing ritual gestures, the medium bestows a special value to offerings brought by the faithful for the dead, and once symbolically ‘consumed’, these offerings are redistributed among onlookers, according to a pre-established hierarchy of the faithful.

23If you are lucky enough to witness a lên ðồng séance, don’t pass up the chance: associated with extremely ancient indigenous rituals (it is suspected that there were once rites of human sacrifice of mediums possessed by evil spirits), it is a unique experience, both joyous and musical. The French ethnologist Maurice Durand (1959) called lên ðồng a bowdlerised throwback to a primitive shamanism, but this ceremony clearly fulfils a social function – and we can attest personally to the charm and welcoming atmosphere of these occasions.

statues inside a pagoda

24The festival takes place on the 10th and the 13th days of the 1st lunar month, and even if most of the festivities take place at Đa Hòa over on the left bank, the most interesting ritual is also celebrated symmetrically from here on the right bank. During the morning of the 10th day, a procession, accompanied by dragon dancers, leaves the temple for the edge of the river. They carry with them a large jar to be filled with river water, which will be used to “wash princess Tiên Dung” (see box entitled “Kind hearts…” p. 223) for the coming year.

25Everybody – including the dragons – hops aboard little rowing boats and they go out to the middle of the river where a circle is made round the boat carrying the jar, while the village elders fill it. This is in itself a feat of navigation on a river much feared for its fast-flowing waters and its treacherous currents. The jar full of water is brought back in triumph to the temple. In fact, this water will be used at the temple all year long, and these ceremonies echo water rituals practised for millennia by farmers whose survival depends on its continued presence, in manageable quantities.

26At the temple, various popular entertainments follow, including cockfighting, traditional wrestling, unicorn and fairy dances, and an interesting custom called múa bồng (dance with a kind of small drum) or more exactly con đĩ đánh bồng (“brazen strumpets banging on bongos”). It consists of one or two pairs of men, dolled up to the nines, wearing strapon breasts and revealing evening gowns, who execute a dance that can be astonishingly elegant…


27Another site linked to worship of the couple – and of a third saint – can be found in the village of Tự Nhiên: it’s the đình, where the statues of the guardian spirits are housed, the couple and another person. When the couple ascended to the firmament, there was a village girl, Tây Sa by name, who happened to be nearby (well, so went the story husband Chử Ðồng Tử told his wife Tiên Dung) and this young person went up with them. It was clearly her fate as well! She is nonetheless considered Tử’s second wife, for whom a fallen princess apparently did not suffice. This third spirit is also worshipped at Đa Hòa, in the main temple just over the river, demonstrating that even among immortals, the notion of the couple is complex and fluid, and can give rise to this kind of ménage Đa Hòa.

28Three billion VNĐ were spent on the construction of a cement road, solely to link the temple at the edge of the river to the đình, which is further inland. To get to the đình, you must take this road perpendicular to the river. Go straight up, cross over a small, tarmac road and continue straight on along the purpose-built cement road. Go through the market and after a first left, you can see the đình in the distance.

29Inside the đình are three statues completely covered with coloured material, three big gilded palanquins and an altar. In fact, the đình is made up of two buildings, because there were once two villages in the commune that each had a đình. The villages are now merged into one single administrative structure. The statues and the palanquins are in the left-hand building. In front of the two đình, you can admire a large garden with well-tended ponds. In front of the right-hand building, some stelae recount the lives of village benefactors.

30During the festival, which is held on the 1st day of the 4th lunar month (but only one year in four), the spirits’statues in the đình are uncovered and carried on palanquins by young village people, first to the little temple Chử Đồng Tử at the water’s edge and then, in a reconstruction of the legend of the fisherman and the princess, to the alluvial plain, where the statues are surrounded with curtains and bathed in river water, along with much joy and hilarity. This ceremony exists since at least the 18th century and a host of people come to visit this site and bring offerings.

Kind hearts and coronets (and nothing else)

31Once upon a time, there lived a fisherman and his son, Chử Ðồng Tử. The time in question was near the end of the semi-mythical dynasty of Hùng kings (there are supposed to have been 18 of them, who all lived and died before BC became AD, and according to our calculations, they must each have reigned – on average – for 146 years). Chử Đồng Tử and his father lived in the village of Chủ Xá, on the left bank of the Red River. These poor river folk only had a single loincloth between the two of them, which they took it in turns to wear when taking fish to market. On his deathbed (if he had one), the father begged his son to keep the tattered sarong, but the latter, a boy of great filial piety, made of this versatile garment a winding-sheet for his deceased genitor. From that day forth, Chử Đồng Tử remained until dusk half immersed in the river’s waters to clothe his nakedness, trading his catch with passing boats. He only emerged, cloaked in darkness, to rest for the night among the reeds.

32One fine day, while he was fishing, he noticed a flotilla of richly appointed boats coming down the Red River with music drifting over the water. He fled to the shore and dug himself into the sand. It was the flotilla of Princess Tiên Dung, daughter of the king (King Hùng Výõng XVIII, according to the annals). The young woman, charmed by this stretch of the river, gave the order to moor her boat so that she might refresh herself.

33Her ladies-in-waiting put up a kind of open-air shower stall on the shore and brought her some water. The princess disrobed and, humming gently to herself, began to bathe. But the water from her intimate ablutions, washing away the sand at her feet, exposed Chử Đồng Tử, who had burrowed his way down like an eel into a mudflat. The surprise of the virginal princess was equalled only by the embarrassment of the young nudist fisherman. Fearing for his life, he begged her to pardon him and blurted out his sad little story. Touched by his tale, Tiên Dung replied: “I had sworn never to marry, but our meeting shows that such was not the will of the Gods and it is therefore our duty to obey”. The king, her father, learning of his untimely acquisition of a fishy commoner as a son-in-law, became angry and refused to see his daughter ever again. The newly-weds resigned themselves to a life in this remote backwater.

34Under a woman’s galvanising influence at last and wishing to keep his wife in a manner a little closer to the one to which she was accustomed, Chử Đồng Tử began to travel and do business. However, somewhere on a mountain path, he met the young monk Phật Quang (Buddha’s Light), who proceeded to teach him Buddhist doctrine. A year later, the monk presented his disciple with a conical hat and a pilgrim’s stick. Back by the Red River with his wife, Chử Đồng Tử in turn informed her of Buddha’s teachings. Together they set off, in search of the Way.

35Returning one evening towards their home and overtaken by nightfall, they camped on the Tự Nhiên alluvial plain (right next to the future site of the little temple that would be dedicated to them). Before going to sleep, Chử Ðồng Tử planted the monk’s stick into the sand and put the hat on top of it. When they woke, the couple found themselves surrounded by a whole town, filled with buildings and people, which had miraculously materialised during the night (another version of the story describes them surrounded by an emerald and jade palace, full of servants and soldiers). Rapidly informed of these extraordinary events and fearing an uprising, the king sent an army against his daughter and son-in-law. Almost immediately, a holy storm broke out, sweeping the town/palace, inhabitants, fisherman and princess up into the heavens, leaving behind only a swamp, now called the One-Night Swamp. Chử Ðồng Tử and Tiên Dung are still worshipped at several places in the region, on both sides of the river, according to one version or another of this legend.



36Leaving the đình, turn left towards the south. A road on the right enables you to get back up onto the dyke road by which you came. Turn right onto the dyke, then immediately left, due west, towards National Highway no1A. Go through the village of Vĩnh Lộc in Thý Phú Commune and after six kilometres, you come to the administrative centre of Thýờng Tín District.

37When you get to National Highway no1A, turn left. After about three kilometres, at km 21 (a milestone tells you the distance from Hà Nội), there is a sign (not very visible, it must be said) on the left-hand side of the road announcing Quất Ðộng. Take this narrow road on the left for 500 metres into an attractive little village of about 2,000 inhabitants, where close to 100% of households are involved in embroidery.


38When you enter this discreet community, empty of the piles of raw materials that clog up public space in so many other craft villages, you could for a moment wonder whether you have come to the right place. Only skeins of thread for embroidery, freshly dyed and left out to dry along the highway (opposite the village of Nguyễn Bi) indicate to the visitor that there is craft activity going on nearby.

39It is by strolling through the streets, looking (respectfully) through windows and doors and by exploring among the back alleys that you will find many people busily engaged indoors with embroidery. There is a feeling of the European Middle Ages about such a community of slow, manual and collective work that imparts a very special and agreeably calming atmosphere to this village.


40There are indeed more than 20 villages grouped around the parent one that have embroidered or made lace for more than a century. The main reason for this is that the village workforce is underemployed with agricultural tasks. As in many communities in Hà Tây Province, which is a very densely populated region (and as in many craft villages), the villagers of Quất Ðộng own very little cultivatable land, on average 1.3 sào per farmer. The average in the Delta is five times as much. To put this into perspective, a sào represents 360m2 in the north of Vietnam (but 500m2 in the south!), a surface area that can produce approximately 180kg of rice a year.

41Like bamboo weaving for example (see Itinerary no8), embroidery is on the whole a poorly-paid activity for artisans with little training who simply fulfil orders (mostly for export) put out to contract by big businesses (some businesses employ more than a hundred contract workers in Quất Động). These artisans essentially sell their labour, but they do not require specialised or costly machinery, can easily alternate this activity with odd farming jobs and greatly contribute to the quality of life of their households (40% of village income).

42Let us return to the history of Vietnamese embroidery… Initially, embroidery was used in very precise circumstances: “Embroidery, far from being a decorative art, fulfilled a social function (to honour a superior or a divinity) or illustrated a religious and philosophical idea. Its inspiration was therefore essentially ritual and ceremonial. Apart from parallel sentences of which there existed printed anthologies, the emblematic figures most often reproduced were mythical animals (dragons, unicorns, turtles and phoenixes); the five ‘happinesses’ (wealth, longevity, health, tranquillity, a good death, represented by five bats flying in close formation); the eight precious objects: the two coupled flutes, the guitar and the khánh (polyphonic wind instrument), symbolise music; the flower basket symbolises youth, the blossoming of nature and the visible pleasures; the fan, feminine beauty and temperate grace; the book, science and wisdom; writing tablets, literature; the calabash, abundance.” (P. Huard and M. Durand, 1954).

A stitch in plenty of time

43The man worshipped in Quất Động as the craft ancestor is Lê Công Hành (not his real name, which was perhaps Bùi Quốc Khái, Trần Quốc Khái – or Bùi Công Hành), a mandarin for one of the kings of the Lê Dynasty, during the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries (the story itself is more important than the details: an observation that could be extended to Vietnamese historiography in general). Sent to China as an emissary, towards the centre of regional power and oriental culture, our hero soon found himself put to the test by individuals at the Imperial Court who looked down on these ambassadors from countries at the fringes of the Middle Empire.

44As soon as he arrived at Court, Lê Công Hành was invited to climb by a ladder up to an isolated pavilion several metres from the ground. The ladder was then removed, making him a prisoner. He found himself in a single room, furnished with a statue of Buddha, flanked by two lọng (large, sacred parasols, richly embroidered) and, in a corner, a jar filled with water. There was also an inscription embroidered with Chinese characters that read: “Buddha is in your heart”. What was to be done? How to escape, or survive in this place without sustenance? Lê Công Hành thought about it at length, passing the time by learning the secrets of embroidery, undoing and redoing the threads decorating the objects that surrounded him in his elevated prison. Finally, he found the answer. The inscription also meant: “Buddha is in your belly”. Examining the statue more closely, he realised that it was made of rice flour. By mixing it with water, Lê Công Hành obtained an unprepossessing but life-saving gruel that enabled him to assuage his hunger.

45As the edible Buddha waned, so waxed his knowledge of Chinese embroidery. However, nothing in this world being permanent (according to the teachings of the Enlightened One himself), there was no other choice but to try to escape from this prison, once stores of powdered rice were exhausted. One evening, the astute emissary, observing the flight of bats, devised a plan. While the air still rose towards the sky from the ground, warmed all day long by the sun, he threw himself from the door of the pavilion, fancying himself as a proto-Mary Poppins, holding a parasol in each hand in order to break his fall. With both legs instantly shattered, all that was left for him to do was return to his native village, and embroider there by the window until he finished up a stitch short of a row.

46Another version of the story (far less realist but much more popular) recounts that miraculously, he successfully floated down from the pavilion, demonstrating a technique worthy of a seasoned parachutist and, barely limping, was acclaimed by the Chinese Royal Court for his exploits. He lacked no more for Chinese buffets (or imperial rolls) until his return to Vietnam.

47Lê Công Hành taught embroidery and parasol making to people in his village. Later, he was made a “medium category spirit” by royal patent, a slightly strange title, but meaning that he is worshipped everywhere where groups of embroiderers originally from Quất Động live and work. During the craft ancestor’s festival (see p. 229), worshippers avoid presenting offerings made of green soy beans or sticky maize: still according to legend, this wily mandarin secreted about his person seeds of these vegetables still unknown in Vietnam in order to smuggle them home from China (probably in his plaster casts).

Stitched up?

48A coda in a minor key however to this pretty tale of diplomatic doings: there are several indications that embroidery may have been practised in Vietnam well before the time of Lê Công Hành. For example, the Vietnamese royal annals note that in the 12th century, during the Lý Dynasty, Vietnam sent in tribute to the Chinese Imperial Court 850 pieces of silk brocade, richly embroidered with dragons…

a quất Động woman embroidering at the window

A description of embroidery, late 19th century

49“The master craftsman is responsible for receiving orders, arranging the drawings and combining the colours. The cloth is stretched over a bamboo frame. The patterns are drawn onto a sheet of fine, soft Chinese paper. This sheet is placed on the cloth and held into place by tacking it down. The master then divides the work up according to the skills of each worker, giving information about the colours and the appropriate working methods for each drawing. The workers sit round the frame and begin their task. They embroider on the paper covering the cloth so that their hands do not directly touch the material […]. Having finished the embroidery, they carefully remove any scraps of paper that are not trapped between cloth and thread.”

50(Hocquard, C. H. 1999)

51Embroidery was therefore only used to decorate pagodas, temples (and tuồng theatre), along with the clothes of the royal family, nobles and mandarins. The techniques were simple and only five colours of thread were used: red, yellow (golden), blue, green and mauve. Then, over time, embroidered items became seen as artistic objects and were marketed as such.


52A book of geography, written by local boy, great diplomat, strategist and man of letters, Nguyễn Trãi (see p. 204 in Itinerary no5), tells us that in the 15th century, shops selling parasols and various embroidered items, mostly produced in Quất Ðộng and in other villages of Hà Tây Province, were well-established in the neighbourhoods of Tãng Kiếm and Ðýờng Nhân (where Chinese traders lived), in Thãng Long citadel (now better known as Hà Nội).

53It should moreover be noted here that the dynamics of this craft have for a long time been driven by the links that Quất Ðộng maintained with the guilds of embroiderers in the 36 streets of Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, particularly in Hàng Trống Street. At the beginning of the 19th century, the northern part of this road was called Hàng Thêu (Embroiderers’Street), since people from the village lived there. There are still shops there that sell articles made in Quất Ðộng. It is also these links with the capital that have enabled artisans to survive major economic upheavals (for example, finding markets after the closure of the co-operatives).

54In the 19th century, embroidered articles were exported to China and became one of the merchandises marketed by the artisans of Quất Động and the 20 or so villages in the cluster. During imperial times, the village’s embroiderers mostly made religious items for pagodas such as banners, parasols, altar curtains and parallel sentences. During the period of French colonisation, embroiderers worked on household linen for the French with very fine silk thread mixed with French threads. Sometimes, artisans were asked to embroider golden thread onto white cloth imported from France.

55To satisfy their own needs and to profit from market outlets, the French introduced new tools, new raw materials and techniques suited to the embroidery of sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths and various textiles. It was a period of reciprocal acculturation, since exchanges took place between traditional local techniques and those of Western lacemaking. Fresh subject matter was also introduced: old stories, imitating traditional woodblock engravings and popular imagery from Đông Hồ (see Itinerary no3 p. 148), landscapes and portraits.

56The years 1975-1989 are considered to have been the golden age of embroidery in Quất Động: a co-operative was created in the village to export a multitude of very diverse items to Eastern Europe (handkerchiefs, towels, tablecloths, sheets, pictures depicting landscapes or animals). Embroidery classes were given to villagers by the best embroiderers and the craft spread to neighbouring villages within the context of the co-operatives. However, the modest skills acquired by many apprentice embroiderers trained up rapidly (three months of guidance are not enough to train a worker) resulted in a slump in quality. This market then collapsed with the dismantling of the Soviet bloc.

57Quất Động had to diversify its production to articles such as flags (also made at previous times), modern clothes (embroidered jeans for girls are still very fashionable!), handkerchiefs, bags, soft cases for mobile phones, etc. All require the accomplishment of various stages: cutting, stitching and embroidering. This form of production must be regularly reorganised and new markets be sought (mostly in East Asian and Western European countries).

58Quất Động has a familial production process: all the members of the extended family are mobilised, from the oldest to the youngest. Children go to school in the morning and during the afternoon, they help their parents with embroidery at home. Youngsters often complete the easiest parts of pictures, namely backgrounds of a single colour, learning the trade as they go from their elders.


59As usual, it is now a little up to you to explore the village as the fancy takes you. This is really not difficult in Quất Động, where many people will probably welcome you with open arms, even though, it must be said, this is often in the hope of selling you a few embroidered items.

60It is a small village (about 700 metres north-south), very calm with several traditional houses, so not yet invaded too much by ‘modernity’ and its matchbox houses. Architectural heritage here is fairly limited, proof of the modest incomes of the inhabitants. There is no đình in the village, but well worth visiting is the very charming temple where the craft ancestor is worshipped (see box entitled “A stitch in plenty of time”, p. 225). All you have to do, when you enter the village, is to take the only cemented alley to the right. After about 250 metres on the right, you will see a courtyard, a temple and a pond, in keeping with the customary trinity.

61You can also visit the founder’s mausoleum. It is at the opposite (northern) end of the village from the temple: retrace your steps. Just after the temple, on the left, there is a large well, covered with plants, which once served to wet the collective village whistle. It is no longer used. Go past the intersection on the left that gives access to the highway, and continue for about 80 metres. On the left, you will find the mausoleum that looks out over a pretty pool. A festival in honour of the craft ancestor is held in the village on the 12th day of the 6th lunar month.

embroidery in the home of a quất động artisan

Needle time: an old embroiderer still looks sharp

62The official master-craftsman of embroidery in Quất Động is called Mr. Phạm Viết Định. Born in 1932 into a large family of embroiderers who claim to retrace their lineage in an unbroken thread all the way back to Lê Công Hành (the legendary embroidering ancestor), he survived turbulent times tilling the land in Nghệ An during the American War. He then returned to Quất Ðộng and began to work as an embroidery quality advisor and inspector during the collectivist period. Having become famous for his art, Mr. Định has completed several ambitious projects, including recently the magnificent illustrations for a children’s book, called “Ten Mice for Tet!”, published in the United States (where it has won several awards): http://www. chroniclebooks. com/

63Today, Mr. Định personifies Quất Động’s living craft memory. Although ‘retired’ since 1990, he lives and still embroiders with all his family in a very beautiful old house that is to the east of the village. At his house, you can be sure of buying good-quality embroidery.

64When you enter Quất Động, go past the first intersection, and continue straight on. Go past ten houses or so and take the first real alleyway to the left, then the second to the right. Go to the end of the alley. If you get lost, show his name to a villager who will guide you.

65«Phạm Viết Định has spent more than 30 years of his life in the craft. He has concentrated on embroidered portraits for the last ten years or so. His house is filled with pictures of landscapes, like Hạ Long Bay, the One-Pillar Pagoda, the covered bridge in Hôi An, etc. In 1996, he embroidered a portrait of Hồ Chí Minh, which he considers his masterpiece. He and his brother Phạm Viết Khân are trying to make a series of traditional popular imagery from the village of Đông Hồ. ‘As I’ m old, I cannot do farm work’, says craftsman Phạm Viết Định. ‘I don’ t want to be useless, though. Embroidery suits me. The most difficult thing to do is to embroider portraits. They require not only time, patience and precision, but also dexterity and a knowledge of the harmony and disposition of coloured threads. A single poorly executed stitch may distort the features of a portrait, causing whole days of work to be wasted. The embroiderer must always be attentive, especially when creating the shape of the face’.» (Le Courrier du Vietnam, 28th February 2002)

In stitches

66Mr. Thái Đức Duy (village of Nguyễn Bi). This experienced craftsman embroiders many portraits. In 1999, working in the workshop of another artisan, he did most of the work on a large picture of President Hồ Chí Minh that made the owner of this workshop famous.

67Mr. Duy has also made a noted portrait of Saddam Hussein. This portrait measured 1.2 metres by 1.8 metres (sold for US $ 6,500) and cost more that one million VNĐ in silk thread. It took M. Duy two months of stitching with 17 trusted workers, who worked in shifts in order to finish the job before the deadline fixed by the customer.

68The craft industry is more visible in Thắng Lợi Commune, south of Quất Động (beyond Nguyễn Bi), more recently admitted into the circle of embroidery initiates: the most dynamic artisans here are well-established and have set up shops along the highway. They accost visitors, entreating them to step inside and admire the needlework wonders on display. However, the villages of Thắng Lợi Commune are more specialised in landscapes and do not possess all the embroidery techniques of the master-craftswomen and men of Quất Động, the birthplace of the activity, according to Mr. Phạm Viết Định (see box about artisans: “Needle time…” p. 231). The two communes compete fiercely for custom.

69As we have already pointed out, embroidery is an activity practised in parallel with farming. However, by its very nature, farming has to come first: sowing before sewing, if you like. Therefore, should you wish to visit the embroiderers’villages, don’t go during the rice harvest or the planting season that follows (June and October): at these times, if people embroider, they only do it in the evening. (There has only been electricity in Quất Động for about 10 years: before then, when the shadows lengthened, artisans bent over their work to the dim glow of paraffin lamps).

70Finally, embroiderers only work to fulfil orders, often from abroad, or placed by local textile entrepreneurs, such as those in Vạn Phúc (see Itinerary no4). Artisans are much affected by the unpredictable weather of the economic climate and sometimes, for lack of orders, embroiderers are ‘unemployed’. So don’t imagine Quất Động and neighbouring villages are in a permanent state of feverish activity.

71Nevertheless, there are some great master craftsmen and women in these villages, who are capable of reproducing all sorts of models and who specialise in high-quality and sophisticated work, with orders from rich clients (mostly Japanese: photos to be copied, kimonos to be decorated…) and for sums of several million VNĐ. Embroidery is a fragile craft, with little chance of survival in the long term, giving it, to our thinking, an added and rather poignant grace.



72Go back to the highway. Go left towards the south. You follow the Hà Nội – Hồ Chí Minh City railway for 14 kilometres. Go through the administrative centre of Phú Xuyên District until km 35. Before the signpost marking the end of the town, another signpost on your right announces “Chuyên Mỹ, village of Khảm Trai”. Turn right and cross the railway line.

73The road winds through several villages for about five kilometres; you must cross two small bridges over canals. Then you come to the village of Đại Nghiệp on the Nhụe River, an important waterway along which lies Chuyên Mỹ Commune with its specialised villages. The bridge is recent (2006) and now allows artisans to get wood across without loading and unloading all the time.

74Chuyên Mỹ Commune contains a string of seven villages specialised for several centuries in preparing and inlaying mother-of-pearl in lacquered wood (furniture, decorative objects, pictures) and (since much more recently) in ‘inlaying’ eggshells in lacquer. Of the seven villages in this cluster, we suggest that you only visit three or four of them (even if it looks like there are many more on the following list):

75• Chuôn Ngọ, called Thôn Ngọ on the map and sometimes also called Ngọ Hạ, since Thôn Ngọ and Thôn Hạ – another village in the commune – were once grouped together. You might also bump into old-timers who call this village Chuyên Nghiêp or even Chuôn, but, let us remind ourselves, it is usually called Chuôn Ngọ…

76• Chuôn Trung, called Thôn Trung on the map.

77• Thôn Thýợng: mainly specialised in processing shells.

78• Bối Khê, called – amazingly – Bối Khê by everybody.


79Chuôn Ngọ (well, Ngọ Hạ at the time) is said to be the cradle of the mother-of-pearl inlaying craft, from where it spread slowly into the neighbouring villages of the commune. The one who popped the baby into this cradle, that would be Trýõng Công Thành, worshipped as the village’s guardian spirit. The village elders say that during the time he was a monk, Mr. Trýõng Công Thành travelled far and wide. He learnt the art of inlaying mother-of-pearl on these voyages (but not in China this time, it would seem), then taught it to his descendants and to the villagers to help them improve their lot in life. A temple in the village is dedicated to him, also named as craft ancestor. Chuôn Ngọ being located on the Sông Nhụê, one may be permitted to think (and people certainly do think so in the village) that in the craft’s early days, inlaying was done with shells straight from this local source. However, owing to the very laborious nature of the work, this activity did not develop rapidly. Later, during the reign of King Lê Hiển Tông (1740-1786), a craftsman named Nguyễn Kim, originally from Thanh Hóa Province, sought refuge in Chuyên Mỹ during troubled times (the Tây Sõn revolt). Also a mother-of-pearl inlayer, he taught his secrets to the villagers. He is considered a craft post-ancestor.

80Then, half-way through the 19th century, some of the commune’s mother-of-pearl inlayers migrated to Hà Nội – specifically to Cửu Lâu, a former constituent village of Hà Nội, which bordered on the southern end of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Cửu Lâu had a đình, long since disappeared, where Nguyễn Kim was honoured as the patron of inlayers. Cửu Lâu in part became Hàng Khay Street. Khay means ‘tray’, but by extension (inlaid trays were one of the most sought-after objects thus decorated), the road was known as that of inlayers. During the French colonial era, a section of Hàng Khay was destroyed and replaced by the Haussmannian Paul Bert Street, where the inlayers unfortunately failed to make it stick, so to speak. This same boulevard is known today as the Hanoian Fifth Avenue: Tràng Tiền, which shines and sparkles between the Hà Nội Opera House and Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

81The artisans of Chuôn Ngọ (Ngọ Hạ) once produced objects for the royal court in Huế to adorn temples and pagodas. They made parallel sentences and horizontal panels, religious objects, wardrobes, beds, water pipes for smoking tobacco, lacquered dishes for betel-chewing, inlaid with mother-of-pearl drawings showing traditional images of Chinese inspiration. Under colonisation, they made many things (usually more soberly inlaid) for the French.

82Then came the collectivist period, with the search for fresh markets and the creation of several co-operatives in the commune, some of which merged, others splitting into separate sections over the years. It was at this time that some artisans began to work for villagers in Đồng Kỵ (see Itinerary no1 and box on the Đồng Kỵ Connection, p. 238), who supplied them with wood and ordered work from them.

83When the socialist co-operatives stopped working at the beginning of the 1980s, artisans began to work for themselves. Only the Ngọ Hạ Co-operative (see section “A walk…” p. 239) has maintained production, becoming a ‘private’ co-operative, even if the province gives it a certain amount of support. After the decline of co-operatives, there were only a few families left in the commune’s three villages that practised the craft. Access to raw materials – shells with mother-of-pearl in them – and to a ‘luxury’ market was difficult in this period of economic transition, once the Eastern European markets were lost. In order to redress the situation, incentive policies were introduced: training for local labour dispensed by the best artisans in the village of Ngọ, access to lines of credit, etc.). These initiatives, combined with liberalisation of markets, got this activity going again between 1993 and 1996.


84The division of labour between villages was once very marked. With the still recent liberalisation of markets, workshops try to oversee the whole process of production and have more capital to invest in raw materials. However, there is still a certain specialisation of villages (within individual villages, some families are very specialised): • Thôn Ngọ: is the hub of the craft. Specialised in making high-quality furniture and in inlaying with mother-of-pearl.

85Thôn Trung: is a Christian village with a church, which has practised the craft for a long time. This village’s artisans also make objects for religious use: crucifixes incrusted with mother-of-pearl, Christian-style altars to the ancestors, heavily decorated with mother-of-pearl. They also make big pieces of furniture (wardrobes, mirrored wardrobes inlaid with mother-of-pearl) and small wooden objects.

86Thôn Thýợng: is mainly specialised in processing shells, preparing and selling mother-of-pearl, but not inlaying. There are about ten workshops processing mother-of-pearl. Some artisans offer their services to process shells and prepare mother-of-pearl in the workshops of other inlaying artisans. Most artisans in this village don’t know how to inlay. This craft has existed for several generations in the village, but it has developed enormously since halfway through the 1990s. It is interesting to see technically and to observe the division of labour, and you can buy buttons and all kinds of pieces of mother-of-pearl…

87Bối Khê: a little apart from the inlaying villages along the river, has a different history. The lacquerers here were once itinerant ones, who went to restore and lacquer objets d’art, religious furniture and pagoda sculptures. The women worked at home and lacquered items there. Recently, a certain number of artisans have started to ‘inlay’ eggshells onto lacquered objects.


88First, the shells must be flattened (they arrive in big bags that smell like the dustbins outside a seafood restaurant) by putting them into a vice, after having immersed them in water. Sometimes, the mother-of-pearl breaks. Workers cut up the shells into pieces and separate the flat parts from the sides, then polish them. Over a period of 24 hours, the polished pieces are fined down in a vice submerged in water, tightening it by one turn every 15 minutes.

89Next, the traditional method is to stick pieces of mother-of-pearl onto a model drawn on paper of the design to be carried out and to cut them to size with a tiny saw, followed by a file. The fragments of mother-of-pearl thus shaped are placed on the wooden surface to be decorated and their outline is carved with a pointed tool. Then, with a chisel and a mallet, a piece of wood is hollowed out of exactly the same shape and volume as the piece of mother-of-pearl that will replace it. If the hole made in the wood is too big for the mother-of-pearl, it must be filled in with mastic made of lacquer and wood shavings, but the inlayer’s art consists precisely in avoiding recourse to this remedial measure, which significantly diminishes the quality (and of course the value) of the inlaid item.

90As in many craft villages, skills and trade secrets are actively protected: if a woman from the commune marries elsewhere, she cannot continue to practice her craft, because the Chuyên Mỹ mother-of-pearl traders will refuse to supply her – and she may even have her electricity cut off in her new village if she persists in inlaying!

91In the workshops, the work is divided between artisans and workers, each carrying out a part of the task: cutting wood, polishing, cutting up the mother-of-pearl, inlaying, polishing, lacquering. Artisans have to contend with large fluctuations in the mother-of-pearl supply. The job of cutting up and filing down the small pieces to be inlaid occupies a large workforce. Workshops have become specialised in this activity and sell pre-cut pieces. Some of these are sold at the mother-of-pearl market in Đồng Kỵ (see Itinerary no1 p. 74) or at the village shops in Thôn Thýợng. Small pieces of low-quality Vietnamese mother-of-pearl, ready for use, sell for 60,000 VNĐ a kilo.


92• Good-quality wooden furniture (wardrobes, tables, Chinese-style beds), heavily encrusted with inlaid details. These items generate a lot of profit, but have high production costs.

93• Religious objects made of wood (for example, bàn thờ, or shrines to the ancestors), on which are inlaid illustrations from legends, with mountains, trees, mythical animals, etc. Mother-of-pearl boxes and sword sheaths, and parallel sentences or horizontal panels inlaid with letters in nôm (the old Vietnamese writing system).

94• Since Đổi Mới, artisans have begun to make small wooden objects inlaid with mother-of-pearl for export and for the tourist trade (boxes, ashtrays, card cases, jewellery cases or toothpick holders). These objects are usually of mediocre quality and earn small amounts of money, but require less investment that furniture. Some artisans have also specialised in making buttons, beads for necklaces, and decorative objects made of mother-of-pearl, such as boats and pictures resold to tourists in seaside resorts.

95• Large mother-of-pearl pictures: these are prestigious items for a new class of wealthy domestic customers.


96If the local source of river shells has dried up, artisans have found several new ones, of variable qualities and costs:

97• Big, heavy, spiral shells from Singapore, which cost US $ 200 apiece. They have a very striking iridescence. According to the angle of viewing and the light, the mother-of-pearl designs change colours. However, this mother-of-pearl is only used for the most expensive items of furniture, or at least for part of the designs.

98• Flat shells from Taiwan, which cost 30,000 VNĐ each and are less iridescent.

99• Flat shells from Vietnam or China, which cost between 5,000 and 10,000 VNĐ each.

100To buy mother-of-pearl, depending on the origin, artisans use middlemen (Indonesia, Singapore, Japan) or club together to rent a 20-tonne truck and go and buy it themselves (at the Chinese border in Lạng Sõn for low-quality Chinese shells). Traders from the commune have set themselves up, especially in the south of the country, to devote themselves to importing mother-of-pearl (from Singapore or Indonesia). They also take care of exporting finished products.


101Bối Khê is specialised in lacquer and ‘inlaying’ eggshells into lacquered items. Artisans work in several different ways: either they go to Ðồng Kỵ (see Itinerary no1), to Nhị Khê, the village of wood turners (see Itinerary no5), or to Hà Nội to lacquer furniture, or people bring them smaller pieces to be lacquered at home. In fact, there is only a vague link with the real (mother-of-pearl) inlaying in the other villages of the commune. During the collectivist era, there were two co-operatives in this village. The first made mother-of-pearl items and worked with Mrs. Vui (see section entitled “A walk through Chuyên Mỹ” p. 239), the other produced lacquerware. This was how the villagers started inlaying.

102Workshops work to order for export, decoration of hotels and the tourist trade. They ‘inlay’ eggshells into lacquer. They seek to diversify production: lacquering with eggshells on bamboo or wooden objects, on Malayan agglomerated cardboard, on plastic and ceramics: artisans have links with ceramists in Bát Tràng (see Itinerary no2) from whom they order items. Thanks to these innovations, you can find some strange objects on sale here: if you dream of procuring a ceramic heart inlaid with eggshells, then you’ve come to the right village.


103Not very good… Most artisans work in the courtyard or main room of their homes. Their living space is invaded by their activity. Everything is done in the house, including finishing, painting (highly toxic) and packing. You do wonder where the family actually lives… Environmental problems for artisans specialised in preparing mother-of-pearl are particularly acute:

104• Noise: shells must be cut and polished, using electric machines that make easily enough noise to waken the ancestors…

105• Waste and dust from the shells: when pieces of mother-of-pearl are cut, cleaned and polished, they give off a very harmful dust. Many people suffer from pulmonary complaints in the commune, particularly in the villages specialised in mother-of-pearl preparation, like Thôn Thýợng. Most artisans from this village work at home and have to wear masks. They are waiting for the construction of an informal industrial mini-park by the river, which is already heavily polluted with industrial wastewater from Hà • Nội. Work with mother-of-pearl also causes inflammations of the respiratory system.

106• Lacquered paint, which gives off harmful vapours.

chuyên mỹ inlay worker sawing up tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl

different stages of inlay work on carved panels

The desertion of the village by artisans and the Đồng Kỵ Connection

107The quality of work by artisans from this commune is renowned. However, the lack of insertion into commercial networks limits their capacity to develop their traditional craft. Artisans have trouble living from their activity: the cost of raw materials is very high and it is difficult for them to tie up capital for any length of time. About 1,000 people have gone elsewhere to practise their craft. At the beginning of the year, many cars come to pick up village artisans and take them to the centre and the south of the country: to Huế, Hồ Chí Minh City or to the seaside resorts of Nha Trang, Hội An and Ðà Nẵng, where they make poor-quality items for tourists. They usually only come back for Tết.

108In contrast with the Chuyên Mỹ inlayers, the Ðồng Kỵ cabinetmakers (in a village famous for its fine furniture: see Itinerary no1) are very active in the trade and promotion of their activity and employ many artisans originally from Chuyên Mỹ to decorate their furniture. There is a big mother-of-pearl market in Ðồng Kỵ, mainly run by artisans from Chuyên Mỹ. Some of these artisans travel constantly between their home and their new, adoptive village more than 60 kilometres away; others live a temporary and precarious life around Ðồng Kỵ. The communities of the Chuyên Mỹ villages suffer from this, adverse effects on children’s education being an example.

109Worse still, the Dongkinese are themselves beginning to learn to inlay (‘stealing’ the craft, as artisans from Chuyên Mỹ would say) and are looking for other sources of raw materials in order to escape the monopoly of their suppliers from Hà Tây Province. The sustainable future of Chuyên Mỹ’s thousand-year-old craft, which is already hard and not particularly lucrative work, currently appears to be compromised.

lacquered box lid with mother-of-pearl inlay

A walk through Chuyên Mỹ

110Two parallel routes by which to visit these villages: On the way out: the road that runs through all the villages; on the way back: the dyke with its porticos that give onto the villages, but a less picturesque road than the first because this is behind the scenes for the champion pollutant workshops facing the river.

111We suggest that you start your walk with the Ngọ Hạ Co-operative. Cross the bridge over the Sông Nhụê, and take the dyke road to the left. Follow the river for about 300 metres. It has lost its romantic character much serenaded by the bards, and carries along the blackened waters of the Hanoian sewers to the sea. There are some ponds on the right. A street heads down from the dyke road to the right. After 100 metres, take the street to the left. 50 metres down on the right, a sign tells you that you have at last arrived at the house of Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Vui in the village of Thôn Ngọ.

112This is a ‘private’ co-operative, set up in a very beautiful traditional house, which can be visited. There you will see the various stages of production of wooden objects inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A shop offers visitors a wide variety of wooden and lacquered craft items. This co-operative, sole relic of the collectivist era, is ruled with a rod of iron by Mrs. Vui. As well as providing work for 100 or so workers and apprentices and selling the products of several village families, she organises training classes in the art of lacquer and inlaying mother-of-pearl for apprentices of between 15 and 20 years old and young disabled people from the province. She even has a project to keep children of war invalids in work. Hers is the only formal company in the commune to be legally authorised to export.

113Now we suggest you go to Bối Khê: turn right as you come out of the co-operative and make your way to the centre of Thôn Ngọ. After about 300 metres, an alley heads off right, a little at an angle, and leaves the village. You go through paddy fields for a little over a kilometre, crossing a bridge over a canal and passing several ponds full of ducks.

114In the village of Bối Khê, you will find many workshops specialised in the art of lacquer, the inlaying of eggshells, makers of chopsticks inlaid with mother-of-pearl… You may well see baskets of eggshells drying in the sun! It is possible to buy prettily decorated items at the house of Mr. Týõng Sinh. If you are lucky enough to be invited into one of these fine old houses, you will have the chance to admire the beauty of sacred lacquered furniture. Bối Khê was famous for its itinerant lacquerers who, from Hà Nội to Huế or Hồ Chí Minh City, maintained the furniture of the royal court or affluent households, before collectivisation put an end to this politically incorrect market.

115To continue the visit, you must go back to Mrs. Vui’s co-operative. From there, you can find the temple dedicated to Trýõng Công Thành, named craft ancestor in the village of Thôn Ngọ. Continue straight up the road for 50 metres from the co-operative and there, set back behind a garden, is the temple. It is this road that goes through four of the villages of the commune and that you are going to follow during your exploration between mothers-of-pearl and cabinetmakers.

116This part of the tour is spread out over a kilometre: the first village to the north of Thôn Ngọ is Thôn Trung, announced by a very fine old gate, then Thôn Thýợng, specialised in the preparation of mother-of-pearl (see map p. 241). These two villages each have a church. The one in Thôn Thýợng, more monumental, opens out onto a wide esplanade.

117From the street, it is possible to see the artisans and their workers preparing mother-of-pearl, inlaying amid clouds of choking dust. Many shops sell pieces already cut up into all shapes, and into buttons for clothes. In the cross alleyways, there are more imposing workshops with courtyards invaded with raw materials and buzzing like beehives to the sound of jigsaws, drills, sanders, etc. In Thôn Thýợng, whitish water emerges from the workshops and flows into the irrigation canals. More industrial than Thôn Trung, this last village in interesting to observe techniques employed there.

118You can finish this tour, after a little break in the garden of the church in Thôn Thýợng, by taking the dyke road that follows the river and takes you back to the bridge over which you arrived.

Chuyên Mỹ

Chuyên Mỹ

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department

Table des illustrations

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Légende statues inside a pagoda
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Légende embroidery
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Légende a quất Động woman embroidering at the window
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Légende embroidery in the home of a quất động artisan
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Légende chuyên mỹ inlay worker sawing up tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl
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Légende different stages of inlay work on carved panels
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Légende lacquered box lid with mother-of-pearl inlay
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Titre Chuyên Mỹ
Légende Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department
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