If you find yourself shopping in Saigon, a walk through any market or mall will inevitably lead you, sooner or later, past a souvenir stand selling lacquer art. Lacquer can be very impressive to look at but the process of making it is also quite interesting. If you have time to spare while visiting the city, taking a tour of a lacquer factory can be an educational way to spend an hour or two.
Originally thought to have been introduced to the region in the 1400s, excavations of some tombs in Vietnam have found examples of lacquer dating back to the third century AD. Although the process of making lacquer has now been streamlined for mass consumption, these factories still make pieces painstakingly by hand. Several small lacquer factories in Saigon offer free tours of their facilities.
During a tour you get to see this process in action. Starting from a plain block of wood, a lacquer artist applies several layers of varying colours of varnish over inlays that may be made of many different materials, such as egg shells or mother of pearl. Your tour guide will help talk you through a piece of lacquer from concept to completion, leading you along the way as you watch artists at work.
After your lesson, you’ll be escorted into a showroom to see some finished products — for sale, of course. Depending on the tour you take this showroom may be quite large with a variety of lacquer products, ranging from paintings all the way to furniture. Be warned that the prices of pieces in the showrooms tend to be higher compared to what you can find at tourist shopping destinations like Ben Thanh Market, but smaller items, like boxes or plates, can be purchased for as little as 200,000 VND.
Tours through a lacquer factory are commonly included in Saigon city tours, as the tour group usually gets a kickback if they bring in buying customers, so things can get crowded.
If you feel inspired to see more lacquer after your tour, a few places around town do display high-quality lacquer pieces. The Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum has numerous examples of historic lacquer lining its halls — those pieces are likely among the finest works on display in the city. For more contemporary lacquer, take a stroll through some of Dong Khoi’s art galleries as a few stores do have prominent examples of lacquer work as well.
By Max Murta
Last updated on 18th September, 2014.