Bát Tràng Pottery Village

By: Hal Medrano

One nice thing about living in Hanoi is that when you need to buy dishes for a new apartment, there’s a 600-year-old pottery village right next door.

Bát Tràng village (the word Bát means “bowl”; Tràng means “workshop” or “guild”) lies on the bank of the Red River, about 13 km. from Hanoi. To get there, you cross the Chương Dương bridge out of central Hanoi, turn right onto a dilapidated, heavily pot-holed road, and try to avoid being hit by the buses, trucks, and motorcycles that jockey to overtake each other in both directions. Before long, the city’s urban streetscape gives way to a surreal blend of building settlements, old temples, and dime-sized rice fields that characterizes so much of suburban Hanoi. Bát Tràng lies less than 30 minutes away.

The historical record places Bát Tràng’s origin around the 14th or 15th century, though folklore places it much earlier. An abundance of white clay made the area suitable for ceramics production. There are various theories as to how the village developed its craft; quite likely it was, like so many Vietnamese traditions, imported from China, then given a local twist. At its height, Bát Tràng pieces were prized by the Imperial Court, and shipped as far as the Middle East. Centuries of pottery production eventually exhausted the local clay supplies, but white kaolin clay still gets shipped in from nearby provinces, helping the village maintain an annual export trade worth around US$40 million.

Having explored a number of these crafts villages at this point, I was suprised by both the scale and activity of Bát Tràng. The town is filled with cement and brick buildings housing glass-windowed showrooms, bundles of ceramic objects awaiting transport, and building placards advertising export services. A couple of traditional wood houses serve as galleries and information centers. Around 80 percent of Bát Tràng’s population of nearly 7000 people is engaged in ceramics production and trade, and indeed, it takes just a short hop into a nondescript alley to find some small workshop with artisans diligently at work. The immediate impression is of abundance and affluence and full-on production.

 

After parking my bike near the entrance to the town, it was about a one kilometer walk down a shop-lined road to the central market. Once there, a plethora of busy stalls offered an impressive selection of wares. Bát Tràng produces both utilitarian goods, such as plates, cups, and vases, and decorative objects, such as altars and statues. The traditional styles are lovely: gray-white porcelain with hand-painted Asian landscapes, village scenes, and abstract designs. Most of the painting is blue or black, though other colors are not difficult to find. Special enamels and high-temperature firing give the pieces their durability. These production processes are as much a part of Bát Tràng’s tradition as its designs.

In the end, I purchased a clay cooking pot (tộ); five medium-sized serving platters; a half-dozen bowls, plates, and ceramic spoons; sugar and salt containers; and a couple of smaller square plates for dipping sauces and whatnot, all for around US$25. I added a Japanese twist by purchasing mis-matched bowls and plates – each diner eats off a unique dish. I have no doubt they’ll be functional and attractive elements of my home. And should anyone ask, I’ll be proud to tell them about the old village by the Red River where I bought them.

 

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