Give it a Go

It’s possible to try your hand at making many of the handicrafts you see around Vietnam.

By JOE A on February 14,2019 10:11 AM

Give it a Go

Photo: Le Diem

My favorite part came when I finally took a knife making course in Ha Dong, on the outskirts of Hanoi. The guide said they have been making blades here since the Hung Kings, which would make it thousands of years old.

As the world swiftly morphs into a globalized society it’s easy to lose touch with our surroundings. A simple T-shirt can travel around the world before ever being worn, since the cotton can be grown in one place, shipped across the ocean for manufacture, shipped to another country for printing, then finally shipped to your hometown for distribution. There might only be a handful of things in your life you know the origin of, but after a handicraft tour in Vietnam you can not only buy goods for which you will see the whole process of production, you can also test your hand against a master craftsman and take home your very own traditional or modern craft.

My own do-it-yourself adventure began when I took a tour to the traditional handicraft villages around the capital Hanoi. We got to take a few things home with us of our own creation, but many of the tasks were too difficult to do unless we spent a full day. At Bat Trang they have famous ceramics so we got to form our own cup or bowl. It turns out pottery isn’t as easy as it looks, so they brought out a tray of finished products that we could paint. It was less humiliating to find out that almost no one can make a bowl on the first try. The tour then took us to a lacquer village where the trade is ancient but the medium is modern. We, however, got to use the old method, so we dabbed lacquer paint out of coconut shells and smeared it on our plates. We stuck silver leaf onto the lacquer paint and got our very own silver paintings. Even though this is another thing you can’t master in a day, you can have a pretty good product if you have an eye for creativity. One of the people in my group even got a compliment from the head painter, who I failed to impress.

At Dong Ho village, we got to watch the process of woodblock carving and they even offered to let us carve our own, but we decided to just buy some of their paintings and have a quick look around. These paintings have green, red, yellow, and black paint, and each color is put on with a different piece of wood, so the same painting must be carved four times with different parts exposed so the same place doesn’t get painted twice. If that sounds confusing it’s okay, because I saw them being made and I’m still confused.

My favorite part came when I finally took a knife making course in Ha Dong, on the outskirts of Hanoi. The guide said they have been making blades here since the Hung Kings, which would make it thousands of years old, but records show use in this area a paltry 700 years ago, when the great national hero Tran Hung Dao established it to make weapons to fight the Mongols. I decided to stick to a cooking knife, but I know where to go in the event of a galloping horde of steppe invaders.

Here I got to hammer out the shape of the knife from a large piece of heated metal. I wasn’t the most artistic person on the tour, but this process I fit right into. The craftsman gave me a firm nod and said “professional”. Once the shape of the knife was established, the master craftsman and I pounded the blade with repeated blows with hammers. He helped with all the furnace work, but I got to grind and sharpen the blade and while he was doing the heating I had time to carve a custom handle from wood. We put the two together and charred the handle to give it a nice stained look. I might not be using the pottery I made and I might not be selling any lacquer work anytime soon, but I cut a steak for dinner with my knife, and I think I finally grew some hair on my chest.

Some of these places you can find without a tour, but some are exclusively accessible on a tour and I went through a company called Hanoi and Around with Thanh. Thanh is an amazing tour guide, incredibly knowledgeable and worked hard to show us all that we wanted to see. Other parts of the country have similar experiences available as well on tours. Hoi An is renowned for its long history of handicrafts, and in the ancient town you can find tours to take. You can see the tradition of lantern making that you can be a part of, and add your name to the annals of lantern tradition.

In the south you’ll find many of the same things as the central and northern regions. Conical hats are used throughout the country so you can always find a village making them, and of course there are plenty of educational culinary experiences. Learn the cuisine of any area you’re in by taking a local cooking class. The thing that distinguishes the south the most, though, is how new it is. The northern and central regions are much older with ancient cultures, but the south has a more modern mindset as it has not had a continuous culture. The do-it-yourself opportunities are going to look more like heading down to a trendy establishment and mixing your own lipstick.

At Gardenia - Eat, Play, Love in Ho Chi Minh City you’ll find this exact class from time to time as well as frequent classes in marbling art on silk, ceramics, and leather making.

Learning about leather making gave me the itch to do some leather work, but I couldn’t get to Ho Chi Minh City so I found something in my own city of Hanoi. We have our own do-it-yourself café specifically devoted to leather, called DIY Box. I’m not sure if you see where this is going, but this means I could make a leather sheath for the knife I made, with all the conveniences of coffee and air conditioning that a café allows.

The last opportunity I’ve only heard of in the tales people tell while getting to know each other at a hostel. There is a place near Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park called The Pub with Cold Beer, where you can kill your own chicken. The story was a bit gruesome, as one cut was not enough to finish the job, which led to multiple whacks at the squawking chicken. Apparently this can make the meat from the chicken tough and not so tasty, but the young man enjoyed the experience on a whole as it was a great opportunity to get acquainted with what goes into your food preparation. The most do-it-yourself you can get is taking the life of the animal that has to die for your own consumption. It isn’t pretty, but if we choose to take a look at what goes in the production of what we use we can at least participate in it as well. And when I participate in killing my very own chicken, I’ll definitely be using my knife.

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