This guest post was written by Stephanie Long.
After the constant noise and crowds of Hanoi, Bat Trang feels like a ghost town. White-hot and silent, the stone buildings stand with their doors and windows wide open to the world. The Red River ambles along indifferently just a few hundred feet away. Apart from myself and Dang, the guide who is showing me around the village, there isn’t anyone in sight.
The history of Bat Trang, Dang tells me as we walk along the outskirts of the village, began when Vietnam’s capital was moved north to Hanoi. Many people journeyed north with the king, and when they stopped to make camp, they discovered abundant white clay in the ground. Over the years, a village grew around ceramic and porcelain making. Bat Trang’s ceramics have, for hundreds of years, been exported all throughout Asia and Europe. It is still one of the most famous places for Vietnamese ceramics.
Once we reach the buildings where the ceramics are made, Dang pokes his head through an open front door, and yells something in Vietnamese. There’s no reply, and he tells me most of the people have probably gone to their homes to seek shelter from the mid-afternoon heat. He moves onto the next building. This time, a voice says something back, and he gestures for me to follow him inside.
My eyes need a minute to adjust. The large room is cluttered with 6-foot tall molds that make me think of sarcophagi, tubs filled with liquid clay, and the dim red glow of coal ovens. The air hangs still and thick and heavy, and the only light comes from the sun streaming in through the windows.
The man inside cheerfully shows us the various stages of making these vases: how the liquid clay is mixed, then poured into the molds, and finally dried and heated to make the vases.
Upstairs, we find another warehouse-like room. Vases, removed from their molds, tower all around us. Some have plain matte white surfaces, and others are painted in intricate blue-gray designs: feathered peacocks, gnarled tree branches, rugged mountains and swirling clouds. A few are resting on revolving stands, and others are on a sliding tray, waiting to be rolled into the industrial-sized kiln. They will sit inside the kiln for as long as 3 days before they’re finished.
The only other person in the room is a young woman, sitting on a stool, painting a 6-foot-tall vase. Her brush dances across the white surface, in staccato jabs and long, elegant sweeps, drawing out delicate, feathery flowers.
I don’t want to distract her, but I ask if I can take a few pictures and ask her some questions. My guide quietly says something to her in Vietnamese, and, not stopping her work, she nods. He translates, and her brush never stops moving as she answers.
She tells me that she learned to paint at a university in Hanoi, and decided to specialize in painting ceramics. I ask how she knows what to paint. A lot of painters use patterns, she replies, but after years of painting these vases, she only has to mark out a few ideas, and can see the patterns and motifs that she wants to paint.
A vase of this size, she tells me, will take her an entire day or more to finish.
We watch for a while, as the pattern she is painting takes form into a blossoming tree branch. On our way out of the shop, we pass a small room with finished, lacquered vases ready to be sold.
“How much do you think one of these vases would cost?” Dang asks. I know hardly anything about ceramics, but from the size and intricacy of them, I guess $500 to $600 US. He nods, and tells me that’s about what they would cost, but you can buy them in Bat Trang, straight out of the shop, for under $100 US.
The next place we visit specializes in making smaller ceramics. Outside, rows of gray frogs, bears, rabbits, kittens, and other shapes dry in a patch of sunlight. Inside, three women are chatting and laughing as they work. One woman is removing these little figures from their molds, while the other two paint.
We walk further into the village, between dark brick walls and past small, tightly packed homes. Big clumps of black coal are stuck all over these walls, and Dang tells me that, rather than waste the coal after it has been burnt, they use it to reinforce and repair homes and walls in the village.
Next, it’s on to Bat Trang’s ceramics market. Thousands of tea sets, vases, and figures sit on shelves, all packed together with just barely enough room for me and my backpack to squeeze through. Bat Trang might be a popular day-trip from Hanoi, but the market is definitely not touristy. In fact, I don’t see a single other foreigner there. Most Hanoians will come to Bat Trang’s market to buy gifts, plates and bowls, or decorations, rather than buying them at the markets in the city.
I can’t very well walk through here and not buy something—even the most elaborate and beautiful tea sets don’t go over $20 US! After an hour of walking around, and a few failed attempts at bargaining, I choose a dark green tea set with a bamboo tray for my brother and his fiancee—for about $5 US.
On a practical note, Bat Trang is about 13 km from Hanoi, although the drive takes close to 45 minutes. While it’s possible to get there with Vietnam’s busses, it’s much easier to hire a private car and a guide from one of the many tour operators in Hanoi.