For many visitors, all that Hanoi has to offer are the Old Quarter section and its sounds of taste. That’s unfair to this graceful city.
In most countries, industries are often concentrated in the cities, but it’s a bit unusual in Vietnam when the villages can be seen as a living institution in the handicraft industry. Although the village dwellers prioritize growing rice, they began very early on craftwork to meet their own needs after harvest time. It’s reported that there were more than 5,000 handicraft villages in the whole country and each village specialized into one product such as bamboo-weaving, bronze-casting, embroidery, pottery making, and so on. And the busiest region, surprisingly, is Hanoi and its surroundings.
Not to mention cultural and historical stories behind every street in the capital city, Hanoi and its nearby villages have long been known for delicate craft products. Craftsmen and tradesmen from these places had set up shops around the Old Quarter in the old time. Most of the businesses were small-scale and family-based. These activities are still largely manual work and integrated into the daily routine of the families with children, women, and the elderly participating in when necessary. A visit to these villages is not only to see how crafts are produced but also to learn how the craftsmen have managed to maintain and protect their ancient skills through time despite the social upheavals and country's economic ups and downs
From gold beating in Kieu Ky to bird case making in Canh Hoach, these 10 craft villages are in and around Hanoi that you can easily visit in a day. Their traditional products are still used in everyday life. Family workshops are also available for you to visit. If you don't know where to start with but are fancy on a trip, just feel free to let us help.
60 kilometers east from Hanoi, a drive to Phu Lang is a journey back through time to a small, beautiful village lying along Cau River. The Elderly in the village said that pottery making has been at Phu Lang since the 13th century. Cooking pots, tiles, jars, burial caskets are main products covered with a light brown glaze that distinguishes Phu Lang from other pottery villages such as Bat Trang and Tho Ha.
A young woman is carrying a Phu Lang jar
Although Bat Trang pottery is the most well known in the whole Red River Delta, Phu Lang is less touristy and has its own prominent features that make your journey much more enjoyable:
- You’ll see traditional kilns that are heated with wood. These kilns’ dimension is relatively large that you can easily get inside to see its detail when there’s no fire in.
- There are small but charming houses that are built with local clay bricks, surrounded by piles of pottery of all kinds, and blend harmoniously to the surrounding peaceful countryside
- You’ll easy to notice dizzying piles of wooden blocks and caskets everywhere in the village
- Many family workshops, some of which have been in this work for several generations: Don’t get me wrong. These workshops (as well as workshops in other villages in my post) aren’t shops where activities are set up for demonstration and selling products. Local people here do their job every day with or without tourists. You can talk to artisans who are trying their best to revive the fame for Phu Lang Pottery.
A pile of burial caskets on a side of the road
When strolling through the villages, you might see piles of burial caskets on the side of the road (photo above). In Vietnamese, after the dead are buried for 3 or 4 years, the family will dig up the grave, clean the bones, dry and sprinkle them with fragrant water then place them in order into this small coffin. There are small holes on the side of the coffin that will allow the spirit flying in and out easily. Burial caskets will be buried again in a new place chosen carefully according to Feng Shui rules. Vietnamese people believe that, if the dead “have” a good land, they will bring wealth and prosperity for the family.
If you have been to a pagoda in Vietnam, you might notice the image of people respectfully holding incense sticks in their hands in front of a Buddha statue. In Vietnamese belief, whorls of incense smoke are the way that the living can communicate and send messages of love and mercy remembrance to the dead in the other world.
40 kilometers on the outskirts of Hanoi, there’s a village famed for a colorful craft for more than a century: It’s Quang Phu Cau Incense Village. Began as a part-time job for villagers besides their farming activity, making incense is now the main income of nearly 10,000 households and consumes more than 20 tons of bamboo a day.
Two women are dyeing the incense on the yard
The production includes many steps, from chopping up bamboo, dyeing the incense roots to red, drying naturally under the sun to adding incense paste into the sticks. This paste is a mixture made from an unknown ratio of glue, incense, and bamboo sawdust that exudes a nice scent when burning. In the past, incense making was made manually, but now, mechanization is replacing some processes to increase productivity.
It’s not difficult to have beautiful shots when you’re here. Space on the sides of roads and courtyards are mostly taken to dry the incense after dyeing. Bunches of incense sticks are spread out to the round shape like hundred bunches of red flowers, giving the village a picturesque look.
Those who love photography shouldn't miss this village for unique shots.
The craft can generate an income of VND5 million - VND6 million (US$215 – USS$258) a month. Those who have more experience can earn up to VND6 million –VND 8 million (US$258 – US$345).
This craft has existed for at least 150 years in the village. Xuan Lai bamboo furniture isn’t so different from other villages’ bamboo items except for the dark brown color that gives them a unique look. To have this eye-catching color, it requires time and a lot of sweats. Bamboos at all sizes are soaked in the ponds for several months to make it more flexible. After that, people will clean, remove the knots, dry, then scorch the bamboos into kilns made from clay and straw. Decomposed straw is the only fuel for scorching to make sure that there is smoke only (means no fire). Bamboos are left sealed inside the kiln for at least 4 days until they’re shiny, smooth, and have its famed dark color. Burnt bamboos are ready to use.
Under the skillful hands of village artisans, bamboos will turn into beds, benches, tables, lamps, trays, swings, and even creative bamboo pictures.
60 kilometers from Hanoi, Thu Sy is remaining an authentic northern village with brown red-tiled roofs houses, bringing up an image of a peaceful countryside.
Đó or knitting bamboo fish traps in Thu Sy have been in work for more than two hundred years. An old woman said: “I have learned to make fish traps since I was 5,” then she smiled: “I might have known how to do it since my mother was carrying me in her womb.”
Đó are everywhere on Mr. Bac's the courtyard (the man in the photo - Photo: Nina May)
It needs two hours to make a Đó as in the picture (Photo: Nina May)
If you once see a Đó, you’ll recognize that knitting requires a lot of skill and meticulousness. Craftsmen have to use their hands and chins to split raw bamboo into nan or smooth, thin stitches of different sizes before kitting them to create a fish trap. A similar scorching technique used with Xuan Lai bamboo furniture is applied after. Fish traps will be arranged into kilns without fire, just smoke. This procedure is to make the traps shiny and give them a beautiful golden brown color.
Đó are loaded onto Mr. Bac's bike. He will ride his bike to surrounding villages to sell them (Photo: Nina May)
Now away, Thu Sy fish traps are not only used by farmers to catch fishes and eels. You sometimes can see them in restaurants as ornaments or unique lamps.
15 kilometers downstream from Hanoi, Bat Trang is, without any doubt, the most visited craft village in the whole country. It’s way ahead of Phu Lang (the first village in this post) as well as other pottery villages in Vietnam in terms of fame, product diversity, and a number of busy workshops with about 80% families still living with their traditional craft job.
Smart gas kilns are replacing charcoal-fired handicraft chimney kilns in Bat Trang, making the job easier, cleaner, and more efficient. But if you have time to wander in the maze of alleyways that’s typical of northern Vietnamese villages, you might still see some traditional brick kilns and black charcoal patties stuck to the walls by quick-witted workers.
Black charcoal patties stuck to a wall on the road in Bat Trang
Contrary to Phu Lang, where craftsmen still form pottery items by hand-throwing on the wheel, the potters in Bat Trang now shape their products by modern techniques with molding. Non-motorized wheels are still found in some workshops where visitors can try their hands on this ancient technique to see how a vase was made hundreds of years ago.
Non-motorized wheels are still found in some places where visitors can try their hands on this ancient technique. To shape and complete a big bowl as in the photo, this woman needs two hours.
Bat Trang's ceramic products are more diverse than Phu Lang's
Just at the entrance to the village, the rhythmical hammering of goldbeater's coming from a distance tells you that you’re at the right place.
Kieu Ky is the only village in Vietnam that made quỳ or gold and silver leaves by gold and silver beating. These leaves will often be used to gild Buddha statues, decorate religious heritages and objects, or to create special colors in lacquer painting.
It needs 1,400 strikes of sledgehammer a day to produce 20 square meters of quỳ.
Gold beating has existed in Kieu Ky for nearly 300 years. But now, there are only more than 50 families still living with their ancient craft. If you once witness the procedure, you will be astonished by how hardworking it is to make a gold leaf. From 50 grams of gold, with about 1,400 strikes of sledgehammer a day, a skillful artisan can produce an incredible 20 square meters or so of quỳ, which is equivalent to 4,500 gold leaves that are extremely light and fragile. Don’t breathe strongly, you’ll blow away all the hard work.
40 kilometers east of Hanoi, Dong Ho is famed for making traditional woodblock prints. There was a time, Dong Ho Paintings were found everywhere at the Old Quarter, especially in Tet (Traditional New Year Festival). Vietnamese people bought this colorful artwork to decorate their house as well as to wish for good things coming in the new year as each painting contains a different meaning. But nowadays, only a handful of craftspeople are still coloring their prints.
Red, Yellow, Green, White, and Black are 5 natural colors used by Dong Ho paintings.
Village life, stories, and tales are carved into wooden printing blocks before stamping on Dó paper. There are only 5 natural colors used by Dong Ho artisans: Red, Yellow, Green, White, and Black. That means, they have to print 5 times to complete an artwork; the waiting time between each print layer is from 20 to 30 minutes to make sure the previous layer dries. You can buy a painting with $1 only. If you are interested, you can print your own picture. But that isn’t all that this village has to offer.
Printing a Dong Ho Painting at artisan Nguyen Dang Che's house
A walk into the village will give you a chance to see how the Vietnamese look after the dead. Many families now are changing from making ancient craftwork to fake modern houses, luxury cars, clothes, jewelry, and bunches of money from paper. Vietnamese people believe that, in the other world, the dead still need material things. Living people burn paper objects, dead people receive them via smoke signals. Fake $100US are popular banknotes here.
Many families in Dong Ho are changing from making ancient craftwork to fake modern houses, luxury cars, clothes, jewelry, and bunches of money from paper to have a better income.
30 kilometer southwest of Hanoi, Chuong is a charming rural village with beautiful old houses and a busy market at the communal house’s courtyard where villagers come to buy food and raw materials to make conical hats.
Nón lá, or conical hat, with Áo dài (Vietnam traditional dress), are iconic symbols of Vietnam and contributed to the charm of Vietnamese women. Even though young urban women only wear conical hats when they want to have a vintage photo, it nonetheless remains an essential item for rural women. They use nón lá to protect themselves from the sun, to cool down on a hot summer day as a fan, to contain food and even water.
Women in Chuong Village are making Nón Lá
People have been making the conical hat from palm leaves in Chuong village for hundreds of years. This manual craft requires dexterity and patience that only women have. To make a Nón, they will need a conical frame. Then, they will place 16 bamboo concentric circles from large to small on the frame, continue with palm tree leaves that are dried and flatten by hot iron and stitch them together with nylon threads.
Beautiful countryside market - a must-see when you visit the village.
The best time to visit Chuong village is the 4th, 10th, 14th, 20th, 24th, 30th days in the lunar calendar. These days, the village has a large market at the center of the village, selling a dazzling forest of white palm conical hats. Remember to start early because the market will finish at around 9 am.
Leave Hanoi to the south to a picturesque village that is famed for the art of lacquer. Lacquer painting is never easy. It requires a lot of handiness, precaution, preparation, and patience. People said that lacquer has been in Ha Thai Village for over 200 years. In the past, it was often used to coat doors, statues, altars, thrones, and boxes to give them a lavish look. Western art that was introduced during the French colonial era in the 1920s gave traditional lacquer painting an impressive reformation. New techniques have experimented with layers of different colors. Artists sand and rework after each color layer; add other materials like gold and silver leaf (read Kieu Ki Gold Beating Village - No 6 in this article), pieces of eggshells and seashells; repeat the sanding and reworking again until the painting has the colors that they want.
Lacquer painting is never easy. It requires a lot of handiness, precaution, preparation, and patience.
Strolling around various clean, lovely hamlets of the village you will explore several busy workshops making different lacquer objects. Here, you will see a craftsman inlaying eggshells into the lacquer. There, another one is painting a Vietnamese countryside landscape with a fine paintbrush. Bowls, flower vases, plates, chopsticks are being coated with lacquer and decorated beautifully.
As you may not know, several Asia countries have a long history of vegetable lacquer, including China - the birthplace of lacquer work, Thailand, Myanmar, and Japan. There are many trees used to give different qualities of lacquer but Vietnamese lacquer is considered the best.
Vietnamese lacquer is considered one of the best in Asia.
There is a famous bird cafe in Hanoi, near Thuyen Quang Lake. The cafe’s name is derived from the fact that many Hanoians bring their birds to the cafe on the weekend, hang the cages high above and enjoy a morning with bird songs, good coffee, and small talks with people who share the same hobby.
A bird cafe in Hanoi
Birdcage might be the most beautiful craft products in the region. This is an intricate work with bamboo. Bamboo stems are immersed deep into the water long enough to make it more endurable, then split into thin strips that will be rounded off until smooth. Craftsmen will bend the strips and assemble them to make birdcage of all shapes and sizes that cost only from $3 to $5. Fancy cages can go for $20 but still much cheaper than the same one sold in Hanoi.
Craftsmen will bend the strips and assemble them to make birdcages.
If strolling in Canh Hoach Village on a beautiful sunny day, you’ll probably come across courtyards filled with special purple paper fans. You may also see them by the sides of the road that give the craft village a poetic vibe. A fan consists of a frame made from bamboo slats and paper that died in deep purple. Raise the fan up, you can see intricate decorations, punched by needle, creating pictures that can be seen under the sunlight only. Canh Hoanh paper fans nowadays are mostly used by the elderly who enjoy sitting on their front doorstep fluttering the fan to keep cool and watch life go by.
There is a secret that not many people know. The number of the fan’s slats must be a multiple of four; it can have one or two extra slats, but never three.
Raise the fan up, you can see intricate decorations that are punched by needle, creating pictures that can be seen under the sunlight only.