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The Arts and Crafts of Vietnam Today

From the book Arts and Handicrafts of VietNam.

On display at any traditional Vietnamese festival, is a profusion of traditional arts and handicrafts – lacquered carvings and the red and yellow ochre colours in communal houses, embroidery on flags, banners and parasols, the key chains worn by women, gold and silver jewellery around children’s necks, the architecture of pagodas and temples and so on, a spiritual environment in which creativity has always flourished.

The arts may now be flourishing in Vietnam, but it was not always so. Recent decades of conflict not only ruined many priceless relics but also destroyed ancient traditions and led to the disappearance of many centuries – old arts and crafts. Happily, peace and stability are restoring Vietnam’s arts and handicrafts to their proper place, and many are now being given a new lease of life.

Vietnam is a land of handicrafts, so long established and so varied that the names of many villages, hamlets and city streets have become synonymous over the centuries with particular occupations or production processes. Many of the “36 Streets” of Old Hanoi (Tin, Paper, Coffin, Leather, Mat Street and so on) are coming to life again. Cat Dang and Kinh Bang are the names of localities famous for lacquerware; Tu Van and La Xuyen for woodcarving. Dong Sam is renowned for gold and silver engraving and jewellery. Huong Canh, Phu Lang, Bat Trang, Mong Cai and Dong Nai can boast of centuries-old skills in pottery making and porcelainware. The list is almost endless…mother-of-pearl inlay work in Ngu Xa, hatmaking in Chuong, mat-weaving in Nga Son and stone-carving in Quang Nam – Da Nang.

The history of these is a long one. Woodcarving gave birth as a matter of course to the art of lacquerwork, then to other crafts such as the production of red paint from mineral sands. The skill of the gold and silversmith further embellished and increased the value of each lacquered item. The Vietnamese people have traditionally coated their utensils with lacquer in order to enhance their durability and beauty. Lacquered objects are to be found in profusion in any house, pagoda, temple, palace or shrine, and the hundreds of thousands of items that survive to this day attest to the important position held by this particular craft in the nation’s cultural history.

Embroidery and weaving were spurred on by the introduction of cotton, silkworms, spinning, and textile dyeing. The art of pottery making was born out of the demand for earthenware implements for daily use; an endless stream of utensils appeared, including pots, cups, plates, bowls, vases and jugs.

The widely practised craft of wickerwork grew out of an abundance of locally- available raw materials – various species of bamboo and rattan, jute, hemp, palm-leaves and reeds. From the skilled hands of the artisan came many articles still in daily use – baskets for winnowing, bags, mats, blinds, lattices, chopsticks and even building materials. Whatever technical innovations are introduced, wickerwork will always constitute a unique blend of the practical and aesthetic.

In earlier times, artists and craftsmen found markets for their work among a few well-to-do rural families, high-ranking mandarins, and city-dwellers. These days the consumers are the ordinary citizenries. Rising living standard mean that people’s desire for beautiful things around them has grown. Furniture, interior and exterior house decoration, decorative objects and implements used every day – many now require the skilled hands of the artisan.

The State is now strongly encouraging the resurgence of traditional handicraft skills. Organised into industry sectors within unions, co-operatives, and State and privately run enterprises, the production of artworks has become a major source of income and employment opportunities. And training in the various skills is no longer just a family affair.

Works of art have also become a major export industry, necessitating changes in production technology – a dilemma faced by all developing countries as they move into large-scale industrialization. Since arts and handicrafts mostly had their origins among ordinary people living in a rural environment, the introduction of mass production techniques can, however unintentionally, destroy the very essence of the traditional identities of different localities. Carved beds and cupboards from La Xuyen, for instance, differ markedly from those of Tu Van, and even more so from the woodcarving of Hue.

But mass production can also mean technological improvements, resulting in lower costs and greater aesthetic quality.

Many business enterprises are now involved in large-scale export: ARTEXPORT, BAROTEX (bamboo and rattan items) and dozens of private companies have been established under the nation’s open-door policy. Over the last few years, the Dong Da Carpet-Making Enterprise, the Thang Long ARTEX Company and Bat Trang Earthenware Enterprise have appeared, along with Hai Phong’s Hang Kenh Carpet-Making Enterprise, the Van Phuc Silk-Weaving, Binh Minh Lacquereware and Phu Vinh-Bang So Wickerwork Enterprises, not to mention embroidery and sculpture in Huc, stone-carving in Thanh Hoa and Ngu Hanh Son and so on.

In the far south are the Thanh Le Lacquerware and Mother-of-pearl Inlay Work Enterprises in Ho Chi Minh City, pottery in Dong Nai and Bien Hoa, and tortoiseshell-carving in Ha Tien. Visits to such locations, where master-craftsman and their pupils gather to practise their age-old crafts, are becoming popular activities for Vietnamese people and foreigners alike.

Down through the centuries, the disappearance or continued existence of traditional handicraft skills has always been closely associated with historical events, the living environment, customs and lifestyles, and with a people’s efforts to preserve the essence of their national identity.

Vietnam, this land of handicrafts, has seen successive periods of conflict, the return of peace, and the rebirth of ancient traditions. Stability and the integration of Vietnamese arts and craft industries into world markets are now bringing about an even greater diversification and enrichment of such crafts within the nation itself. To the people of Vietnam themselves, arts and handicrafts have always had a profound historical and social significance, and continue to play a major role in every aspect of their material and spiritual lives today.

From the book Arts and Handicrafts of VietNam.

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