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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

 | 
Sylvie Fanchette
, 
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 7. Bamboo & wickerwork (southwest Hà Tây)

Texte intégral

Craft villages
Conical hats: Chuông;
Fans and birdcages: Canh Hoạch;
Incense sticks: Quảng Phú Cầu;
Wickerwork: Lýu Thýợng.
Cultural and architectural heritage
The market and đình at Chuông;
Bối Khê Pagoda.

CHUÔNG: THE KINGDOM OF THE CONICAL HAT

GETTING THERE

1Leaving Hà Nội, take National Highway no6 towards Hòa Bình. Go through the town of Hà Ðông, the administrative centre of the former province of Hà Tây. As you leave the town, turn left onto National Highway no22: a sign points the way to the famous Perfume Pagoda, Chùa Hýõng. Continue for 12 kilometres. You will pass through the town of Kim Bài, administrative centre of Thanh Oai District. Continue along this road: after 2.5 kilometres, you will see carpenters’workshops and big tree trunks on the verges. These are the new workshops in the village of Mã Kiều (Phýõng Trung Commune). A sign on the right announces that you have arrived at làng Chuông, the conical hat village.

THE CONTEXT

2The village of Chuông (Phýõng Trung Commune, Thanh Oai District) has specialised for a very long time in making hats, known as nón lá, from the leaves of an endemic species of latan palm tree. Today, the official name of this ancient village’s commune is Phýõng Trung, but everyone still knows it as làngChuông (village of Chuông), inextricably linked to its famous nón, so ask for it like that, should you have any trouble following our excellent map. It is a village with a distinct charm, about 30 kilometres southwest of Hà Nội, next to the Ðáy River (a distributary of the Red River), straddled over the dyke, with the area liable to flooding made up of scattered inhabitations surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens.

U or non-U?

3The conical hat is, of course, an emblematic accessory in Vietnam, its simple and classic form instantly recognisable among many other hats made of plant matter worn in Asia and elsewhere. It is part of the attire universally considered as traditional among Kinh women. The Kinh or Việt, the people of the plains and the Delta, are the ethnic majority group in Vietnam (about 85%). And the Kinh woman wears her nón whether she’s working in the rice paddies or out for a Sunday walk in her best áo dài, the famous long, close-fitting tunic, split to the waist, worn with light and flowing trousers by Vietnamese women of all ages.

4Symbol. With the áo dài (tunic with two flaps taken in at the waist), the nón lá (conical hat made of latan palm leaves) has always contributed to the charm of Vietnamese women. In addition, it is a prosperous activity for the village of Chuông, west of Hà Nội.

5Chuông lies about 40 minutes by motorbike from Hà Nội, in Hà Tây Province. In this village, at the heart of the Red River Delta, far from the bustle of the city, don’t forget to bring your camera to snap scenes of people at work, the old houses with porticos covered with moss and especially the market in the communal house’s courtyard. In the winter light, the village of Chuông is draped in vivid colours: the golden sunshine, the rows of green areca palms and bamboo hedges, the pure and immaculate white of the yards of drying leaves”. Le Courrier du Vietnam, 6th December 2001: “Conical hats bring prosperity to Chuông village”.

6It is easy to smile upon reading this somewhat idealised presentation with its rather one-dimensional tone, aimed at the tourist trade. Nevertheless, the last time we dropped by at least, Chuông was indeed a charming little village, where the annoyances of the city are left far behind, where there is little visible poverty and, above all, where one can easily and freely observe a very ancient community craft activity that is still successfully maintained to this day.

7It is difficult to remain indifferent to the charm and specificity of such a collective manifestation of skill and instinct for survival so ingeniously put to good use. This still very rural village, with its traditions and customs, has weathered war, famine and the severe social turmoil of recent centuries. Yet can it survive unscathed in this current era and ride out the wave of barely-controlled urbanisation, rocketing economic development and all-embracing globalisation?

Making nón at Ýớc lĕ

A folkloric hat-trick

Passing by the bridge, I tilt my palm-leaf hat to look at it.
The span of the bridge is a measure of my sorrow.
Passing by the đình, I tilt my palm-leaf hat to look at it.
The number of tiles on the roof is a measure of my love for you.

8[Traditional folk song]

9The village itself has also gone down in Vietnamese folklore with its headgear: another song hummed in the Delta gives this advice:

If you want to taste really good rice and fish,
If you want to wear an excellent palm-leaf hat,
Come to Chuông!

10Tradition once dictated that a boy present a hat made of whitened leaves as a token of love to the object of his affections. This sine qua non of gallant demeanour had all the more symbolic impact because the young man was supposed to have made it with his own hands… Once you know that even a skilled hat-maker cannot make more than two or three hats (of good quality) a day, it is easy to see that this custom belongs to an age different from that of ‘speed-dating’ and progressive promiscuity between young people on scooters or on-line…

11Since 1st August 2008, the Vietnamese authorities, in search of breathing space in order to manage the growth of the capital, have officially incorporated Hà Tây Province into Hà Nội Province within this new urban area, thus creating a fresh peri-urban zone around the extended city limits. This development plan will irremediably alter the lives of many villages similar to Chuông. Those closest to the centre will disappear altogether as distinct and rural entities; those furthest away will run into the suburbs of the new, enlarged city and inevitably traditional crafts will disappear in favour of various business activities related to the inexorable force of attraction exerted by the Delta’s metropolis, drawing the periphery in towards the centre.

THE PLOUGHMAN’S LUNCH

12In fact, if we wanted to insist on an attempt at historical precision, (which would be sadly lacking the polyphony of the past, as is often the case with Western chronicles), if we really had this tiresome wish, we could have pointed out that the áo dài was originally an adaptation of a Chinese item of clothing worn by both sexes, called the cheong sam. It was only at the beginning of the 1930s that a certain Nguyễn Cát Týờng, Vietnamese writer and fashion designer in his spare time, created the áo dài that we know and love today. Progressively tightened and brightened up by Saigonese tailors, the garment fell out of favour with men and became the ‘traditional’ dress of women throughout Vietnam.

13Pursuing this avenue of epistemological and emblematic nit-picking, if we look closely at the nón lá, the hat made of leaves is indeed typical of southern Chinese-influenced cultures (not only in Vietnam), but in fact, the ‘classic’ conical hat was once worn essentially by men. Women sported flat, wide hats, as shown by photographs from the French colonial era – confirmed by Gourou (1936), then Huard & Durand (1954). In disagreement with the claims of Chuông’s hat-makers, this latter source also claims that the best palm-leaf hats do not come from the north of the country, but the centre. Since the beginning of the collectivist period with its clothing similar to that of revolutionary China, identical for both sexes, one must admit that it is rare to see a man wearing a conical hat. As usual, however, history has a tendency of repeating itself, since a ‘new’ androgynous tradition has taken hold, both in the city and the countryside, down in the Deltas and high up in the mountains: the baseball cap…

14Why then these shifts in interpretation and this appropriation of emblems that are very visible but, when all is said and done, without great fundamental importance? Perhaps because a country with such a long, narrow territory, a cultural diversity from one Delta to the other and tenuous communications like those of Vietnam, a society that has borne so much turbulence and uprooting, a nation militarily and ideologically rent asunder and only recently reconstituted, such a country rising from its own ashes might perhaps have a natural need to (re)generate itself through federating myths, unifying symbols and nationalist emblems; however simple these might be.

15Be all that as it may, even if the nón is now perceived by young, city-dwelling women as nhà quê (unsophisticated, peasant-like: ‘red-neck’ doesn’t quite work…), it nonetheless remains a working tool of considerable value for women in a rural environment. It is at once a constant protection against the sun and the rain, an efficient fan, a charm accessory and a makeshift container for grain, seeds, fruit, vegetables, chicken livers – and even for refreshing drinks (nonalcoholic ones, of course…).

16They have been making hats out of latan palm leaves in Chuông since forever, or at least for very nearly as long as that. Village elders claim that once, this vegetable headgear was reserved for the Royal Court. Times change, the details of the origins are lost, but the tradition remains. Until the 1940s at least, coats were also made here out of latan palm leaves. These coats, which are no longer produced today, apart from a small quantity for export to Japan, were once very popular in the Delta and offered protection from both the cold and the rain. They had the added advantage of being made with the tips of latan palm leaves not used by the nón-makers. Pierre Gourou gives us a vivid description of them (1936):

17“These bushy coats, as far removed as possible by their unmodified vegetable appearance from the idea that one usually conjures of a garment, concealing those who wear them and making them blend with their surroundings, with the dried leaves, a stack of straw, or the thatch of village huts.”

18At that same period, there were still about 50 variants of hat styles. They were (pointed, flat-topped, with a metallic crest, etc.) for mandarins, for monks, for soldiers… Today, these hats are only made to order by the very rare artisans still capable of mastering the techniques required. One kind that can still be seen being worn sometimes are the quai thao, big, flat hats with decorated chinstraps, under which you find the charming female singers of quan họ folksongs at festival times (see box, Itinerary no1 p. 89). However, almost all the other styles have disappeared forever and it is the nón that comes out on top: the ‘classic’ conical hat, derived in fact from a hat that originated somewhere near the town of Huế. According to Chuông artisans, the Huế nón are less resistant and not waterproof, since they don’t have bamboo leaves inserted between the latan palm leaves, which appears to be true.

19Another nón variant drawing its origins from Huế but found in Chuông is the nón bài thõ, or ‘poetic conical hat’: if the hat is placed in front of a light source, inside, you can see the silhouette of shapes or ideograms cut into a leaf inserted between the palm leafs. A touch of individual frivolity discreetly integrated into an everyday practical item.

NON MULTUM, SED MULTA

20Out of about 3,500 households in Chuông, 85% make nón. 3.5 million nón are made annually here. If one makes a rapid (and imprecise) calculation, that clearly makes more than three hats per household per day, every day of the year. It is almost exclusively women who do this work regularly, bearing in mind that the elderly, as well as the young (even schoolgirls) are expected to do their part. Moreover, the figure of two or three hats a day given earlier only refers to nón of the highest quality; with a justice as poetic as the occasional conical hat (all things being relative), Vietnam exports a significant quantity (one or two containers a day: not bad!) of poor-quality nón to… – To where? You’ll never guess… Yes, to China!

21Making hats with leaves is the ultimate manual labour: there is little chance that this can be mechanised one day, it requires a certain dexterity (but not much strength) and needs above all lots of time. An inhabitant of Chuông once defined it like this: “it’s a craft that stops you starving”. Like many crafts (if not all) in the Delta’s villages, it is indeed originally a stopgap activity, a way of occupying the sporadically under-employed agricultural workforce in a temporary and profitable manner, providing (once the produce is sold at market) a source of ready money for inevitable expenses, meaning anything that does not grow in the earth around the village. The raw materials are not costly; the few tools required are simple and cheap (a knife and a needle, in fact). The financial returns are low: to make a nón that will be sold on average for 12,000 VNĐ, you must first spend 3,000 to 5,000 VNĐ, depending on the intended quality, but all that needs to be invested on top of this small sum are manual labour and time.

22Production of nón is subjected to seasonal fluctuations in demand and therefore selling prices are affected as well. Preparation and storage of raw materials are a problem for some, and the use of toxic chemical products in order to fumigate these plant hats against mould is a potential danger for everybody.

23We should add one further comment about production: without the extraordinary organisation around this activity, in spite of the modest investments required, it would be far from profitable. If a hat-maker had to go several kilometres to buy a twig of wicker here, or three latan palm leaves there, in order to make an item that sells for so little, she could not make a living. There are remarkable complementarities among a group of villages with Chuông at its centre, each specialised in preparing or making just one of the component parts (see: “Non-stop production” p. 248). This extended production space is very well organised – mainly by women, just as it is mainly women who make the nón.

NON-STOP PRODUCTION

24To make a nón, you need five ingredients:

25The crown (khuôn) or working frame, made of bamboo, around which you are going to make your hat. It is conical (surprise, surprise) and is made from Hòa Bình bamboo (the best) and was surely assembled in the village of Vác (or Lua), the only khuôn-producing village in the province, three kilometres from Chuông in Dân Hòa Commune (where you will probably be going very soon (same itinerary, look for fan-makers). In Huế, they make wooden khuôn, but not here. Making khuôn is a craft in its own right (the bamboo must be soaked lengthily before bending it, etc.), but since each khuôn can be used on average for 10 to 20 years, potential markets seem to be quite limited.

26Bamboo hoops (vông) that make up the hat’s skeleton: 16 in Chuông compared with 20 in the central provinces (Thanh Hóa, Nghệ An, Hà Tĩnh), carefully polished, delicately tied and kindly supplied (in exchange for a small consideration) by the village of Ðôn Thu (still in Kim Thý Commune: don’t worry, it’s not far). You place the concentric circles on the khuôn.

27Latan palm tree leaves (lá co or lá nón), which once came from Hòa Bình (probably the best and only 50 kilometres away) or from Quảng Hòa, but now travel by lorry from Thanh Hóa, Nghệ An, or even from Laos. You will have to dry them in the sun for two or three days, then flatten them with a hot iron (or ploughshare). This is the most delicate operation of all.

28A layer of bamboo (mo), which comes from Hải Giang, and is placed between the palm leaves.

29Nylon thread: most of it comes from Hồ Chí Minh City (now that really is a long way!). The threads were once made from wicker fibres from the village of Lýu Thýợng nearby (see p. 262). We have everything we need now to proceed with assembling and stitching.

30If you want to avoid all these errands, hurry up and do what everybody else does: get down to Chuông market (see the section “A walk in Chuông” p. 250), where you will be lucky enough to find these supplies in a single place. After a few years of apprenticeship and a few weeks of unstinting labour, you should have a little stock to take and sell at the same market…

cheap nón from chuông, destined for china

nón quai thao hanging in the đình at chuông

A walk in Chuông

31Leave National Highway no22 to the right and enter the commune. This is made up of agglomerated villages, which give the impression of a certain unity; the houses stand so closely together on both sides of the road that leads to the dyke. Once you have gone past the carpenters’neighbourhood, the canal, then the communal People’s Committee on the right, houses are even more tightly packed. The street crosses a neighbourhood fairly busy with trade and craft activities: you can see a certain number of hat-makers hard at work. A visit to Mr. Cảnh (see box p. 253 and no4 on the map p. 251) is not to be missed.

32Go and lose yourself in the maze of streets on the left (in mauve on the map) where you can see, by peeking over walls, women and girls busy mounting hats or stitching them. When the girls come out of school, they get together at the house of one or another to stitch the nón that their mothers will have put together in the morning.

33You can see the workshop-cum-shop of Mrs. Hoàng Thị Sang on the left (no8 on the map). This hatmaker has found the winning line: the poor-quality nón made for Chinese peasants. Nobody makes them in China any more.

34The nerve-centre of làng Chuông is the raw materials market lodged in the heart of the religious buildings complex made up of a đình, a pagoda and a temple. This heritage site of great quality backs onto the dyke that protects the whole of Hà Tây Province from the former violence of the Ðáy River. This dyke now serves as a drying space for palm leaves and as a dynamic trade route in this area where craft villages and markets abound.

35Chuông hosts a very large market selling hats (obviously it deals mainly in nón lá) and – as you already know – the raw materials to make these items. The market is held in the centre of the village, in front of the đình. It has been there for at least 200 years, is very interesting to visit and attracts all the artisans from neighbouring villages whose work is linked to the craft. The produce sold here is sent to other provinces and exported to China, Thailand, Japan, Europe, etc. The most important markets take place on each date of the lunar calendar that finishes with a “0” or a “4”: the 4th, 10th, 14th, 20th, 24th and 30th days. If you are lucky enough to be in Chuông on one of these days, look also for novelty hats, such as those made of Vạn Phúc silk (see Itinerary no4) and less pointed nón, aimed at the Japanese market. Note also: a smaller market takes place several times a month here: officially, the 1st, 3rd, 6th, 8th and 11th days of the lunar month, unofficially… good luck: if you arrive early enough, we remain optimistic: you will see some action in this very attractive specialised market.

36To get a great panoramic view of the market, try the little pavilion or belfry without a bell (or walls, for that matter), just next door (see map p. 251). During the morning rush hour (you must get here early: everything begins to close down from about 9h), a dazzling forest of whitened palm leaves, stitched together to make bunches of nón, waves in the village square. To see the palm leaves drying in the sunshine, you have to go a bit further into the village, to the dyke, the spot favoured by artisans who don’t have enough space at home.

37Chuông also has a very fine đình. Find the market and it is just opposite. Beware of the dog that bites and guards the rear courtyard. The hat-making craft ancestor is buried in a mausoleum just in front of Chuông’s pagoda. For the craft festival, his ashes are carried out of the pagoda and taken to the đình. This building serves as a place of worship for a general who protected the local youth who, because they had wanted to see the face of a queen who came to the village, had been condemned to death by the king. This champion of youthful indiscretion is also worshipped at the đình in Quảng Bá, an affluent suburb of Hà Nội.

38If you are looking for colonial hats made of palm leaves, a souvenir favoured by nostalgic Frenchmen, call upon Mrs. Tạ Thu Hýõng, a little further south, near the dyke (see no6 on the map).

Chuông

Chuông

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department

at the home of a hat-maker, Ýớc lĕ

Mr. Cảnh and his “craft that stops you starving”

39Located near the entrance to the village (see map p. 251) is the small house of Mr. Trần Văn Cảnh, nearly 80 years old, a one-legged military veteran (he lost the other leg around the time of Diện Biên Phủ) and a great craftsman of leaf hats.

40Mr. Cảnh and his family have specialised in making conical hats from long ago, from ethnic minorities and of all shapes (flat, pointed, with decorations, etc.) that are used for theatrical performances and folk dances. Among other styles, he knows the secrets of these hats:

  • the nón quai thao (for female quan họ singers in Bắc Ninh Province, see Itinerary no1);
  • the nón Chóp Dứa (big hats for medium-sized mandarins);
  • the Hong Kong nón (no, they’re not made of plastic…);
  • the nón ghép (a local variant).

41Mr. Cảnh’s speciality is the nón quai thao, very fine flat hats for singers, with a chinstrap decorated with silk tassels. This is skilled and expert work: the inside is delicately decorated with flowers or other patterns; a little vanity mirror is positioned inside the headband. If you are lucky enough to see him in action, you will appreciate the difficulty and intricacy of the task. Such a hat requires 1,600 stitches and two whole days of work. Mr. Cảnh is known and respected by the villagers for his expertise and passion for the craft, which he helped to revive upon his return from the war. He continues to train apprentices in the hope of seeing this traditional activity maintained.

42You can buy various models of rare hats directly from Mr. Cảnh or his family, if there are any available, of course.

CANH HOẠCH

43Canh Hoạch (Dân Hòa Commune, Thanh Oai District) is a village specialised in making paper fans and bamboo birdcages. On the outskirts of the village, there remain a few makers of balance poles (the bamboo beams that support suspended loads and rest on the shoulder).

GETTING THERE

44Leaving Chuông, take National Highway no22 to the right. After about two kilometres, you will come to the Vác crossroads, south of which begins the village of Canh Hoạch, once called Vác. Along the road on the left, you will see many purple paper fans left out to dry. You have arrived.

THE CONTEXT

45Before the 1990s, the village mostly busied itself with making paper for firecrackers sold in Bình Ðà, a town once famous for its firecrackers that you came through on the way from Hà Ðông. Only a few artisans made fans and birdcages, since these items didn’t sell as well as paper.

46In 1994, the government banned the making of firecrackers (see explanation in Itinerary no1 p. 74-75) and artisans turned to fans and birdcages. Since 1995, they have been produced on a larger scale.

47The French researcher Pierre Gourou mentions five villages making fans in the Delta during the 1930s: today, only Canh Hoạch and Chàng Sõn (Hà Tây) remain. It is not a very lucrative activity and is mostly carried out by women. As we are in the area specialised in bamboo and wickerwork though, access to raw materials is much easier and enables households to make some extra income.

48However, we should also point out that with the spread of electrification, people use electric fans (less tiring for the wrists) and the paper fan market has consequently slumped. It is mostly the elderly and itinerant saleswomen who use them today. Old people like to settle down outside their front doorstep and watch the world go by in the street, with a Canh Hoạch paper fan to keep cool.

THE CRAFTS

49Birdcages and fans are two of the nicest craft products in the region. You can see very fine birdcages, often with tenants in them, as the Vietnamese love to keep caged birds, both in Hà Nội and in the countryside. (There are also Buddhist rituals that entail people buying caged birds in order to free them, which obviously boost demand). Canh Hoạch fans, simple but well-made, are harder to find in Hà Nội amid all the bigger and more brightly-coloured Chinese imports.

50Making cages requires intricate work with bamboo. The stalks are curved for aesthetic reasons by means of prolonged immersion in water before being bent into shape. You can find cages of many shapes and sizes, and at very reasonable prices.

51A fan consists of a frame made from slats of bamboo (three years old) and paper (traditionally brown or deep purple), attached to the frame, in the past with a sticky paste made from persimmons (a local fruit) that gave off a nauseous smell while the fan was still new. Today, artisans manage to reproduce precisely the same effect, but with more modern and chemical products. A fan made in this way is completely different from the rather tacky items mass-produced in China: it is a fine piece of craftwork, sober and discreet. (Note that the folding fan was born in Japan around the 10th century, in contrast to all the legends that attribute to China the paternity of most Vietnamese arts.) However, fan-makers are businesspeople, and if asked, they can produce fans as advertising space, to which a company logo or other promotional content can be added. In addition, they can also replace the paper with silk, which can also carry images or slogans. “A magic slip of paper that casts a spell can be incorporated into the fan, designed to visit misfortune upon the person being fanned with it” (Huard P. & Durand M., 2002). Sometimes, very big fans are produced, up to a metre wide, decorated with landscapes, pictures, poems or songs.

52One of the older village artisans, Mr. Trần Văn Độn and his brother (see map p. 259 and section: “A walk in Canh Hoạch”) still produce fans with a traditional refinement, of which he and his family are perhaps the last to know the secret: viewed closely, one can see an intricate decoration, made with a needle, creating shapes from little pinpricks of light. Such a fan was once the ideal accessory for an amorous moonlight tryst. The father of these fraternal craftsmen even had the signal honour of making a fan for Hồ Chí Minh, today displayed at the museum devoted to the first president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

53According to tradition, the purchase of a fan falls, like many other activities, within the purlieu of superstition, here in the domain of Vietnamese numerology. Note this explanation from Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, a journalist with the newspaper Annam nouveau, the edition of 10th June 1934:

54“The number of the fan’s slats must be a multiple of four; it can, at a pinch, have one or two extra slats, but never three. The superstitious buyer, before purchasing a fan, counts the slats, reciting in order the following words: ngýời (man, people), ta (me), ma (evil spirits), bụt (Buddha); the count must never conclude with an evocation of evil spirits.”

55There are numerological concerns almost identical to those for fans in other domains, for example when building a house. If it hasn’t happened already, you will soon stumble upon a staircase (not literally, I hope) with a first or last step much bigger or smaller than the others: this is to avoid finishing up with a total number of steps that would bring misfortune upon the inhabitants of the house…

Fanning the flames of desire

56Here are a few lines of poetry about a fan, written by one of the best-known Vietnamese poets, Hồ Xuân Hýõng. This exceptionally cultivated woman (for her time), who died in about 1822, was orphaned at a young age, and then was twice a wife of second rank (second wife of a – legally – polygamous civil servant), and twice widowed. As they put it so elegantly in literary anthologies, “poetry was for her the means to give vent to ardent aspirations in her nature that life did not fulfil.” Leaving to posterity about 60 poems in a compact style of disarming simplicity, she managed to infuse landscapes and everyday objects with an eroticism of disconcerting frankness, while also making an impassioned plea for the equality of women within the couple and castigating the hypocrisies and injustices of the inflexible structure of the Confucian society in which she lived.

Canh Hoạch paper fans drying

57Note how the first line of the poem echoes the activity recounted by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh of counting the fan’s slats – or is the speaker guessing the age of a young woman…?

58The Paper Fan

Seventeen or eighteen, is it?
Let me cherish you and keep you close
Thin or thick spreads your triangle
Narrow or wide glides the tenon.
The hotter it gets, the sweeter your coolness
Nights are not enough, I need you in the day
Pink like cheeks with sticky persimmon juice
Kings and lords just love this thing!

59CANH HOẠCH PAPER FANS DRYING

A walk in Canh Hoạch

60It is best to start this walk at the đình that is a little way south of the Vác crossroads, on the left. A sign points the way to this historic and popular tourist site set on the far side of a pond.

61You can visit this very fine đình with an imposing courtyard behind it. Ask for the key from the guard if it is closed. Inside, a huge painted fan on the wall is dated 1760, which shows how far back this craft goes. You will see palanquins and all the necessary paraphernalia employed to bring out the craft ancestor during the festival.

62Leaving the đình, take the alley on the left that goes into the village. On both sides, you will see workshops of birdcage builders. An activity that doesn’t take up too much space, it fits comfortably into the courtyards of private houses. The village can be roughly divided into two parts: the south generally makes cages, and the neighbourhood north of the church mostly makes fans.

63The first street to the left cuts north-south through the village. A few tens of metres distant, a large square opens up in front of the church. Here again, you will see busy workshops with artisans cutting up little strips of bamboo, rounding them off and assembling them to make cages of all shapes and sizes. To produce the curves of the cages, the bamboo is softened by boiling it. Then it is shaped inside a round metal mould: the mould is filled up with slats of boiled bamboo. Simple cages fetch about 40,000 to 50,000 VNĐ. A family can produce ten of them a day. Some artisans can make very fancy cages that sell for 150,000 to 500,000 VNĐ.

64North of the church, if the weather is fine, by walking around the narrow streets, you will probably come across a courtyard filled with a phalanx of fans drying in the sun. They are spread out anywhere there is room for them: courtyards of houses, the precincts of the very charming nhà thờ họ that you will see on your right, by the side of the road: is all very picturesque. You can buy them nearly everywhere: fan is (cái) quạt in Vietnamese, not to be confused with quạt máy (‘fan-machine’), which means (logically enough): ‘electric fan’. Opposite the nhà thờ họ is the house of a fan-maker, where it is possible to see women at work. You will also see cages made in this courtyard, an activity practised only by the men of the family.

65Going on up the street, on the left ask for the workshop of Mr. Nguyễn Vãn Nghê. The superb bamboo lamps covered with giấy dó (hand-made paper: see Itinerary no1 p. 83) that you find in chic Hà Nội boutiques for a cool 800,000 VNÐ are sold at a quarter of that price here. Well, you do have to dust them off before you choose one. His workshop-cum-shop is a real Aladdin’s cave (fancy birdcages, lamp stands, various wickerwork and bamboo items, baskets, etc.). He only works to order but keeps a host of things in his showroom that he sells to visitors. He is one of the village’s only artisans to have diversified production and subcontracts work out to several families.

66In this former hamlet, Xóm Hiên Tren, you will meet women pushing ‘hand bicycles’ (bicycles converted into carts) loaded with packets of slats of bamboo, ready to have purple paper stuck on them by the women specialised in making fans. There is a strong division of labour between workshops, which are usually very close to each other.

67The high point of the walk is a visit to Mr. Trần Văn Độn, last but one in a long line of specialised makers of ‘luxury’ fans. To get through the maze of alleys to the house of this craftsman, use our map, but don’t hesitate to ask the way – it’s complicated –, as everybody knows him. This elderly artisan (he was 91 in 2006) has passed on his craft to his son and daughter-in-law who make superb purple paper fans, and, since recently, red ones, into which they prick out drawings of dragons, other mythical animals or flowers, which let the light through. It is possible to buy them in all sizes, of various qualities (the handles are sometimes made of buffalo horn) for very modest prices (10,000 VNĐ for the small ones with bamboo handles, up to 100,000 VNĐ for big, more sophisticated ones).

68This family’s traditional old house is very handsome and has been renovated without too much bad taste. Behind the house, the nhà thờ họ of the Trần lineage was recently refurbished in 2006. Inside, two shrines to the ancestors are flanked by paintings representing, as in the đình, fans. Behind this again, but on the right, is a very fine house belonging to Mr. Độn’s brother.

69It is possible to get back to the highway by going down the shopping street, which you take to the left when you come out of the alley. This road leads to the Vác crossroads. For the next part of the itinerary, take National Highway no22 to the left.

Canh Hoạch

Canh Hoạch

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department

AN INCENSE STICK MAKER’S WORKSHOP, CAO BAO KHÊ (H Ý NG YEN)

QUẢNG PHÚ CẦU

70The villages of Quảng Phú Cầu Commune (Ứng Hoà District) make bamboo incense sticks (hýõng thẻ). These sticks are votive offerings for the pagoda, the temple, the đình and the home. In keeping with popular belief, coils of incense smoke are the only viable means of communication between the world of the living and that of the dead. Accordingly, there are villages all over Vietnam that make these carriers of messages to the other side. Production is a very colourful activity, but it is excessively toxic for those (mostly women) who are exposed to it daily.

71Use of incense is very widespread in religious ritual. Lighted sticks are placed regularly on the shrine to the ancestors found in every house. At festival time in temples and pagodas, the smoke can be intense. One of the authors, visiting a famous pagoda on the eve of Tết, observed an old man responsible for removing barely-lit incense sticks in order to make room for fresh ones; to work in this smoke-filled environment, he was wearing a diving mask (without a snorkel) to protect his eyes… One sometimes hears it said that monks and Vietnamese-style ‘church mice’, by dint of breathing in all this very harmful smoke (much worse than tobacco), fatally damage their lungs, just as the Amerindians of cold regions did by spending the winter huddled over a bonfire in order to survive until the spring.

GETTING THERE

72Once you’re at the Vác crossroads, take Road no22 again to the left and go past the đình. Continue straight on for about two kilometres. You go over a small canal and enter Ứng Hoà District. At least another kilometre and you go over another canal. 500 metres further on, you turn left down a little street and enter directly into Quảng Nguyên, one of the villages of Quảng Phú Cầu Commune. You can stop in this village or one of the next two, Ðạo Tú or Cầu Bầu, which are all three specialised in chopping up bamboo and making incense sticks. Space on the side of the road is mostly taken up with drying for these activities. You will see all the stages of making these items, from the chopping up to the dipping into a mixture of glue, incense and bamboo sawdust.

LÝU THÝỢNG

73Lýu Thýợng (known traditionally as Giàu Tế), a village of Phú Túc Commune (Ứng Hoà District), was the birthplace of wickerwork (with tế grass) many centuries ago.

GETTING THERE

74Once you’ve gone through the village of Cầu Bầu, continue straight on along the canal that you crossed before getting to this last village. After about a kilometre, on your right you will see a big company, the Phú Ngọc Handicraft Export Co. Ltd, managed by Mr. Nguyễn Văn Ngọc, one of the first artisans to have opened up the village to the international capitalist market. You will see many wicker baskets drying along the roadside near his business. Then, turn into a little road on the right. Another kilometre and a half and you have arrived in Lýu Thýợng. The village gate is to the left.

THE CONTEXT

75Local legend has it that in the 17th century, the hamlet of Giàu Tế was invaded by wild grasses. A man settled there and began to weave these grasses to make articles used in everyday life. He taught the inhabitants the techniques of this craft. After his passing, people called him Nguyễn Thảo Lâm, which means plant of the forest, and gave him the status of patron saint of the village. Every year, homage is paid to him at Lýu Thýợng’s temple. The usefulness of this grass was a great discovery, as it exists in abundance all over the place in mountainous areas and is not expensive to buy. Bamboo or rattan can easily be replaced by wicker: tế grass.

THE CRAFT

76To begin with, the villagers made mostly wicker baskets and bins, as well as bags made with the fibres of this miracle plant. Up until the 1980s, plastic utensils were scarce and expensive in Vietnam. Village artisans noted with surprise the success these simple and rustic items found with the first foreigners to return to Vietnam and reacted accordingly. Since 1988, with the liberalisation of markets, production of wicker items has diversified.

77In order to meet the growing demand for woven goods, the inhabitants of Lýu Thýợng began to make more frivolous and novelty products: small baskets and bins shaped like animals, retro-style suitcases of all sizes, playful and decorative shapes, etc. Another critical event for the development of this activity was the decision, after much reticence and hesitation, to share weaving techniques with the seven other villages of Phú Túc Commune. Following this, 40 production groups were established to go and find the grass in sufficient quantities in mountainous regions. As weaving tế grass requires some specific know-how compared to weaving with bamboo and rattan, Phú Túc artisans enjoy a monopoly in this field.

78This craft has become a flourishing industry. Several companies set up in this commune now export all over the world. You can see workshops that go from the most rustic to a semi-industrial production.

79A historical link connects Giàu Tế/Lýu Thýợng to Chuông, the conical hats village on this same itinerary. Until about 20 years ago, fibres teased from wicker stalks were used to stitch the latan palm-leaf hats: those who prepared them in Giàu Tế went to sell them at Chuông market (recommended earlier). Since that time, nylon threads have replaced wicker fibres, but meanwhile, the tế grass weavers have found ways to use the whole stalk.

80There is also a current connection between the villages of Phú Túc and another commune on this same itinerary, namely Quảng Phú Cầu, where they produce the incense sticks. These fragrant smoke technicians do business with small artisans from Lýu Thýợng and other villages, subcontracting out the tiresome work of chopping up the bamboo sticks, while retaining for themselves the potentially lethal (but more profitable) work of coating them with incense.

at the home of a basket weaver, lýu thýợng

ropes drying in the open air, lưu thượng

THINGS TO SEE

81Walk around Giau Tế/Lýu Thýợng: it’s quite an urbanised village, with several external indications of relative affluence, such as the high, modern houses that line the main street. On one side is the đình, the communal house and the cultural centre of the village. It is very old and well preserved, with a duck pond nearby. On the other side of the main street, follow some of the side alleys: the further you go into the village, the more you will see beautiful old low houses with tiled roofs and courtyards often filled with craft raw materials.

82If you visit this village on a day when they offload trucks filled to bursting (and then some) with big bundles of tế grass picked in the mountains, you will realise to what extent this raw material can in a few hours occupy all the public space of this little village with narrow streets and the effervescence that it generates among the throng of buyers and sellers. At times other than this rush hour, so to speak, you can see in the alleyways, or by slipping into courtyards, the many operations to separate the various types of wicker (the rigid stalks and the flexible ones) from their outer envelopes. Like witches’hair, these fibres are put out to dry everywhere.

83You can also buy wicker items at very competitive prices: – are you short of a frog-shaped bin to equip your guest bathroom, or a miniature squirrel with a basket on its back as a mark of affection for your brother-in-law? Look no further. Go to the house of Mr. Nguyễn Văn Tuân and Mrs. Kiêu who live in the first alley on the left after the đình. You’ll see mountains of bug-eyed frogs left out to dry and all sorts of other animals, it all depends on the current fad or fashion. There are also some very fine wickerwork trays, trunks and boxes of all imaginable dimensions.

BỐI KHÊ PAGODA, ONE LAST STOP

84Bối Khê Pagoda is in the village of Hýng Giáo, (Tam Hýng Commune, Thanh Oai District).

GETTING TO THE PAGODA

85Going back towards Hà Nội on Road no22, just before the sign announcing Bình Ðà (a village), take the road that goes to the right. A big sign points to Thanh Thùy, a craft village specialised in metallurgy. After 2.5 kilometres, you come to the village of Song Khê. In a bend in the road, right in the middle of the market, a road goes off to the right. After 500 metres, you arrive at the heart of the village of Hýng Giáo and on the left is Bối Khê Pagoda.

86This pagoda was first built during the Trần Dynasty, in or around the year 1338. Since then, it has undergone numerous additions and renovations – for example in 1453, 1573, 1628, 1694, 1701, 1766, 1783 and 1923, if you really must know… Once you have gone through the pagoda gate, you cross a little bridge over a stream. In front of you is the bell tower. Behind it is the main part of the pagoda, divided into two. Note in particular: the Upper Sanctuary, placed on rows of wide, short pillars; this is perhaps the only wooden structure dating from the Trần Dynasty still standing today. It is all richly decorated and carved with shapes of fig leaves, flowers, dragons and a Garuda (deity of Hindu origin, half-man, half-bird).

87Bối Khê Pagoda organises its annual festival on the 13th day of the 1st lunar month, with games of human chess, competitions, music, etc.

Table des illustrations

URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Légende Making nón at Ýớc lĕ
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,9M
Légende cheap nón from chuông, destined for china
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 929k
Légende nón quai thao hanging in the đình at chuông
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 628k
Titre Chuông
Légende Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 396k
Légende at the home of a hat-maker, Ýớc lĕ
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,9M
Légende Canh Hoạch paper fans drying
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,4M
Titre Canh Hoạch
Légende Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Légende AN INCENSE STICK MAKER’S WORKSHOP, CAO BAO KHÊ (H Ý NG YEN)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,8M
Légende at the home of a basket weaver, lýu thýợng
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,7M
Légende ropes drying in the open air, lưu thượng
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26109/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 4,8M

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