Lost treasures

Urbanization and the needs of economic development are squeezing out Hanoi’s long-standing craft villages.

By Thuy Duong on September 20,2018 10:06 AM

Lost treasures

Photos: LE BICH & KIM HUYEN

The only desire of artisan Quach Van Truong, 80, one of only four remaining craftsmen in the silver carving village of Dinh Cong in Hanoi’s Hoang Mai district, to “create a silver craft exhibition within the village”, will, sadly, never come true. People in Dinh Cong are, it seems, much more interested in buying and selling land for profit and give little thought to the village’s proud history of silver craft. It is now a “modern urban metropolis”, with dozens of high-rise buildings and tens of thousands of residents.

The overheating in the economy and the consequences of the “land fever” that took place about a decade ago has made craft villages around Hanoi and in the former province of Ha Tay, which the capital subsumed ten years ago, suddenly or gradually disappear. Among them can be counted famous traditional craft villages such as Dinh Cong, the La Khe silk weaving village, the Da Sy forging village, the Ngu Xa bronze casting village, and the Chuong conical hat village.

Past glory

The glory days of traditional craft villages was around two decades ago. Between 1995 and 2002, the number of craft villages in the Red River Delta rose from 500 to 1,000 and represented 40 per cent of all craft villages in Vietnam. Half of these are located within a 50-km radius of Hanoi.

The rapid development of crafts and especially industrial activities generated vigorous growth in production and increased the land area used, while also providing jobs for many under-employed villagers working in seasonal agriculture.

A report from the World Bank in 1999 included impressive statistics on traditional craft villages. They represented 41 per cent of GDP in the industrial non-State sector and employed 64 per cent of the workforce in the non-State industrial sector. Annual growth in rural handicrafts and industrial production stood at 9 per cent at the end of the 1990s, and exports exceeded $600 million in 2003.

Since 2009, however, craft villages have experienced difficult times due to the domestic and global economic slowdowns. High inventories and a decline in sales of 30-40 per cent, together with long-standing problems in the sector, made survival virtually impossible for many craft villages. They have continued to battle an image that their work is technically backwards, a waste of labor, and low in earnings. Various villages have shifted to the production of goods for new consumer markets, while others that were formerly agricultural villages have become “craft” villages of a different sort, specializing in producing a wide range of goods such as plastic pellets and briefcases, which would not be considered “traditional” under any definition.

“Many young people in craft villages are no longer interested in inheriting the family business and continuing the craft-making tradition because of the low income,” explained Mr. Luu Duy Dan, Chairman of the Vietnam Craft Villages Association. “They have taken on other work or moved to urban areas to seek employment.”

He still believes, though, that they may return if the craft sector is given proper investment. Relevant parties, including producers, policymakers, trade promoters, and trainers have yet to cooperate closely to resolve the problems. “The government has turned its attention to the sector by introducing a number of policies,” he added. To 2020, Hanoi will preserve and restore ten craft villages, including Dong My (lacquer ware), Van Canh (“do” paper), Phu Son (pottery), Ngu Xa (bronze casting), and La Khe (silk weaving). Eleven others are to be restored in subsequent years.

The last silversmiths of Dinh Cong

Lost treasures

Dinh Cong village has been renowned for its jewelry since the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Ly Nam De (503-548). Over the centuries, its artisans accumulated the skills to create masterpieces of lasting value, from silver earrings, necklaces and bracelets to other luxurious items. The jewelers not only followed traditional crafting methods with formalized patterns of real and mythical creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, phoenixes, tortoises, fish, cranes, tigers and bats, but also created their own designs.

After many turbulent times, the villagers of Dinh Cong are now more aware of the need to preserve their ancestor’s traditions. But its seem it may be a fruitless endeavor, as among the thousands of households now in the area there are only two families of artisans continuing the trade: the family of artisan Quach Van Truong, with his son Quach Tuan Anh, and artisan Quach Van Hieu and his son Quach Tuan Tu.

On a narrow street in Dinh Cong, Mr. Truong’s workshop is on the first floor of his own home, with the terrace turned into a warehouse and the living room a showroom. “Dau bac”, or silversmithing, is a wholly-handcrafted process. Firstly, silver is molten and lengthened into threads, and these threads are then curled to form patterns. Finally, the silver patterns are glued to each other to create a complete product.

It might take Mr. Truong a couple of weeks to finish one item, while selling it can take many weeks more. “Silversmithing is a special occupation,” he said. “It can’t be done by those who lack the skills or patience. One of my nephews gave it up after just a week.” Of his four children, only Tuan Anh has chosen to continue the family tradition of silversmithing.

“Our traditional craft village has been declining because the younger generation are not well-trained, leading to poor product quality,” the old artisan explained. “There are also fewer people who wish to learn and spend their lives in traditional crafts.” During his entire life as a silver artisan, Mr. Truong has always hoped to hold large-scale classes for training the next generation of silversmiths for the village, but it never came to be.

Lost treasures

La Khe silk village

Perhaps an even more tragic tale than Dinh Cong, the La Khe silk village in Hanoi’s Ha Dong district now has just two people - one old and one young - working to preserve the traditional trade.

The craft village was once quite famous but has now virtually disappeared. The name “La Khe” is now rarely heard, with the Van Khe urban area, which was built in the old La Khe village and on the banks of the Day River, now being more well known.

La Khe village was established in the 5th century and was initially La Ninh (with “La” meaning silk and “Ninh” meaning prosperous and durable). In the 15th century, La Ninh village was renamed La Khe (meaning silk weaving village on a small river). The village used to specialize in manufacturing “the” silk, a very light, transparent and flowery fabric worn by the Hanoian aristocracy and used for the payment of tribute to China. In the colonial era, there were more master craftspeople in La Khe than in the famed and still-standing Van Phuc silk village, but today silk production has almost vanished from the former. During the collectivist period, a crafts section was set up within the agricultural cooperative and family workshops stopped weaving silk. After the cooperative shut down, villagers moved on to other occupations.

According to one of the last great artisans in La Khe, multi-activity spelled the end of the craft, as it restricted the possibilities of developing silk weaving, which requires heavy investment in machinery, technical improvements, and training. The shrinking silk market then killed off what used to be one of the most famous villages in the silk cluster. Wages are low and employees lack sufficient know-how to rehabilitate the craft, meaning it’s unlikely to rise from the ashes.

Ngu Xa bronze casting village

Ngu Xa is on the banks of Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh district, and like many others was famous in the past but now has only two households maintaining the trade.

Lost treasures

According to legend, the village was founded during the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) by Zen Buddhist Grand Monk, Khong Lo. Since the 17th century, Ngu Xa village has produced domestic appliances such as boilers, trays, and basins, together with bells, incense burners, and Buddha statues, the greatest of which is the bronze statue of Tran Vu at Quan Thanh Temple in the capital’s Quan Thanh Street. At 3.96 meters tall, the four-ton statue was completed in 1667. In Ngu Xa Temple is a Buddha statue 5.5 meters tall and weighing 14 tons, which was completed in 1952.

In the 19th century, 90 per cent of village households were involved in bronze casting, using sophisticated technology and know-how passed down over generations. Through many ups and downs of history, Ngu Xa has preserved its traditional trade despite a dramatic decline in the number of artisans. But, many ask, for how much longer?

The “village” is now a city street where one will only see restaurants and hotels. Mr. Thanh Long, the son of famous artisan Nguyen Van Ung, said he didn’t know if his family would maintain the tradition. “To make a product, craftsmen must perform several stages that can take a month, but their earnings are very low,” he said. The production of labor-intensive cultural and decorative goods by master artisans is undoubtedly becoming a thing of the past. A bronze jar bearing gold or silver features can take a Ngu Xa artisan six months of hard work but sells for just VND5 million ($217). 

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