You’ve probably heard of Bat Trang. My mechanic certainly had. “Ah, it’s very famous, a lovely place, you’ll enjoy it,” he said, his eyes bursting with enthusiasm when I mentioned my destination. I silently disagreed. I thought I was going to hate it. My goal was to buy presents for my hoarding grandmother, and answer some questions. Is there real quality or has the village been milked of anything truly remarkable? How has the place changed over the years? Do people still make items by hand or has mass production emerged to satisfy a growing market? Who’s buying all this stuff — from Pokemon models to huge garish statues and everything in between?
A Pottery Theme Park
Only 13km from the centre of Hanoi, Bat Trang is known internationally for its ceramics. Nestled beside the fast-flowing Red River with its abundance of white clay, the village has records that suggest residents have been producing pottery for six centuries. And unlike the economic coma that envelops the west, its industry certainly isn’t showing any signs of halting.
The billboard marking the turnoff to the town beckons like an advertisement for a theme park. However, there aren’t any costumed clay mascots here. Instead, the road is lined with shop after shop, with signs of ‘come in please’ or ‘xin moi vao’. These cover every inch of the road leading a couple of kilometres into the centre of town. It’s hard to imagine how they all make money, but it appears there’s enough to go around: some estimates value the export market alone at US$40 million (VND8.2 trillion) annually.
A brand new Mercedes sports car passed me as I enjoyed an overpriced coffee, suggesting that these estimates are accurate. Next to me is a German who lives at the nearby Ecopark development. He offered to show me around: “There are some nice products, nothing special, though. Most of it is very kitsch. The Vietnamese love kitsch.”
On the way to the ‘ancient ceramic market’, vestiges of the town’s quaint past remain. Lonely, sleepy alleys, fish being sold at the river, locals drinking mia da by the pond. It’s hard to reconcile these pleasant scenes of daily life with the amount of tat that’s being pedalled in the hundreds of shops and sold by the container-load to buyers from overseas.
He took me to a couple places where I could witness the manufacturing process taking place. Make no mistake, these people are talented, showing consummate skill as artists. “I’ve been carving for 17-odd years now,” said an alleyway sculptor. “My assistants came here to work from outside [Bat Trang], but my skill has been passed from generation to generation.” Large, beautifully crafted and intricately designed sculptures that he’d made in a just a few days lay drying.
Then come the painters. It takes an apprentice three to four years to hone the skills needed. Once perfected, a vase as tall as me (185cm) can be decorated in a day or two. Watching the effortless strokes of these masters at work, you can imagine them finishing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in a week.
When my skills were finally put to the test, I found just how difficult it was to make even a simple bowl.
“People aren’t born with it. This is my passion,” my tutor said. “If you can’t make things, you learn to manage people or open up a shop.”
What once might have been a living room or kitchen in a house on the village's back streets has now become a polished showroom ready for shoppers.
“I opened up my house ten years ago to meet demand,” the shop owner told me.
While her products were the most attractive I’d seen, her future was uncertain.
“It’s difficult now because there aren’t enough customers. I have to hand-make jewellery to boost profits.”
When I asked how mass tourism had changed the place, she responded: “It hasn’t changed the artisanal culture. It’s still people that make it. Yes, there’s more technology, but that’s only made [the quality] better. Each product still has its own characteristics. Tourists take away more than just culture. They market us to the world. They’ve helped us survive.”
The only questionable operation is the Bat Trang Conservation and Tourism Development shop and factory, where many tour buses stop and go no further. Goods
were heavily marked up, in stark contrast to the reasonably priced items elsewhere in town. Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety — and quality — of the products available and the pride that goes into making them. The shop owner’s parting comment was this: “It’s traditional and handmade. It’s been here for 600 years and it’ll be here for centuries to come.” I informed her I’d be coming back to buy a vase destined for my gran’s cabinet.
See for yourself: Take the first right after the Chuong Duong Bridge and follow the signs along the dike road, TL195, for about 10km. You can’t miss the welcoming monolith on your right. Alternatively, get yourself to Long Bien Bus Station and catch the number 47 for VND5,000 each way.