Vietnam, especially the northern half of it, develops differently than most countries. Instead of abolishing old lifestyles and traditions and switching to the uniform, bland modern routine, it absorbs technologies, incorporates advanced economic and social policies, but retains the ancient ways of living and working, now augmented by the new tools. One such tradition is craft villages: one settlement, one applicable art. Inside, every house is a workshop, every family is a team of artisans. Hanoi, in particular, is surrounded by hundreds of such villages. Here are a few most interesting of them.
This village is the most popular (read: touristed) of all. Gods and Buddhas only know why. The craft practiced here is pottery, and yes, it is spectacular, but bronze foundries or bamboo weaving can be no less interesting. The busy tourist trade has created the demand for a line of souvenir shops and the actual ceramic souvenirs as a secondary product - toys, ashtrays, etc. Nevertheless, the main activity here is still to make clay vessels, both for the household and farming. The process is manual, with throwing wheels, brick kilns and cute Vietnamese girls painting plates and vases before firing. The usual tactics, arriving early or late in the day, will allow you to avoid tour groups and explore the workshops in peace.
Here the trade of choice is silk. Weaving and dyeing the fabric is traditional, but nowadays some enterprising tailors have moved in, so a dress or an ao dai (classical Vietnamese female costume) can be ordered on the spot. Some tours visit this village as well, but since few foreigners would buy a silk dress on the spur of a moment, this does not affect the production. Van Phuc claims to be the oldest silk-processing community in Vietnam, and while most Vietnamese craft villages proudly declare themselves to be the first in their field, here the antiquity is visible: it is as much an architectural as a cultural attraction. Ancient buildings with curved roofs house looms, silkworm cocoons bob in boiling vats, and long sheets of brightly colored textile are strung in the courtyards. This is one of those places where travel photographers take prize-winning shots.
Ha Thai craft village specializes in lacquerware. The resin of lacquer tree, once processed and solidified, is both flexible and durable - one common way for lacquerware artisans all over Asia to show off their skill is to take a freshly made bowl and push its sides together, flattening it. A good bowl will bend but not break, then straighten back by itself. This is true for items on a traditional bamboo frame, but nowadays, metal is also used. A silver inlay, for example, appears to be the local specialty. A lacquer item would perhaps make the best souvenir, but surprisingly, despite its proximity to Hanoi, Ha Thai village is very seldom visited by foreigners. Mostly it serves the local demand, and the pieces are typically Vietnamese - for some, this would actually be an advantage. Otherwise, observing the process of fashioning boxes, plates and statues is the main reason for a visit. Again, photographers will find this a great opportunity to shoot a masterpiece.
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