Hand-made HISTORY

Vietnam has long been renowned for its handicrafts and all are ideal for home décor or as gifts.

By Le Diem on January 07,2019 09:21 AM

Hand-made HISTORY

Photos: Le Diem

After we got back from shopping for some souvenirs for her friends when she visited home, my French friend Sara messaged them: “If you’re a fan of handicrafts, be careful when you’re in Vietnam; you might ‘die’.” There were so many things to choose from, she went on, in a range of materials, shapes, and styles. Thanks to the skilled hands and creative minds of artisans making sophisticated and unique products, we had spent the day saying “ah, oh” quite a lot and at one point she reached into her purse only to find it was empty.

Vietnamese silk is favored as they are 100 per cent made from natural silk and come in beautiful patterns, colors and sizes, all made on traditional hand looms

Developed during Vietnam’s thousand years of being a wet rice cultivation society, the country has a host of handicraft villages of almost the same age. Hard-working farmers took advantage of free time after the harvest to make products for their farming work and daily life. Over time, different professions developed on a family scale in areas and villages, with their own production secrets passed on only to others in the village.

In the early days, various types of natural materials were used, creating diversity in craft products. Moreover, the products themselves were also varied. While classic products may tell some cultural story, newer versions show a combination of tradition and modernity, made from traditional materials but practical for the modern world.

Pottery products are the most readily found. There are many pottery villages around the country and each has products with their own distinguishing features. For example, Bat Trang village near Hanoi, one of the country’s oldest craft villages and a symbol of Vietnamese handicrafts, makes thick pottery products in a range of glazed colors, such as blue, brown, white, and green, for worship and for the home. Products from Chu Dau pottery village in northern Hai Duong province, which were exported to the UK, France, the Netherlands, Japan, and elsewhere around Southeast Asia in the 15th century and displayed at museums both home and abroad, are unique for their old decorative patterns depicting nature, local life, and Buddhism and Confucianism. Meanwhile, Cham artisans in Bau Truc pottery village in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan didn’t use pottery wheels but moved a stone pillar to shape the clay by hand. Their products are fired not in a kiln but on bark from cashew trees and are not glazed, and while no two products are exactly the same they all bear patterns depicting Cham culture. Visitors to pottery villages can learn how to make products and take the fruits of their labor home with them.

Vietnamese silk has also had a great reputation for centuries. As a leading trading port in the 17th and 18th centuries, Hoi An ancient town was the starting point for Vietnam’s “silk road”, with exports going to China, Japan and Europe. Hoi An remains at the center of the country’s silk trade, together with Van Phuc silk village in Hanoi. Van Phuc’s products were introduced at fairs in Paris and Marseille in the early 20th century and have been exported to Europe since the 1950s. Nha Xa and Bao Loc are other famous names in the silk trade.

Hand-made HISTORY

Vietnamese silk is favored as they are 100 per cent made from natural silk and come in beautiful patterns, colors and sizes, all made on traditional hand looms. Patterns represent familiar images in Vietnam, such as bronze drums and lotus, the national flower. At silk villages or souvenir shops you can find silk paintings, scarves, suits, and clothes, especially “ao dai”, the traditional Vietnamese dress. There are also dozens of tailors in Hoi An and Van Phuc where you can have a silk outfit made in a day.

Along with silk, brocade weaving, especially by ethnic minority groups that have a long tradition of making colorful items for daily use or wear, add a gem to the country’s fashion scene. Brocade weaving requires hard work, skill, and meticulousness. In days of yore, women from ethnic minority groups such as the Mong, M’nong, Dao, Thai, K’ho, and Jrai had to learn how to weave brocade, which were associated with talent and virtue, or they would have difficulty finding a husband. Many made their own wedding dress and other brocade items to present to their future husband’s family as gifts before marriage, as is the custom.

All materials for brocade come from nature. Flax is used as the fabric and different kinds of trees and flowers are dyed to prepare the color. Vietnamese brocade features colorful and unique patterns in different combinations, depending on the creativity of the artisan. Common patterns reflect nature and the villagers’ lives and beliefs, with images of the sun, the moon, thunder, mountains, river, tree, flowers, and animals. Classic brocade items are scarves and clothes while those for daily use and especially for travelling are also available today, such as wallets in various size and shapes, backpacks, and passport holders, etc. “They are quite beautiful and special, ideal gifts for my friends at home. They will love them,” said Sara.

At handicraft shops, we were also impressed by sophisticated products made from wood. Fine wooden furniture has been favored by many families for many centuries, such as wardrobes, beds, tables, chairs, and statues for both worship and decoration. Carved wooden products are now made more for home décor and gifts, like carved wooden paintings, clocks, miniatures of traditional houses and vehicles like motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos, and boats, as well as tea boxes and tobacco pipes.

Meanwhile, given the predominance of bamboo trees around the country and its place as the national tree, bamboo products have unsurprisingly been a part of the lives of Vietnamese people for a long time. Products used to only be made for daily life, such as screens, mats, baskets, vases, trays, chopsticks, and pillows. Nowadays, these products have an important role as props at art shows on Vietnam. Modern-day artisans also create more artistic items for interior décor with vintage themes as well as in new styles with extraordinary patterns, such as lanterns, lamp shades, miniatures of animals, photo frames, and bamboo and rattan bags, including basket- and drum-shaped bags featuring pottery decorations or brocade patterns that win the hearts of many shoppers.

Another quintessential Vietnamese craft, lacquerware, has caught the imagination at international handicraft fairs. Lacquer paintings are popular in Vietnam and throughout Asia, especially in China, Japan and South Korea. Many date from the 9th and 10th century and techniques were also developed by local painters at the Indochina College of Fine Arts (now the University of Fine Arts), established by the French in the 1930s. The main difference in Vietnamese lacquer is the materials and techniques.

Traditional lacquer is a resin from lacquer trees, planted mostly in northern Phu Tho province and which have the finest quality. Paintings are done on wood covered with a piece of cloth glued to it using the sap of the lacquer tree mixed with earth. Each piece of Vietnamese lacquerware has about ten layers of lacquer. Artists wait until the item is dry and then rub it in water, and the job is complete when the lacquerware is as smooth as can be, and the polish is then applied. Thanks to their natural beauty and the meticulousness in creation, Vietnamese lacquerware items are highly durable and retain their beauty for dozens of years. To make them even more exclusive, Vietnamese artists add other materials like inlaid gold, silver, eggshell, or oyster shell.

Unique lacquer techniques are also applied in simple products for life or stylish products for fashion, such as name card boxes, jewelry boxes, decorative plates, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.

It took Sara and I hours to search out these charming items. Despite being cheap, starting from just $2 (VND46,000), we bought so many we had to drop into an ATM and top up our purses.

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