Visiting a traditional craft village along the Red River banks is a good way of escaping the busy life of the capital city and exploring the age-old ceramic craft making.
As a newcomer to Hanoi I find myself in daily awe of many people gathering around the sidewalk food stands, of the throngs of motorbikes winding and weaving their way up Hue street and down Ba Trieu street, and of the intrepid tourists who confront – however timidly or courageously – the sensory overload that is the Old Quarter. Sometimes, however, every city dweller needs to escape the sound and the fury of downtown activity.
If a city break is what you are after, the artisan village of Bat Trang, which lies about an hour’s leisurely drive from central Hanoi, is well worth trying – crossing over Chuong Duong Bridge and heading south on TL 195 to get out of the motorbike melee and into the fresh air with housing developments on the left and grazing cattle on the right coming into focus.
After what feels like a little too long following road markings for Bat Trang, a large sign appears on the right with the name of this lovely village, which specialises in hand-made, hand-painted ceramics in all shapes and sizes.
Upon our arrival, my girlfriend and I puttered around the streets with the dwindling afternoon light casting crisp silhouettes of power lines on chipping plaster walls the colour of lemon sherbet. There were women drinking tea in front of a cement mixer and a pile of bricks with the clear intention of filling the void left by a torn down building. We passed overflowing shops with ceramics of all sorts on offer.
Our senses were bombarded by the meandering melody of mournful music, the strident scent of burning incense wafting out from the Buddhist temple, and a huge crowd of people with white headbands spilling out onto the streets after a funeral ceremony was just wrapped up.
Inside the shops, the variety is incredible: tea sets, mugs, ash trays, plates, vases – small, large, and humongous. Then there are the ceramic figures of dogs, Buddha, Confucius, turtles, Bugs Bunnies, elephants, lions, eagles; you name it, they have it.
A bit overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of shops, we tried one of the larger ones n the main street, Huong Xuan, where all manners of dishware are sold in both the traditional Chinese blue and white motif as well as in a range of contemporary styles and colours. We purchased a couple of pieces as gifts for people back home, but the best part was yet to come.
The man in the showroom is a kind and welcoming individual, and if asked politely, he will allow paying customers to see the production facilities. In one part of the factory, a dozen or so women operate huge press machines, which hollow out lumps of fresh clay, turning them into vases or drinking vessels.
From there, low wooden planks are loaded with fresh pieces and carried upstairs into the kiln room. Two kilns larger than some studio apartments I’ve lived in are packed with hundreds of pieces waiting to be fired. The perfectly uniform cups, saucers, and teapots arranged in repetitive rows and columns of gray clay forms are visually striking.
The next room over is designated for painting and glazing. After the pieces come out of the kiln the first time, another dozen or so women paint intricate blue and white patterns and calligraphy on them with the narrowest of brushes.
Be warned: the grace and ease with which the women apply complicated motifs to their ceramics can easily mesmerize; on our visit, we stood there slack-jawed for what must have been ten minutes before giving a little bow to the forewoman and heading outside.
We hopped on our motorbike and headed back toward the city feeling eminently refreshed; we were ready once more to face the traffic and constant activity that assaults the senses in the city.
If you are looking for a bit of time away, and you do not have a motorbike, you can take the #47 bus from Long Bien bus station for VND5,000 or you can take a taxi for around VND200,000 each way.