Saturday, May 30, 2015

Some Surviving, Some Thriving--Craft Villages in Vietnam

                                                                     by Jim Goodman

carving wooden panels in Xuyên Thái
       From the time the Vietnamese first cleared lands to make farms in the Red River Delta, the basic aim of any village was agricultural self-sufficiency.  Along with animal husbandry and trapping and fishing in one of the ubiquitous streams and ponds, such a lifestyle provided everyone with enough food.   But after the Lý Dynasty moved its capital to what is now Hanoi in 1010, over the next few centuries some villages began supplementing their farming income, or even replacing it, by specializing in craft production.  Some produced select items for the royal Court and the temples, but many more of them supplied a whole range of products for domestic use everywhere.
       In some cases a particular villager went to China, learned a craft and returned to teach it to his fellow villagers.  Often this person has been deified as the village tutelary deity, or guardian spirit, with a festival staged in his honor every year.  But in many places no one knows how the craft originated, just that it began with an anonymous innovator, imitated by more and more of his neighbors until eventually the entire village became employed in it.
making furniture in Đồng Kỵ
       Over time some villages abandoned their craft specialties while others took up new ones.  The heartland of Vietnamese culture and history—the Red River Delta—is home to over 800 of these craft villages.  A quarter of them date their tradition back several hundred years.  Then in the Lê Dynasty, when Vietnamese began migrating southward, they took the craft village tradition with them.   Another 650 craft villages exist in the rest of the country.
       The concept of craft villages originated with the Lý Court’s requirements for building and furnishing its palaces, shrines and royal compound.  Certain villages produced the building components, furnishings, bedding, clothing and ornaments, etc., and were exempt from ordinary taxes.  Specialized villages also produced the state’s arms and the paper for its official documents.
       Inevitably, the craft village idea spread beyond those that had made some arrangement with the Court.  For items of bronze and wood, silk and ceramics, there were other customers besides the Royal Court.  Temples and village communal houses needed bells, candlesticks, sculptures, incense burners, carved altars and furniture.  Eventually these villages found customers among the wealthy upper class, especially for furniture, silk or something to embellish the family shrine.
building a boat in Kim Bồng
       This still holds true today, as increasing prosperity has enabled many Vietnamese to improve their material life by indulging in things like elegant furniture.  Craft villages devoted to wood products, from statues to carved cabinets with lavish mother-of-pearl inlaid decorations, are flourishing   The streets of the ancient village of Đng K in Bắc Ninh province are lined with sawmills and furniture workshops, supplying the steady demands of households throughout metropolitan Hanoi.  Kim Bồng, in Quảng Nam, whose ancestors built and furnished the elegant homes that make Hội An a tourist attraction and who furnished the palaces of the Nguyễn Citadel in Huế, is still an active woodcrafts producer both for the region and an international market.  The village has also expanded its work to household implements, sculptures and building boats.
young lacquer worker in Xuyên Thái
       The religious revival of recent decades has boosted the business of craft villages catering to temples.  Sơn Đồng village, in Hoài Đức district, west of Hanoi, has for centuries been the major supplier of wooden statues, ceremonial weapons and the sedan chairs and palanquins used in processions.  Đoi Tam, near Phủ Lý south of Hanoi, makes drums for temples all over Vietnam.  Xuyên Thái, in Thương Tín district south of Hanoi, specializes in altars, decorative panels and other furnishings.  All the items are meticulously lacquered, the original specialty of the village and even today it still gets orders to do the lacquered coating for products made by other villages.
       Xuyên Thái artisans apply at least ten coats of lacquer to protect the wood and give it a deep glossy sheen.  They also add gold or silver leaf to highlights of low-relief sculptures, Chinese characters on plaques and signboards, the heads and hands of large statues and even the entire surface of smaller ones.  The production of this gold and silver foil, however, was the work of another craft village, Kiêu Kỵ, across the river from Hanoi, which has been doing it since the Lý Dynasty.  The technique hasn’t changed.  The women prepare small black squares of rough paper or cellophane, then insert thin square wafers of gold, somewhat smaller, in between the black squares.  A man in the adjacent workshop slowly, methodically pounds these out until the ultra-thin gold wafer has been flattened to the same size as the black squares, about 3 cm per side.
preparing gold foil in Kiêy Kỵ
       The expense of gold or silver embellishments on furnishings restricts its customer base to basically temples and communal houses undergoing renovation. The average Vietnamese household will likely eschew such embellishments.  But mother-of-pearl inlay, made from the iridescent insides of mussel shells, is quite affordable.  It’s almost always part of wooden furnishings, as well as tea sets, jewelry boxes, vases, musical instruments and even chopsticks.  Designs range from flowers and vines at the corners of cabinets to large vignettes of rural life splashed across doors and bed panels.  Furniture-making villages know this craft, but the village with the most venerable reputation, dating to the 11th century in the Lý Dynasty, is Chuông Ngô in Chuyên Mỹ district west of Hanoi.  It’s not an easy craft, as it involves sitting bent over for long hours while polishing the shells and then carefully laying the pieces into the desired design.  
bronze worker in Hanoi
      Temples also required the work of stone carvers and masons.  They produced the gates, the guardian lions and other animal sculptures, the wells, the statues and the carved pedestals the pillars stood upon.  Ninh Vân village in Ninh Bình province still specializes in stone products, though more secular-oriented nowadays.  Ninh Vân masons built the famous Phát Diêm Cathedral complex in Kim Sơn village, in southeast Ninh Bình.
       Marble ware is the specialty at Non Nước, just south of Đà Nẵng.  The village lies at the base of one of the Five Marble Mountains, the original source of its raw material though nowadays Non Nước imports its marble.  The skills are still intact, though, and the village produces a huge variety of statues of all kinds and themes for the international market.  Further south, Hội An, a preserved old town that had its heyday in the 16th—18th centuries, seems to have partially adopted the role of a craft village.  Catering to the unceasing flow of tourists, a significant number of local residents started getting into the clothing business, mainly ready-to-wear garments, often of inexpensive silk.  The town and its approaching streets are full of these clothing shops.
marble work in Non Nước
       After its demise as a port, though, Hội An did develop a local craft—silk lanterns.  Several resident families still practice this trade in old town shop houses in full view of passers-by.  A good portion of Hội An houses feature mounted or suspended lanterns.  They are distributed throughout the region.  And in recent years the local government has publicized this aspect of Hội An culture by requiring that on the 14th night of every lunar month, the night before full moon, only lanterns may be used to illuminate old town streets and building interiors.  Visitors and residents also float little lamps in the river. 
       Originally the silk for Hội An’s lanterns came from Thi Lai village, up the Thu Bồn River in Duy Xuyên district.  The village has been working in a partnership with Đông Yên village since the establishment of the craft by immigrant weavers from the North in the 15th century.  Đông Yên raises the silkworms and produces the cocoons.  Thi Lai does the spinning and weaving.
making lanterns in Hội An
Hội An silk lanterns
       Silk has a much longer history in the North.  According to legend, a Hùng princess introduced the whole complex process—mulberry tree cultivation, care of the worms, extraction of thread and weaving of cloth—to a Red River Delta village 3000 years ago.  From there it spread and several villages adopted the trade.  The most famous is Vạn Phúc, near Hà Đông, just southwest of Hanoi.  The wife of a Tang Dynasty official set up the village here because of its lovely riverside setting.
       It's still an active production center, supplying shops in Hanoi and throughout the North.  You can hear the sound of looms as you walk down any of its lanes.  Hanoi residents like to come to Vạn Phúc to shop if they want something special, rather than check the shops in the city.  The prices will be lower, the atmosphere pleasant and the selections greater.  As silk is still the preferred material for special clothing among Vietnamese, Vạn Phúc’s future as a viable craft village looks pretty secure.
transporting craft products in the countryside 
       So does that of Chuông, south of Hanoi, which makes the conical cap that is the favorite headgear of rural Vietnamese, a preference not likely to change for some time. Villages specializing in a particular food item, like the green sticky rice (cốm) of Vọng, or supplying flowers, fresh or embroidered, are likely to retain their customer bases.  The fate of other craft villages is less certain.  Even those relatively successful now, like those producing furniture, are facing a raw material shortage.  The wood now comes from Laos, rather than Vietnam.  For some Vietnamese wooden furniture has become too expensive and so villages that specialize in bamboo and rattan work, making furniture, strong baskets and cases, household implements and so on, have attracted more interest and customers, reviving their trades.
Bát Tràng ceramics village
       Industrialization also threatens the future of some craft villages.  Plastic sieves, for example, are easier to produce, and cheaper to buy, than sieves made from split bamboo.  Another problem might be simply a change in taste.  People might prefer plastic sieves because they come in several colors and are easier to clean.   Or take the case of the sleeping mats, of sedge, jute or rush plant, that every traditional household had.  Nga Sơn in Thanh Hóa and Cẩm Nê near Đà Nẵng have been famous for their sedge mats, thick and soft, cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  Kim Sơn in Ninh Bình produces mats from the rush plant peculiar to the area.  If future generations decide to sleep on raised beds, they won’t need these mats and these villages may have to revert to farming.
18th c. Bát Tràng vase, Hanoi History Museum
       That probably won’t happen to the most famous craft village in the country—Bát Tràng, the ceramics village on the east bank of the Red River, 15 km downstream from Hanoi.  It lies in an area rich in deposits of high quality clay, kaolin and natural oxides.  In the past boats took the village products—bricks, tiles, earthenware and glazed ceramics—up to the capital for local consumption and to Phố Hiến for export.  Its artisans achieved a high standard many centuries ago, mastering the application of different colored glazes and developing a new technique of crackled glaze.   Bát Tràng skills peaked in the 18th century and exquisite ceramics found their way to ports all over East Asia and eventually to museums in the region and in Europe.
       Virtually every family in Bát Tràng is involved in the ceramics business and practically all the houses have at least one kiln.  Products of all kinds, shapes and sizes stand outside many homes.  Tourists can pass by an active workshop on any lane they wander down and later marvel at the incredible variety of items on display at the central market.  They can learn how to make small pieces themselves.  And their purchases and a major factor in Bát Tràng’s continuing success.
Bát Tràng workshop
       Elsewhere in the Delta production in ceramics villages, like Hương Canh and Phú Lãng, north of Hanoi, has declined.  The number of families employed in the trade has dropped from all of then to just several in each.  They make household pottery for the most part, which suffers from competition with more durable modern alternatives.  Thanh Hà, however, a Lê Dynasty ceramics village near Hội An, has, like Bát Tràng, benefitted by marketing new products to the tourist crowds. 
       Thus, many craft villages have survived because of their success in attracting non-Vietnamese customers.  But domestic demand for everything, including traditional craft products, has also increased thanks to ever-increasing incomes among the population.  Workers in these crafts are earning enough to keep them from looking for a different line of work. The innate conservatism of crafts workers is also a factor.  So long as what they already know garners a sufficient return they prefer to remain in that line and train their children to keep it up.  That attitude, combined with the importance of craft village production to the economy, as well as the beauty of the craft items themselves, augurs a good future for this Vietnamese tradition.

Thanh Hà's children learn basic pottery skills at an early age.
                                                                                * * *
                     Craft villages are on the itinerary of my cultural/historical tour of Vietnam.  
                                        See the website 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Three Incarnations of Hội An

                                   by Jim Goodman

Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street
       Lying near the mouth of the Thu Bn River in Central Vietnam’s Qung Nam province, the picturesque town of Hi An is one of the country’s top tourist attractions.  No wonder.  It features a well-preserved old town that has been a World Heritage Site since 1999, lies near several ancient Chăm vestiges, especially the Chăm religious sanctuary at M Sơn, itself a World Heritage site, and is close to sparkling beaches, offshore islands, riverside craft villages, attractive rural scenery and offers a range of local culinary delights.  That makes it a major factor in Vietnam’s tourist industry and thus a contributor to the country’s rising prosperity.
boats in the Hội An River, a branch of the Thu Bồn
       It used to be much more.  It was the main port of ancient Chăm states in the area, long before any Vietnamese resided here.  And in the 16th to 18th centuries, when it was known as Faifo, it was the main center of international commerce under the regime of the Nguyển Lords and the busiest port on the entire coast of Vietnam.      
       The Chăm are an Austronesian people who began settling along the central coast over 1500 years ago.  They established different states from Nình Thuận in the south to Quảng Bình in the north.  From the 7th to 10th centuries the strongest of these was Amaravati in the Quảng Nam region, with its capital at Simhapura, the Lion City, today’s Trà Kiêu, about 20 km west of Hội An.  The state and society was modeled on that of their Indian-influenced Khmer neighbors.  The important difference was in the economy.
boat and fish trap on the Thu Bồn River
       The Khmer state was based on agriculture.  The Chăm states occupied narrow strips of good agricultural land and relied more on commerce, in particular maritime trade.  Chăm ships sailed great distances to trade and in Amaravati Hội An was its main port.  After Amaravati’s demise, the destruction of both Simhapura and the successor state of Indrapura at the end of the 10th century, and the shift of power to Vijaya further south, Hội An’s role declined; still an active port, but less important to the Chăm economy. 
casting a net on the Thu Bồn River
       Hội An’s revival began in the mid-16th century, when civil war raged in the north, migrations began to the former Chăm territories of Vijaya (conquered and annexed in 1471), and rivalries climaxed among supporters of the Lê side—the Trịnh and Nguyển families--in the war against the Mạc Dynasty.  Fearing for his safety from the Trịnh commander, Nguyễn Hoàng angled himself an appointment from the Lê Court as Governor of the areas from Quảng Bình to Phú Yên, 
       The Lê side largely defeated the Mạc by 1592 but the restored monarch was but a figurehead.  All power was in the hands of the Trịnh Lord.  Nguyến Hoàng wouldn’t accept this breach of legitimacy, as he interpreted it, and so became the first of the Nguyễn Lords, setting up his own fief in Central Vietnam.  And as part of his administration he began building up maritime commerce through the port of Faifo (Hội An), already home to Chinese and Japanese merchants, taking over the trade links previously established by the Chăm.  A big portion of the government’s revenue came from taxing commerce, which it encouraged.
Nguyển Hoàng, the first of the Nguyễn Lords
       Nguyễn Hoàng died at 88 in 1613, having successfully established the foundations of an autonomous state.  His very capable sixth son, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, already a veteran of several years of administration, succeeded him.  By then it was becoming obvious that a showdown was inevitable with the Trịnh regime in the north.  The new Nguyễn Lord took firm steps to strengthen the realm’s administration, defense and commerce.  This included patronizing Faifo. 
       He permitted the Portuguese to set up in the port in 1615, who eventually became his suppliers for cannon and advisors on shipbuilding. He also established a customs office to collect import duties and control the trade in ivory, aromatic oils and woods, rattan mats and caulking resin.  A very pro-business ruler, he even married off one of his daughters to a resident Japanese merchant.  Relations with the Trịnh regime in the north came to a head in 1627, after Nguyễn Phuc Nguyên refused to pay tribute and the Trịnh Lord sent his armies south to compel compliance. 
Chinese Assembly Hall of the Cantonese community 
       The campaign failed, as did four subsequent invasions in following years, which included one unsuccessful Nguyễn campaign against the north.  Finally, in 1672 the two sides agreed to a truce that would last over a century.  None of the Trịnh attacks touched Faifo, however, and the port’s importance grew.  This was Hội An’s golden age.  Every year the town hosted great international fairs, attracting Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese traders and all three had resident communities in the port.  Besides luxury goods like silk and aromatic woods, these fairs also offered a wide variety of domestic use items, particularly ornaments for local consumption, an indication of the population’s relative prosperity.
Bạch Đằng Street on the Hội An River
       The Nguyển regime exported silk, sugar, pepper, rattan, cinnamon, musk, deerskins, eaglewood, lac and gold.  Imports included ceramics, silver, utensils, swords, armor and copper coins—the good ones re-circulated, the inferior ones made into cannon.  China banned trade with Japan, so merchants from the two countries met in Faifo to mostly exchange Chinese silk for Japanese silver.  After the Japanese government closed its doors to the outside world, Vietnamese trade with Japan was indirect, via Chinese merchants who were allowed to enter Nagasaki.  The Japanese community in Faifo, however, remained for a time and monopolized local silk production.
      While trade with China and Japan was more substantial, the Nguyễn regime also promoted commercial links with Southeast Asia.  Ships regularly arrived from Siam, Cambodia, Philippines and Java.  And for the first time since the Lý Dynasty, Vietnamese merchants took trading ships overseas to Manila, Java and Siam, and even formed a sizable resident community in Ayutthaya.
shop houses in old Hệi An
       Besides allowing Portuguese merchants to set up a base in Faifo, the Nguyễn Lords also permitted the presence of Christian missionaries.  The Jesuits had established a base in Japan in the 16th century, but the government expelled them in 1614.  A group of Portuguese and Italian missionaries relocated to Hội An and a decade later Alexander de Rhodes arrived, staying for three years studying the Vietnamese language.  He would later become the most instrumental person in devising the alphabetic system, adapted from Latin letters, called quốc ngũ, that eventually replaced the Vietnamese version of Chinese characters and is the official orthography of the language today. 
       In the 18th century, as Vietnamese migrants moved into the Mekong Delta and established large rice plantations, the port of Quy Nhơn became equally important to the Nguyển regime.  Ships from there sailed to the Mekong Delta to pick up the rice so needed to feed the increasing population around Huế and in Quàng Nam.  Faifo was still the regime’s principal international port, but that role began to abate when the Court, by then already in the throes of terminal decline, began imposing exorbitant taxes on overseas trade in mid-17th century, effectively cutting off its main revenue source.       
       In 1771 the Tây Sơn Revolt broke out in the area that was formerly the Chăm state of Vijaya. A few years later Tăy Sơn forces and their Chinese mercenary allies attacked Faifo and slaughtered most of its Chinese residents.  The town never recovered.  The Tây Sơn state lasted until 1802 and the establishment of the Nguyển Dynasty.  But although the new state made nearby Huế its capital, it did not favor commerce like that of its Nguyển Lords predecessor state.  International trade was only permitted at Danang and anyway by then silt deposited by the Thu Bồn River ended easy access to Faifo.
waterfront street
typical old town street and houses
       From then on Hối An was just a minor river port servicing very local commerce.  The Japanese community was long gone, though the bridge they built is still one of the great attractions of the town. Chinese communities stayed on, rebuilt their houses in a new style and added the community centers and temples that are some of the main tourist attractions in contemporary times.  But its economic importance to the state was now negligible.  In colonial times it served as an administrative center and a small French neighborhood existed just east of the original town, but the French never tried to revive Hội An’s historic role. They built a railway link to Danang, but a storm destroyed the tracks in 1916 and they were not rebuilt.  Thanks to the silting, big ships could no longer travel up the Thu Bồn, and no new port was constructed on the coast.
boats and ferries on the river
       Hội An did not suffer any war damage during the anti-colonial struggle.  It was neither bombed nor fought over during the American War and when Vietnam launched its renovation policy in the late 80s, while nearby Danang experienced fast development that replaced its old buildings with new ones, Hội An was virtually unaffected.  As a consequence, its antiquated architecture remained intact, providing the basis, with the inauguration of Vietnam’s Open Door policy, for its third incarnation as a major tourist attraction.
       Its designation as a World Heritage Site in 1999 insured that its old town, three long blocks along the river, would be preserved, with regulations put in place governing the height and appearance of its mostly early 19th century shop houses, temples and Chinese community halls.  No other town in Central Vietnam so evokes the atmosphere of pre-modern Vietnam.  Most of its houses have become restaurants and shops catering to the tourist trade, selling clothing, souvenirs, local crafts, lanterns and paintings, but are still run mostly by native residents rather than outsiders.  Cars and taxis are prohibited from the old town, so it’s a pedestrian zone, quiet and unhurried, bereft of the hubbub characterizing virtually every other town in the country.
       Besides the traditional shop houses, Hội An’s attractions include temples, Chinese assembly halls, a few museums and rich merchants’ houses.  Some of these are participants in a ticketing scheme, in which for the purchase of a single ticket a visitor can explore the interiors of one building in each category.  The money is for the maintenance of the town, but not all the interesting sites are on the ticket list.  The most beautiful structure in town, for one, the 16th century Japanese Covered Bridge, spanning a creek in the western quarter, is not. 
16th century Japanese covered bridge 
       According to legend, the Japanese built the bridge over the site of the heart of an underground beast whose head was in India and tail was in Japan.  When angry the beast shook its tail and caused violent earthquakes in Japan.  So geomancers directed the bridge to be built over the heart, so that the bridge’s piles would magically drive a sword through its heart.  With the beast dead the earthquakes ceased.
       Various Chinese communities from Fujian, Guangdong, Chouzhou and Hainan erected the Assembly Halls in Hôi An, serving as social and religious centers.  Lavishly decorated, these mainly date from the 18th and 19th centuries and a separate hall existed for all resident and visiting Chinese communities.  The old merchant houses and family chapels feature exquisite wooden furniture and interior decorations, but this is also true to a lesser extent for many of the restaurants.  In addition, the traditional shop houses along all the streets are attractive, with yellow facades, wooden beams and shutters, sometimes carved, with railed balconies and suspended lanterns.
       Taking an early morning walk through the old town, before the shops have opened, is like a stroll back in time.  And for the more history-minded visitors, various small museums specialize in exhibits of 17th-18th century trade ceramics, bronze artifacts, Chăm relics, pre-Chăm Sa Huỳnh Culture artifacts, contemporary handicrafts, minerals and gemstones, historical maps and costumes and a Folk Museum displaying traditional tools, agricultural implements, musical instruments and fishing gear.
local residents conducting a ritual in the old town
       Besides these heritage attractions, Hội An also has a typically lively local waterfront market, modern Buddhist temples, a river busy with small boats and ferries, a couple of Cao Dài temples, street stalls selling local snacks, tea and fresh beer, a variety of restaurants and some delicious local specialties.  It has a tourist-oriented theater for shows of traditional music and dance, plus a local platform where residents gather for particularly Hội An-style games and amusement, for themselves, not for visitors.  And on unspecified days a group might gather for an elaborate ritual on a public street.  A large part of the population is not at all involved in the tourist business and they simply carry on with their traditional ways in spite of it.  
       For all these reasons Hội An will continue to lure ever greater numbers of visitors, even Vietnamese tourists.  The number of businesses and facilities catering to tourists has more than doubled in the past decade.  Every year it will get gaudier and more crowded.  But that’s inevitable.  For a place as intrinsically beautiful and interesting as Hội An and its environs, there will always be so much to see and savor.
full moon in Hội An
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         Hội An is one of the stops on my Vietnam tour program:  see