So often we delight in the intricately designed crafts and artwork of different cultures, wondering what it reflects about the society that nourished its creation. Yet often we forget to ask ourselves what these things really mean — even the people making them have forgotten why those particular symbols and materials were used.
Zo Project is an award-winning social enterprise established in 2013 by Tran Hong Nhung. The project works in collaboration with a village in Bac Ninh Province that produces traditional Vietnamese do paper. The Zo team then uses the paper to create notebooks, postcards, lamps and other niche crafts that they sell from their workshop in Hoan Kiem.
A large number of traditions in Vietnam have been in steady decline for years now; as the country develops, elements of its past naturally get left in the shade, out of sight and out of memory. The decline of traditions like calligraphy and painting has opened a void in the creative conscience of many Vietnamese; many artists go unappreciated, while the art market itself is largely non-existent.
Recognising that do paper was a dying craft, Nhung set about a plan to preserve this beautiful tradition in an environmentally sustainable way.
There is only one village left in Vietnam that hand-produces do paper. But the team has plans to run educational workshops on how to craft it and have set up their own workshop specifically for producing the paper in the event that the current paper-masters stop pursuing their craft.
I met founder Nhung in their old office in Tay Ho, while they were in the process of relocating to their current base in Hoan Kiem. “We make a lot of mess,” she says, rummaging through stacks of paper and notebooks.
Alongside a dedicated team of volunteers and international collaborators, Nhung has crafted a space where crafts come alive, and the intrigue of creativity is ever-present. The location of the Zo workshop itself inspires creativity — nestled along the train tracks running through Hoan Kiem, the close-knit community surrounding them is one of Hanoi’s most famous destinations for curious travellers and photographers.
“Some of these people have been living here by the train tracks for generations, and I ask myself why? I look out of the window and it’s like I’m watching a movie go by, it’s so interesting,” says Nhung.
Working with Paper
Since establishing themselves, Zo Project has won the Social Enterprise of the Year 2015 award from the Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) and has gained a loyal following of artists and volunteers who share their vision for a passion for the real story behind the crafts of culture — namely, the people themselves.
“For me, it’s about saving cultural and traditional values as well, not just the paper,” Nhung says. “We work with artists and hold exhibitions of their work — we try to bring more artists into working with the paper.”
“People see the patterns on the crafts, they know how to sew it, but so often they don’t know why it’s there or what it means,” says Nhung. The project is passionate about teaching people the culture behind crafts and patterns that we see often in Vietnam, but also why people chose to design something in a particular way and what it might say about those people.
The Zo Project workshop is more than a place to buy hand-made crafts, it’s a reflection of an emerging youth scene in Hanoi that is passionate about creation with preservation, that longs for an artistic explosion in their capital, but can be part of its creation as well.
Officially reopened on the Jun. 2, Zo Project warmly awaits anyone who strays on the right side of the tracks near the Hoan Kiem area.
Zo Project is based at 8 Dien Bien Phu, Ba Dinh, Hanoi. You can check them out online at zoproject.com