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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

 | 
Sylvie Fanchette
, 
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 8. Bamboo and rattan (west Hà Tây)

Texte intégral

Cultural and architectural heritage
Hồ Chí Minh Trail Museum;
Phú Lịnh Tự (or Phú Ninh) Pagoda;
Phýợng Bản Temple;
Trầm Pagoda, Trăm Gian Pagoda (Pagoda of the Hundred Bays).
The craft villages
Rattan: Phú Vinh;
Bamboo: Ðồi Ba, Yên Kiên and Phù Yên (giang).

1To begin this itinerary, you should leave Hà Nội on the road to Hà Ðông, the previous capital of Hà Tây Province. Go through the town and continue straight on towards Hòa Bình, on National Highway no6.

HỒ CHÍ MINH TRAIL MUSEUM

GETTING THERE

2To get you off to a flying start, we suggest a little visit to the Hồ Chí Minh Trail Museum (Bảo Tàng Ðýờng Hồ Chí Minh), which is in Phụng Châm Commune, Chúc Sõn, district capital of Chýõng Mỹ. After leaving Hà Đông, turn immediately right after a small industrial estate. Follow an avenue lined with white-painted trees until you reach the barracks at the end; turn right and go on another 200 metres, where you’ll find the museum and surrounding garden.

3Opening hours are 7.30 to 11 am and 1.30 to 4.30 pm and the admission fee is reasonable. In the ground-floor exhibition hall, you can follow the three decisive phases in the history of the Trail during the American War, illustrated through photographs with captions in Vietnamese and English. The Hồ Chí Minh Trail, made famous in the West in several (mostly) anti-war protest songs, was originally a narrow path for transporting weapons and supplies, widened at subsequent times. The hidden trail zigzagged for 1,100 kilometres over mountains, valleys and rivers, passing through Laos and Cambodia.

4You will see that the visit is by no means irrelevant to the subject of bamboo, our main theme on this itinerary. To complete the Trail, bridges were built, often from bamboo, along with rope and bamboo ladders, as well as stairways, small boats, and baskets for carrying on the back (also in bamboo), and as the Trail advanced, it was protected over hundreds of kilometres by arbours of woven bamboo, built to prevent American Air Force radar from detecting the lorries laden with arms and goods as they passed beneath.

5Various military artefacts are displayed, including maps, weapons, tools, and everyday necessities for soldiers in the field (e. g. metal objects fashioned from recycled weaponry: teapots, trays, cups, musical instruments). There are clothes, rubber-tyre sandals, reports, logbooks, poems, radios, and other items. Look out for bombs hidden in a mock jungle as you go up the stairs!

6The Trail symbolised Viêt Minh resistance against the Americans and their allies. Thousands of bombs were unleashed over it, and the Americans knew that as long as the Trail existed, they could not win the war. The museum is built on a site where young soldiers mustered before heading off to the front and it is dedicated to the many who never returned.

THE PAGODA TRAIL (AND ONE TEMPLE)

7You are now en route to discover the cultural treasures of Phụng Châu Commune (Chýõng Mỹ District). There are a number of religious sites here thanks to the area’s excellent topography according to the precepts of Chinese geomancy. The key elements are here – water, mountains, open vistas – and we have to agree, the disposition is quite magical. It is interesting to imagine this landscape before the Delta was formed, when the ground beneath your feet would have been open sea, dotted with precipitous islets (the karst formations here are the same as the islands of Hạ Long Bay). Alluvial matter carried down by the Red River settled in the valleys, created the plain, and forced the sea back over a hundred kilometres.

GETTING TO PHỤNG CHÂU

8From the museum, take Highway no6, heading right towards Chúc Sõn, district capital of Chýõng Mỹ. Follow the Ðáy River dyke for a few hundred metres. Cross the bridge over the Ðáy, then just before the sign indicating the Hà Ðông District exit, take a small road to the right and after about two kilometres you come to a T-junction: the perpendicular road is the dyke road (right bank of the Đáy); opposite is a medical dispensary. Take the road to the right, which leads you into the village of Phụng Nghĩa. From the elevated road, you have a good view of the surrounding lowlands. The surfaced road soon becomes a dirt track as rugged as the nearby Hồ Chí Minh Trail, and after about 500 metres, it brings you to the Phú Lịnh Tự Pagoda, on your right, below the dyke road level. (N. B. the pagoda is also known as Phú Ninh or Phýõng).

PHÚ LỊNH TỰ PAGODA

9Standing in the village of Phụng Nghĩa, Phú Lịnh Tự is an imposing presence: with its 17th-and 18th-century carved stelae, a bell dating from the Tây Sõn Dynasty (17th century), 40 lofty stone columns, finely-wrought statues and carvings and 12 bas-reliefs rich in folk art (sadly stolen not long ago), this is a village pagoda par excellence. Few tourists, foreign or Vietnamese, venture here.

10A footnote: the other pagodas that you will see nearby are managed by the state, which provides funds for renovation. Here, the villagers pay a subscription to ensure the pagoda is kept in good order.

11After 1945, as the war raged against the French, the local people hid Việt Minh militants, soldiers and even a cannon in the pagoda. When French troops destroyed the village gates, the ViệtMinh fired back with artillery rounds. The Đáy River became the demarcation zone: beyond lay Hà Nội and its surrounding areas and the road out to Hải Phòng, all occupied by the French; in the rear, Việt Minh territory (for an outsider’s perspective of life in the countryside under the Việt Minh, read the excellent novel A Quiet American and the war diaries by British novelist Graham Greene).

12The various temples and pagodas in this area, along the banks of the Đáy beyond the dyke, all played their part in the war against the French, providing valuable hideouts for communist militant groups.

13In the garden next to the pagoda, surrounded by lush vegetation, you will see the stupas of the monks who lived here, along with three Taoist goddesses. The goddesses can help the worshipper to acquire wealth and bring joy to the family (remember that even today, tradition demands that a young wife be under the watchful tutelage of her mother-in-law until the latter dies – preferably of natural causes).

14The garden is a good illustration of the syncretism of Buddhism-meets-Taoism. Inside the pagoda there is more syncretism in the heavy-handed restoration treatment of the main altar – perhaps better described as Spanish patio-meets-outdoor swimming pool – but it’s a magical, peaceful place all the same. Here you can watch as the village folk make their offerings and murmur their lamentations.

PHÝÕNG BẢN TEMPLE

GETTING THERE

15Go back the way you came and take the surfaced dyke road across the village, passing, on your left, the link road to Highway no6 along which you came when you arrived. At the edge of the village, a few hundred metres on, a dirt road goes off to your right, leading to the village of Phýõng Bản, which is stretched along the shore of a very large lake. In the distance, the karst formations of the nearby mountains can be seen.

16You will come to a large courtyard on the lakeshore, made up of several buildings. At the end on the left is the main temple, with its stelae dedicated to the cult of Phùng Hýng, a resistance hero from a time of Chinese invasions. In 1972, during the collectivist period, this ancient structure (at least three centuries old) was used as a rice store in the wake of the 1971 floods.

17Opposite there is a Taoist temple for the prosperity cult, and on the left a large stele; there is a lodge at the entrance for receiving visitors, and a large banyan tree in the centre. The four other buildings forming this group have been destroyed. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has designated the site as a national monument, and with the lovely view of the lake, it is indeed a charming spot.

INTO THE KARST COUNTRY

18There is a legend that tells how, long ago, the red star Tử Vi fell from the sky. Five mountains, called the Ngũ Nhạc Sõn (Mountains of the Five Musics), rose up from the earth. The best known of these was Mount Tử Trầm. Around here were the Bút Mountains (quill holders): Vô Vi, Thập Tự and Trạo. Close to the foot of these mountains, there are ancient ox-bow lakes, vestiges of the nearby Đáy River (the Trầm Lakes). Pagodas and temples were built on the mountainsides or mountaintops and there were also a great many caves, cutting deep into the limestone clefts, which were also used as places of worship (and hideouts for revolutionaries). There is an immensely rich heritage here, and Mount Tử Trầm is the most famous of its sites. We are going to show you two of the most interesting temples, the first of which is indeed inside a cave.

GETTING THERE

19Leave Phýõng Bản by the same road; go back to the banyan on the right. Leave the village to join the surfaced dyke road, heading towards the karst mountains, which are on the right. You go past a small pagoda on a hill, then take a left. At the edge of a broad lake stands the Long Tîen Pagoda, at the foot of the mountain, and inside the cave is the Long Tiên Ðộng, or Hang (cave), or Trầm Pagoda.

TRẦM PAGODA

20At the foot of Mount Tử Trầm is a cave known as Long Tiên Ðộng, in which a pagoda has been built. There is a collection of 17th-century statues, 48 in all, dating from the Lê Dynasty, representing the virtues of the Buddha and of the warrior. They are assembled here amid glistening stalactites and stalagmites beneath magnificent natural vaults. Poems carved into the stone extol the beauty of the place. In front of each of the statues there is a small altar; plumes of incense rise from a finely carved incense burner. Gongs, bells and drums hang from the walls. At the cave entrance, you will see a stone tortoise with a poem in Chinese characters carved into its shell. Left of the Buddha altars, there are more caves receding in enfilade, including the Cave of the Dragon with its Dragon Brook and Well of Jade. According to legend, the female Dragon’s breasts produced a milk that could cure all manner of ills, but since logically anyone who managed to get close enough to suckle was instantly consumed by fire, the elixir must have been practically useless.

21A more contemporary and rather better documented story recounts how the future President Hồ Chí Minh came here to collect his thoughts and light some incense sticks. Apparently, in the early days of 1947, at the very start of the resistance struggle against the French, the Voice of Vietnam (national radio) broadcast his call to arms from inside this very cave.

THE TRĂM GIAN PAGODA (“PAGODA OF THE HUNDRED BAYS”)

GETTING THERE

22After leaving the Trầm Pagoda through the cave, retrace your steps and take the tarmac road to the left. A sign points the way towards Trăm Gian Pagoda as you navigate the dry expanse of ocean: ten cables to the ponant, me hearties (in other words, two kilometres west)…

  • 1 «According to certain documents... »: this turn of phrase and the date it validated are taken from (...)

23Encircled by magnificent trees several centuries old, and perched on a hill known as Núi Chùa (the Mountain of the Pagoda) in the attractive village of Tiên Lữ (Tiền Phýõng Commune), you will find Quảng Nghiêm Pagoda, otherwise known as Tiên Lữ, or, more evocatively, Trãm Gian (Pagoda of the Hundred Bays). According to certain documents1, the pagoda was built around 1185 around the reign of King Lý Cao Tông, but it has evidently been restored many times.

24The popular name for the pagoda comes from the fact that, if we consider the space between four columns as equal to one bay, we can count a total of-well, 104 actually, but 100 sounds better. These “hundred” bays are shared among three different building groups. The first of them is a pair of pavilions: one is used to stage the human chess games playing during festivals; the other-the Giá Ngự-(“garage” in modern parlance) is a parking place for the imperial coach. It faces the lotus pond; from this spot, Saint Bối’s ‘statue’ can watch, as it were, from the comfort of his palanquin, the water puppet shows performed at festival time. There are numerous stelae, with horizontal and parallel sentences, including one (15th century) richly inlaid with mother-of-pearl (see Itinerary no6 p. 233).

25You now have a few hundred steps to climb to reach a courtyard of venerable trees, where you will find the second architectural group, including a double-decker bell tower with eight roofs. One of the region’s finest, the tower dates from the early 17th century. Have a look at the carpentry, richly carved with dragons. One or two blue stone steps will lead you to the third ensemble, that of the main pagoda itself: the ceremonial hall, incense hall and upper sanctuary.

26Hanging from the altar of the patriarchs, you will observe a drum one metre across and a large, 18th-century bronze gong. All around the temple there are statues, over 150 of them, mostly in lacquered wood, though some are in terra cotta while others, wrapped around with lacquered cloth, are woven in rattan (we will see plenty more rattan in the villages to come). The statue of Saint Bối lives here, in his wooden casket (see box p. 271).

27Another of the statues is identified as that of Ðặng Tiến Ðông, a general of the Tây Sõn revolt, who besieged and liberated Hà Nội (Thãng Long, as it was then).

28But enough historical tittle-tattle! Let’s go and see what goes on in the villages in these parts…

statues in a pagoda

The Meteorological Monk, or the Revenge of the Mummy

29During the Trần Dynasty (14th century), there was a monk named Nguyễn Lữ, or (Nguyễn) Bình An, and later known by the name of Ðức Thành Bối, or Saint Bối. He lived and officiated at the Trãm Gian Pagoda. He was also venerated at Bối Khê Pagoda, in the eponymous village not far from here in Thanh Oai District (see end of Itinerary no7 p. 265). Legend says that he possessed superhuman powers and could, at will, command the rain to fall or the wind to blow. In the main pagoda at the top of the hill, you can admire a statue of Saint Bối (in a wooden display case): allegedly, it consists of his mummified and lacquered remains. (See also Itinerary no5, the box entitled “Return of the Mummy” p. 217).

30It is said that in the 15th century, Chinese invaders torched the pagoda and put its worshippers to the sword. The spirit of the supernatural monk awoke, stirred from his slumber in the Kingdom of Shadows by this act of desecration from the Middle Kingdom’s henchmen. He conjured a torrent of rain, red as blood, which battered the area of Núi Chùa for three days and nights. The Ming soldiers sank into the mire (bogged down in an unwinnable conflict, you might say).

GETTING TO THE BASKETWARE VILLAGES OF CHÝÕNG MỸ DISTRICT

31Go back the way you came as far as the đình in the village of Tiên Lữ, which is also used as offices by the Communal People's Committee, and turn right. After 2.5 kilometres, you are back on Highway no6, where you turn right for the commune of Phú Nghĩa (Chýõng Mỹ). Go past the big industrial area of the same name on your left, well hidden behind a gigantic fence and identifiable by the somewhat futuristic sign. At the 25 km mark, you will see on the right the entrance to Phú Nghĩa Commune. There are several villages in the commune, the most interesting being Phú Vinh, roughly one kilometre after the commune sign (see walk p. 283).

CHÝÕNG MỸ: ALL THE EGGS IN ONE BASKET

32Beneath the hills west of the Delta lies a little area of specialist rattan or bamboo basket weavers. Of the district’s 32 communes, 18 are involved in the weaving of natural vegetable fibres-a total of 54 craft villages. The industry employs over 35,000 artisans. The villages are organised into small clusters. The biggest cluster is in the communes of Phú Nghĩa (over 4,000 artisans) and Ðông Phýõng Yên (nearly 3,000 artisans), the latter a more recent convert to basket-weaving. Two communes on the far side of the highway, Trýõng Yên and Trung Hòa, also specialise in basketware.

33The basket trade is a relatively recent arrival. In 1936, French geographer Pierre Gourou only mentioned two villages specialising in rattan work-Phú Vinh, home of the local basket trade (now in the modern commune of Phú Nghĩa) and Nghĩa Hảo. Another village, Yên Kiên, specialised in bamboo craft.

34These villages are changing rapidly. In 2004, there were still few of the big basketware firms that now line the edges of Highway no6. The bulk of the production was carried out in the homes and yards of the local villagers. Since August 2008, the province has been gradually absorbed into the greater Hà Nội Province, shedding its old name and succumbing to the real estate frenzy. Industrial parks have sprung up along the highway. Hidden in shapeless hulks, hundreds of little hands labour away on behalf of these large concerns: weaving, sanding, varnishing, cutting and adding the final touches before products are sent for packaging. This is ‘modern’ industrialisation, and in its quest for standardisation it spells the end of the road for the contract labour that once employed thousands and was, for centuries past, the mainstay of cottage industry in this province.

35Fret not, for you can still visit some village workshops: the big companies cannot yet do without the small basket weaver entirely, although they are trying their best to be rid of him. But there is a palpable sense of decline, hovering in the air like a whiff of burnt bamboo. A few years ago this place was a hive of activity. Today you may hear a few muffled sounds from beyond the low walls of village dwellings, but the buzzing has stopped. Production is fragmented. During the rice harvest, you may as well not bother visiting: houses are empty and handicraft suspended. In the shadow of the big factories, production goes on-but behind locked gates, patrolled by security men.

36We have chosen three communes to visit, each with its own speciality:

  • Phú Nghĩa, and the village of Phú Vinh, home of the basket trade (rattan);
  • Ðông Phýõng Yên, and the villages of Ðồi Ba and Yên Kiên (various kinds of bamboo);
  • Trýõng Yên, and the village of Phú Yên (giang, a type of thin bamboo).

CONTEXT

The home of rattan: a basket case in the making

37In Hà Tây Province, a little over 200 craft villages out of a total of 500 are engaged in basket-weaving (with bamboo and rattan). Chýõng Mỹ District is where the industry is mainly concentrated. Fashioning the everyday objects of rural life, the craft was mostly a local affair providing modest income. The exception was Phú Vinh, linked to European markets since colonial times, where basket-weaving developed as a true art form at the hands of a dozen or so master craftsmen producing extraordinarily fine decorative items.

38Prior to this, basket makers practised their trade while working as farmers. Specialised as they were, their trade was a manual one requiring little real expertise. Unlike the guilds created around the figure of a founding “master”, whose prestige had to be ritually renewed by articles of faith on an annual basis, basket making was a low-status profession. For Pierre Gourou, observing peasant life in the Delta in the 1930s, every villager was a basket-weaver to some degree and could fashion containers for his own use during the low season.

39Collectivisation brought a shift in scale and scope; hundreds of craft workers were drilled into service by cooperatives, under the guidance of the best weavers, turning out basketware on a mass scale to satisfy the markets of Eastern Europe. Relatively simple objects were manufactured in series by a large number of contract workers, but they were paid little and given no creative licence.

40The new buyers that followed were scarcely concerned by such issues as quality and cared still less about whether the newly trained craft worker was being given room to develop and innovate. Then, plastic containers from China more or less killed off the trade in basketware for household use. Additionally, bamboo and rattan craft were, and remain, not exclusive to Vietnam: in Southeast Asia, major producers of bamboo objects include the Philippines, Myanmar and especially Indonesia; these countries make better quality items and offer a better life for their artisans. Now there is talk of inviting Indonesian competitors in to raise the level of qualification among the basket weavers of Phú Vinh. Out of 2,000 basket workers in Phú Nghĩa, only 220 can be said to be qualified to handle the full process of production and to work with rattan (a more difficult material) as well as with different types of bamboo.

41What little experience and skill the others possess can only be traded for a monthly wage of less than 700,000 VNĐ, or just 300,000VNĐ at apprentice level. Mass production by an army of poorly paid, low-skilled workers is not the most convincing strategy for a nation trying to access countries with tough manufacturing standards and a keen eye for ‘good quality’ (in the sense in which we speak of ‘good’ governance). Many countries in the West steer well clear of anything manufactured by child labour.

42Since 2005, productivity in the Phú Vinh cluster has been shrinking. The challenge of opening up goods to very demanding markets like Japan, France and the USA will not go away. Demand is growing rapidly, but this poses different problems: thwarted by new environmental regulations, Japanese businesses have been coming to the Delta villages looking for food containers made from vegetable fibres; but the hygiene standards they require are hard to apply in Vietnam.

43The tradition of contract labour is another handicap: each artisan obtains his own raw materials, and works with no real supervision; however well trained he is, he makes mistakes. It’s a difficult time for the industry: businesses are fearful of new orders, unable to raise the quality of the merchandise, and struggling to meet production deadlines, since labour is still contracted out within a rigidly hierarchical system. Should an order come in at peak rice harvesting time, the deal can’t be honoured.

44A few zealous craftsmen like Mr Trung (see box p. 279) are pinning their hopes on improved quality and training. He has opened a village craft-training centre with Danish development support. He plans to select the best pupils to work for him. Other firms are steering more towards diversification and mass production.

45The much more commercially-oriented firms dealing in bamboo and rattan wares from all over Vietnam have joined the real estate frenzy and set up shop along Highway no6. They are in debt up to the eyeballs, have made enormous capital investment and employ an unqualified workforce (mainly young women, who are cheaper), training them on the job to service large orders and work on product finishing and packaging. The pool of recruits continues to widen (Hoà Bình Province).

46These companies benefit little from the skills of the more gifted craftsmen. Such people are too expensive and in any case, like Mr Trung, they have their own businesses to run. But the bigger firms do contract out a share of their orders to the smaller tradesmen at home in the villages, lending flexibility to the system and allowing them to adapt to the ups and downs of the market.

47Phú Nghĩa commune faces another big problem: 350 ha of farmland have been appropriated for the construction of a large industrial park on Highway no6. Only one third of its units have been designated for use by basketry firms, with the rest sold off to big businesses in other sectors, from Hanoi or overseas (e. g. China and Taiwan). Half the firms are from outside the district; the others are local company bosses from the commune, but fewer than 12 specialise in rattan.

48These large enterprises are polluting the commune, as the wastewater drainage from the factories is not separated from the mains water system. They won’t be hiring local folk, not well suited to this kind of work. In any case, once they pass 30, they are no longer taken on. The many peasants whose land has been expropriated (the average farm is just half a hectare) are no longer certain to be self sufficient in rice and for a great number their craft activity is not enough to compensate. There is a risk that for the more fragile artisan households, things may become still more perilous. With falling orders and rising competition between them, the future looks bleak.

PHÚ VINH

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Where it all began: the distant origins of bamboo craft

49“Once upon a time, among the craggy karst, where rugged pagodas hang over the boggy plain, a ragged rustic with magic fingers twiddled his thumbs in the high bamboo...”

  • 2 It was roughly 1,000 years ago in the villages of Thanh Hóa Province (150 kilometres south of Hà N (...)

50The craft of bamboo weaving in Hà Tây Province is said to date from the 16th century and alleged to have started here at Phú Vinh. It all began with Nguyễn Văn Sôi, who in 2008 was formally recognised as craft ancestor by the local People’s Committee. The story goes that this ancestor, who was born here in the 16th century, learned how to make bamboo artefacts while travelling in Thanh Hóa Province with his father, a distinguished mandarin2. Upon returning to Xóm Thýợng (a hamlet in Phú Vinh, place of the white storks) he practised the trade within his family, passed it on to his children and taught it to his younger clansmen. Phú Vinh and the other villages around lay in a lowland area dotted with little karst crags, and at that time were frequently flooded and therefore rich in shrimp and fish. The people had great need of bamboo tools for fishing (traps, baskets) as well as for domestic purposes and agriculture. They also needed other livelihoods, as rice farming was not well developed due to the awkward topography.

51At first, the ancestor’s descendants supplemented their income by making objects from bamboo, natural fibres and grasses that grew by the roadside, selling the surplus to neighbouring villages. They even made hats from stork feathers. But the ancestor’s descendants wanted to keep the methods secret to conserve a monopoly on the industry. However, the market grew, from local towns to the Ðồng Xuân market in Hà Nội and, through Chinese middlemen, out to neighbouring provinces. Production grew with it and the clan was obliged to pass on the craft to others in the village.

bamboo baskets drying in the forecourt of a large factory

making rattan ring curtains at phú vinh

52In the early 1700s, bamboo became the material of choice for works of art. In 1712, a work in four panels representing the plants that symbolise the four seasons (apricot, pine, chrysanthemum, moso bamboo), made by craft workers in the village of Phú Vinh, was offered to the King. (The work is today in the Ethnology Museum in Huế.) Phú Vinh became famous for the quality of its bamboo products and at the beginning of the 18th century it was a major manufacturing centre making bamboo articles traded across northern Vietnam.

The modern era

53In French colonial times (1858-1945), bamboo craft in the village retained considerable notoriety. Under King Tự Đừc (1848-1883), nine artisans from the village swore allegiance to the King and vowed “never to teach their trade to people from other localities”. Villages began to diversify and craftsmen began making items in rattan for the French market (rattan is made solely for export: it cannot be used in the tropics because it tolerates neither humidity nor termites). In the village, a group of French traders monopolised the purchase of bamboo and rattan items and their export to France.

54By this point, the basket makers were really branching out: the years 1936-1940 were the most prosperous in the village’s history, with 80% of households involved in craft activity. They also worked with giang, a short, solid type of bamboo used to weave little plates and trays for rich families. The French traders bought what was produced up until 1943, when they stopped because of the war. After the war came a period of recession, with agriculture often not able to provide food for the villagers.

55After the First Indochina War against the French, the villagers improved their water system and upgraded farm production. Bamboo and rattan manufacturing returned. In 1957, the commune of Phú Nghĩa saw its first agricultural co-operatives come into being. In March 1963, a village craft co-operative was founded and 400 villagers joined it, most of them artisans from Phú Vinh. They gave up their land to the farming co-operatives, and were paid in rice vouchers by the state, like other workers and officials.

The collectivist interlude

56The creation of the craft co-operative heralded the start of the centrally planned economy that made its mark on many of the craft villages we have explored. However, the master craftsmen of Phú Vinh clung on to their special status, transmitting their savoir-faire through the training of other co-operatives and retaining their monopoly on rattan weaving, a more difficult art than bamboo craft (giang or nứa). As the years went by, the trade was kept alive and even prospered as Vietnam, now locked behind the Bamboo Curtain, found new export markets in the territories enclosed by the Iron Curtain. But once again, this approach to labour organisation had mainly negative consequences for craft expression and originality, operational flexibility and general manufacturing quality; the results took their toll when collectivisation and its structures fell apart, well before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

57The craft co-operative was officially dissolved in 1991, but already it was unable sell its products. The co-operative was handed over to the communal People’s Committee in its entirety. In 1993, after land redistribution reforms, the former members of the craft co-operative recovered their old lands, but most of them rented these out to farmers and continued their weaving crafts.

58Despite all the ups and downs of trade and labour, the fame and prestige attached to the village of Phú Vinh went from strength to strength, and the widening of the home and overseas markets under the liberalising reforms of Đổi Mới helped set Phú Vinh back on its feet.

Relations between villages, division of labour and the master-craftsman’s workshop

59Until collectivisation, the craftsmen of Phú Vinh were unwilling to pass on their techniques to nearby villages. But Phú Vinh has now done this: 20 communes out of 30 in the district practise the craft. In Trýõng Yên Commune (especially at Phú Yên, another stopover on the itinerary), the villagers were formerly farmers and woodworkers. Now they have belatedly embraced bamboo weaving.

60The villages of Phú Nghĩa are more skilled in rattan craft, a more difficult art form, while in those of Ðông Phýõng Yên (another commune on our itinerary), artisans are more specialised in high quality bamboo work. In other villages, people work essentially with bamboo only, with less refined techniques. As basket making is strictly a manual task, it is not possible to produce on a large scale. The work is spread out, a little here, a little there: one homestead weaves the base of the basket, another the sides, a third the lid.

61In recent times, ten master craftsmen have made names for themselves in Phú Vinh (four have since died) and after the French Indochina War, many artisans fled to the South, introducing the craft there. The most active and best-known exponent still working is Nguyễn Văn Trung (see box p. 279), now in his fifties, of Xóm Thýợng (a hamlet of Phú Vinh).

Craftsman cleaving a rattan culm, phú vinh

Nguyễn Văn Trung: the rattan king of Phú Vinh

62Though stricken with a disease affecting his leg while in his teens, Nguyễn Văn Trung became, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his disability, a great expert in rattan weaving. He has in fact given courses on the subject at the University of Industrial Arts. He is a seventh-generation maker of rattan objects and was head of the group of technicians at the Phú Nghĩa cooperative, creating dozens of successful new designs. Before moving into teaching, Mr. Trung travelled extensively on expert missions: to Angola, to Cuba (where he plaited Fidel Castro’s beard in 1976), and to France and Poland to participate in exhibitions. His son, who is about 20 years old, has already woven a large portrait of President Hồ Chí Minh. Returning to his village from the University in around 1990, Mr. Trung realised that Phú Vinh would have to adapt, or lose its ancient craft. He founded a private company of 25 artisans, making bamboo and rattan items. Six years later, after a rocky start in the tough world of business, he opened his first shop. There were further obstacles, but when foreign tourists started to come here in growing numbers, sales went up and he began to export directly. In early 2006, he founded a new, bigger firm with a 300 m2 workshop and jobs for 25 trainers and 100 permanent employees. But Mr. Trung does not intend to rest on his laurels. His latest scheme is to create a large training and information centre on the basket-weaver’s art, with workshops, machinery, classrooms and accommodation for students, aiming to train up 100 fully-fledged artisans per year – a qualified, stable and motivated workforce to guarantee a future for himself and other producers like him.

ORGANISATION OF THE CRAFT

63The main units of organisation are:

64Small businesses (different from the retailers and their noisy, dirty units on Highway no6). These businesses subcontract artisans throughout the district, and indeed the province, and possess a number of advantages to buyers: an established, permanent presence; direct export capability; defined legal status (the latter is more reassuring for foreign customers, who know what a limited liability company is all about).

65Producer groups: collectives not (yet) crystallised into formal companies or firms; there are still eight of these in the commune.

66Family workshops (1): most families do contract work at home. It is difficult to separate home from workshop, as the work is seasonal and householders are both farmers and artisans. The whole family is involved, with each family member assigned a specific task. The easiest bits are done by the children. Proper companies cannot hire these family units to work in their factories.

67Family workshops (2): certain families specialise in preparatory work: for some, this means bamboo cutting (10 kg per day by hand as opposed to 150 kg per day by machine); for others it means chemical treatment of raw materials. The latter involves either soaking bamboo culms or hanks of rattan in acid for a few hours to whiten them (acid is afterwards tossed into the ditches to float off towards the rice paddies!), or laying the fibres under a cover in a corner of the yard and burning a bowl of sulphur with them for four days (a rustic form of fumigation: we won’t mention the environment again; just spare a thought for the children of the commune – and bring your own bottle of water).

68Apprentices: spare another thought (indeed, perhaps the same thought) for those at the bottom of the professional ladder, about 600 of Phú Nghĩa commune’s 2,000 artisans are apprentices. They earn very low wages (as we have already mentioned, they start at around 300,000VNĐ a month), but they are the ones who are leaned on the most when a big order is on the books…

69Tools and equipment: The simplest tools of all are used: feet, hands, a knife to trim the bamboo and rattan and a 20 cm ruler to measure the length of fibres for cutting. Furthermore, basket-making requires relatively little space in the home.

RAW MATERIALS AND CRAFT CHARACTERISTICS

70In Phú Vinh, a wide range of materials is used, especially rattan and a wealth of different bamboos, to make an equally vast array of varied objects (furniture, sofas, shelves, small baskets, coasters, lamps). Materials include:

  • mây (rattan);
  • trúc (or ivory bamboo, thin bamboo with closely-spaced nodes);
  • giang (spindly type of “clump-forming” bamboo), less flexible;
  • song (thin bamboo from Đa Nãng);
  • guột (thin bamboo from Cao Bắng, Lạng Sõn, near China);
  • cói (rushes from Ninh Binh);
  • tre and nứa (large bamboos from Hòa Bình, Thanh Hóa).

71At one time, there were many bamboo plants growing close to the village, but today they have to be obtained from further and further afield, even central and southern Vietnam. There is a market from 6am to 9am every morning at Phú Vinh, where the bosses and team leaders go to stock up.

bamboo and rattan baskets drying at phú vinh

An example

72Subcontracted workshops are paid a piecework rate: in 2004, one family interviewed earned 2,500 VNĐ for weaving three rows of rattan around small plates. The task took 30 minutes per plate and they did 10 plates a day. Subtract 10,000VNĐ for raw materials, and the result is 15,000 VNĐ per day (less than 1 US dollar).

73Phú Nghĩa is particularly diverse in materials and products compared to other communes. But as the big retailers establish themselves along the highway, a tide of factory-superstores selling products from all over Vietnam is closing in. The commune is in danger of losing its unique characteristics.

The problem of export: 95% of Phú Nghĩa products are sold overseas

74The sizeable orders and short delivery times demanded by buyers in developed countries are forcing producers to think in terms of mechanisation. In basket-making however, mechanisation is a costly and difficult affair (as the mixed results from the collectivist era showed). To start with, it requires considerably more workshop area. Incidentally, possible job losses (even if those who keep their jobs might be paid a little better) hardly seem to be of any concern. Mr Trung (see box p. 279) thinks the first stage in production (cleaning and cutting of bamboo) and the last one (polishing and varnishing) could be mechanised. But the weaving would always have to be done in people’s homes, because to do otherwise would require too much investment.

75Besides, foreign clients prefer the handmade over the machine-made every time: the appeal of the unique, the handcrafted, the non-standardised, the non-uniformly finished item is a powerful selling point. At the same time, these customers generally abhor any kind of worker exploitation (or at least, any overt exploitation), and will not touch anything noticeably produced by child labour, yet they are unwilling to pay more than the lowest possible price. With only rattan, bamboo and a knife, squaring this kind of circle is a tough proposition.

76The order cycle for the export market does not respect the natural cycle of planting and harvesting that keeps a large proportion of the workforce on its toes.

77In Indonesia, for instance, artisans earn three or four times the wage of their Vietnamese counterparts. The workers of Phú Nghĩa sometimes export items to Indonesia, where a Made in Indonesia sticker is attached before the goods are sold on overseas. What is the right course of action in such a situation? The remedy is perhaps, first and foremost, an improved export-sales structure, better management and enhanced marketing so that capital gains from manufacturing flow in directly at source. An American NGO recently helped several groups of producers in the province to build a website, improve their sales strategy and source foreign partnerships.

A stroll through the basket village of Phú Vinh

78A reminder: when you are on Highway no6, you pass by on your left the large Phú Nghĩa industrial area, well hidden behind a gigantic fence and somewhat futuristically signposted. At the 25-kilometre point, there is an entrance on the right to Phú Nghĩa Commune. There are several villages in the commune, but the most interesting is, of course, Phú Vinh, which is around one kilometre from the entrance. The little road going into the commune travels first of all through Khê Than (on the left), the village that is home to the commune’s People’s Committee headquarters. On the right, behind a large pond, stands Quang Châm village, a charming place with its houses and large courtyards used as drying compounds. In the afternoon, it is possible to see the villagers at work. In this village, artisans mainly work as individual subcontractors from the privacy of their own homes. There are no small entrepreneurs running busy little factories.

79Follow the road in a north-westerly direction. On your left you pass the market, and then the building of the former craft co-operative, also on the left in the village of Phú Hữu, recognizable by the sign saying “Hợp Tác Xã”, where a producer group has installed itself. In the morning, you will see large baskets drying. It is possible to visit the showroom belonging to Mr. Trần Vãn Cýu, where various specimens of export items are on display. In his workshop, he has three young artisans devising 300-400 models every year. He even has a catalogue in Japanese! Now and again, Mr Cýu sells the few unsold articles he has in the workshop over the counter.

80A little farther along on the left, there is a little lane disappearing into the hamlet of Xóm Thýợng; leaving Phú Vinh village you will see the sign pointing the way. On the right hand corner of the street, there is a very fine wooden house, with a small café-bar/restaurant where you can cool off. On either side of this new lane, there are workshops run by small entrepreneurs: you will see their wares drying outside in the yard. Artisans at work within are putting together orders destined for Europe, mainly baskets of various shapes and sizes. You can visit the workshops, where you will see everything done by hand – no machines.

81A few metres further down is a handsome banyan tree under which local women weave rattan in the afternoons. Go straight on and you will emerge into a pretty square, at the far end of which stands the house of Mr. Trung, one of the village’s most active and best known basket-weavers (see box p. 279). You can visit his little museum, where his finest works are on display, and admire the large rattan tableaux he has woven, representing Uncle Hồ and his Cuban comrade, Fidel Castro. The delicacy of the objects on show contrasts with the simple baskets you will see drying in the courtyards. There’s no mistaking that this is the home of an artist: the walls are covered with various prizes and photographic mementoes; there are lamps, vases, large vessels, boxes finely worked from strands of coloured rattan… Unfortunately, it’s not possible to buy objects like these; Mr Trung makes only to order. In the workshop at the back, he has a few lower grade items on display, which he might sell you for a token sum.

82As you leave Mr Trung, you will see on the left of the square a very fine doorway opening onto an old house. You can also visit the workshop of Mr. Đo (behind Mr. Trung’s), who, when we last visited, was making curtains from little rings made from tiny strips of bamboo. In the workshop, which is in the courtyard facing a lovely pool, we saw a sharp division of labour among the 20 or so women who work here: some cutting the bamboo strips, others fashioning the rings with remarkable dexterity, others assembling the curtains, and still others cleaning off waste fibres with a gas torch. Here again you can buy from an assortment of baskets of different shapes, little rattan carrying cases, and other remaindered items.

83Next, retrace your steps, across the front of the banyan, but instead of going back to the commune entrance, go to Xóm Hạ, another hamlet attached to Phú Vinh. Turn left and immediately right and you will come out into an open area where, on the right, in the second house along, you will find the magnificent workshop of Mr. Hân Hạnh. His lovely home is small in size, but charming, with its fine sculpture and olde worlde craftsmanship. Inside is an Aladdin’s cave of bags, lampshades... everything finely wrought in coloured rattan fibre. The prices are quite high, but not over the top for such an inventive and skilful maker – he has exhibited at numerous fairs in Hà Nội and elsewhere. His wares include items combining rattan with ceramics. You will find his creations on sale in tourist shops in Hàng Trống Street (Hà Nội). Across the road, there is yet another beautiful house for you to visit.

ÐÔNG PHÝÕNG YÊN

GETTING THERE

84To get from Phú Nghĩa to the commune of Ðông Phýõng Yên, head back towards Highway no6 and, after exiting Phú Nghĩa Commune, turn right towards Hoà Bình. At the 28-kilometre mark, turn right, and under the gateway welcoming you into Ðông Phýõng Yên Commune.

85Ðông Phýõng Yên is sleepier than Phú Nghĩa, the commune being more seriously affected by the decline in orders from Europe. Since 2006, the pace of production has slowed considerably and the machinery rumbles rather less than it used to.

86In colonial times, there were just a few homesteads here specialising the fabrication of baskets for washing rice or vegetables, which the villagers sold in Hà Nội. One or two families worked for the French, at the Phú Vinh workshops, making dolls’house furniture (for French dolls, obviously). With collectivisation, alongside the artisans of Phú Nghĩa, people learned how to diversify production through training courses run by the craft co-operative. Between 1976 and 1983, artisans here made blinds from giang (the short, solid species of bamboo) for the East European market. With the Đổi Mới reforms, many abandoned their trade due to a lack of outlets, leaving only those who were already well established during the collectivist period (especially those at management level) to make the best of it.

87The basic difference between the artisans of Ðông Phýõng Yên and their comrades at Phú Nghĩa is that the former mainly worked with bamboo, especially giang, and were not well skilled in handling rattan (which is more difficult to work). When the craftsmen of Phú Nghĩa received orders for giang products, they passed them on to their counterparts in Ðông Phýõng Yên who did the same for them with rattan ware. Some workshops started dividing up the production process, specialising in the cutting of bamboo, especially trúc (fine bamboo) and tre. They acquired machinery – a saw, drills – and serviced other workshops. They hired young women from nearby communes and paid them a day wage.

88Ðông Phýõng Yên produces trays, wastepaper baskets, round baskets, baskets for bonsai trees, magazine racks, all in bamboo. Different types of fibres or bamboo canes are used depending on the part being made. A tray, for instance, comprises:

  • trúc for the edges of the tray;
  • song for the handles;
  • nứa for the base of the tray;
  • mây (rattan) to bind the various parts together.

89Artisans in this commune trade with other craft villages in the Hà Nội hinterland: baskets are sent to Quất Động for raffia-work embroidery (see Itinerary no6); ceramics are bought from Bát Tràng (see Itinerary no2) and decorative borders woven around the rim. There are problems for the craftworkers of Ðông Phýõng Yên in terms of international sales networks: some Eastern European countries like Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, one-time clients at the co-operative with whom the artisans have maintained links, force themselves upon producers as intermediaries with their consumers in the capitalist world. We end our visit among basket weavers with a stroll around Ðông Phýõng Yên Commune, taking in two villages: Ðồi Ba and Yên Kiên.

making bamboo baskets at đồi ba

bamboo drying in đồi ba

women gathered in a yên kiên pagoda to weave their baskets

Ðồi Ba, Yên Kiên and Phù Yên

90Entering the village of Đồi Ba you may see villagers at work on the doorstep or in the yard, making goods to order. When we were here, all the artisans along the main street were making the same baskets, no doubt for the same boss. The village has no special charm, but if you slip into some of the side streets you will get a glimpse of the thousand and one ways of weaving different varieties of bamboo and the multitude of objects the craftsman’s hand can produce.

91The villages in this commune are not especially rich, and the architectural heritage does not match the splendour of Bắc Ninh or the other villages on the banks of the dyke along the Đáy River.

92Continuing along the little road, you come to the village of Yên Kiên. There is a somewhat rustic pagoda here, almost three centuries old, with stupas in the courtyard. It is well worth a visit. The monk who lives here is very hospitable and he might open the gate for you. The women of the village bring their work here in the afternoons, to weave and talk together. Behind the pagoda, the interesting đình is also worth taking a look at.

93On the opposite side of the national highway, there is one last stop: the village of Phù Yên, in the commune of Trýờng Yên.

94Go back towards Phú Nghĩa on Highway no6. On your right, a dyke follows the road in surprising fashion. After the 28-kilometre mark, a little street cuts across the dyke and goes on to the village of Phù Yên. At one time, this village specialised in furniture making, switching to basketware during the collectivist period. A little co-operative had been established, but few people worked there because only the best artisans were selected. Twenty or so businesses have moved out along the roadside because of pollution and lack of space. In the village, only women home-workers on contract for basketry companies are left (the men tend to be woodworkers and furniture makers). Most of the women we met are making little baskets from sticks of giang about 40cm long, fixed with mây fibres, bought in the market at Ðông Phýõng Yên. Daily wage: about 15,000 VNÐ.

95The village is not large. Go straight on and you will come to the đình, facing a little pond. If you have done things in the right order, this will be your last moment of peace and quiet before you hit the road and get back to the crush of Hà Nội.

96These basket-weaving villages are quite peaceful and pleasant places to visit because the area is still predominantly agricultural. Crafts tend to be practised at home, behind closed doors, with almost all the big companies now out along the state highway. Village life here is a far cry here from the hubbub of Bắc Ninh or La Phù.

Notes

1 «According to certain documents... »: this turn of phrase and the date it validated are taken from an interesting book, Chùa Việt Nam/Buddhist Temples in Vietnam (i. e. pagodas), by Hà Vãn Tấn, Nguyễn Vãn Kự, and Phạm Ngọc Long, (see bibliography). The beauty and power of this phrase stem from its wise and thoughtful air, coexisting harmoniously with a complete absence of references or objective corroboration.

2 It was roughly 1,000 years ago in the villages of Thanh Hóa Province (150 kilometres south of Hà Nội) that bamboo craft emerged in Vietnam. Not far from these villages was the site of Hoa Lý, one of the ancient capitals of Vietnam and a centre of gravity for artistic production, especially of bamboo and rattan work.

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