Dec 08 2011
In the past, villagers in Vietnam tended to specialise in making particular items to meet their needs, sharing their skills with neighbours and relatives. This led to individual villages becoming known for a particular handicraft. As people moved to the cities they gravitated towards others with the same trade and hence we have areas such as Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where different streets specialised in certain items.
Although, as with the Old Quarter’s 36 streets, many villages no longer practice, or at least rely on, their original trade, there are still plenty of opportunities to visit handicraft villages around Hanoi to watch artisans at work and buy their wares.
Bat Trang ceramic village and Van Phuc silk village are probably the best known, but there’s also Ninh Hiep fabric village, Ha Thai lacquer village, Chuong conical hat village and many more. The one I most recently visited was Bang So bamboo village.
Bang So is about 20km from the centre of Hanoi, south along the ‘dyke’ road – the main road that runs along the east of Old Quarter. Although the road starts smooth it gets bumpier as it heads out of the centre and passes through suburban towns and past paddy fields. So although the easiest way to get there is by motorbike – wear a facemask, it’s dusty — I’d question the suitability of the road for novice drivers.
If you’re not going by motorbike then you can either take a taxi, which will cost 200,000 VND+ each way depending upon the size, or you can go on an organised tour: many operators offer a village tour package which covers Bat Trang (ceramic village) and Bang So, saving you the trouble of finding the workshops and negotiating the potholes — though of course for many that may be part of the fun.
Before I go on I’m going to dispel any romantic images you may have of a handicraft village: unfortunately you will not find a pretty collection of traditional houses with villagers sitting around practising their trade and waiting to sell the pot / basket / scarf they have just made to you for a wholesale bargain price. Villages have grown, some have even been absorbed into the growing urban sprawl of Hanoi, and, in the case of the bamboo village at least, artisans are now spread out throughout the village and take a bit of finding.
That said, I don’t want to put you off exploring: I spent a good morning there. The places we visited were all near the main road, either facing the road (although down the embankment) or on one of the side roads, but without street names I’m afraid I’m unable to give you precise locations.
First we visited a woman who was making twee baskets in her living room, and down the alley behind her house was a larger, open-air operation making similar items.
Next was onto a small workshop where they made some attractive and unusual lampshades, and then opposite to another basket-making home set-up. We then walked along the path next to the main road and went into a warehouse-style building: there was nothing being made when we visited but there were heaps of large sacks filled with goodies. I picked up some bamboo bowls and colourful storage boxes – great Christmas presents.
Our last stop was at a place where they make a wide range of goods, mostly for export. This included some very attractive laundry baskets and, perhaps more exciting, handbags. Prices are quite high and there’s no room for negotiation – they don’t seem to really care about drop in trade, but are all about the export – but it was worth a stop to oooh over the nicely-made items.
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