Lacquer items — paintings, photo albums, bowls, vases — are a popular souvenir in Vietnam. Old Quarter in Hanoi is flooded with shops selling the same selection of items at the same — negotiable — prices. But why not make your own take-home piece of lacquerware? Here’s how.
We checked out the Lacquer Art Tay Ho studio in Tay Ho district where classes are taught by Tran Anh Tuan, a professor at the Fine Arts’ Institute and a lacquer specialist. After just one lesson we realised how much work goes into the paintings and wondered how the piles of paintings for sale in Old Quarter could be sold so cheaply.
What we discovered is that most paintings on sale are made in a factory and use Japanese or industrial paint rather than traditional lacquer as these dry faster so speed up the process. They also do the arduous and time-consuming grinding and polishing by machine, rather than by hand. So mass production, machine processes and lower cost materials contribute to the low price items you’ll find in most shops. So if you want the real thing, made in the traditional way, you’ll need to look further afield and be prepared to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
But back to the classes. Classes can be paid for in blocks or as you go, so we initially just went along for one class to see what it was all about. Students can join at any time and attend as little or often as suits, so it’s not so much a class as a workshop, where everyone gets on with their own piece with help and advice from Tuan as required.
First we were given a quick introduction to the different techniques by Tuan’s assistant — Tuan’s English isn’t great, although he gets by. The main techniques used are eggshell, mother of pearl and silver leaf, and paints are either transparent or solid.
I was instructed to get a board and draw my picture. That was something I hadn’t given any thought to so after a bit of head scratching and an attempt to draw a chilli I opted for a fried egg.
See the photos above and below to observe the progress of my painting.
If you’re only in Hanoi short-term you can still have a go. It’s feasible to complete a simple picture in one lesson, but if you can squeeze a few in you’ll get more out of it — the egg painting took me around five sessions, but I took my time.
The Lacquer Art Tay Ho studio is located in Tay Ho District, behind the large Sedona Suites building on Xuan Dieu. Classes run for 2.5 hours during various morning, afternoon and evening slots.
Check out the schedule on the website. Each class costs 300,000 VND and you can pay for a number of classes up front or just pay as you go.
And if this seems too much work? You could always just tour a Saigon lacquer factory instead.
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