Arts and Handicrafts of Vietnam

by Steven K. Bailey, Dec 1, 1996 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Wandering through outdoor markets and shopping arcades has always been one of my favorite pastimes in Asia. From the Chiang Mai night market to Hong Kong's Ocean City shopping mall, the people-watching opportunities are endless, the culinary options fantastic and the purchasing possibilities limitless. I'm primarily a window shopper, but over the years I've managed to pick up my share of Asian treasures. Among many other things, there's the hand-painted scroll bought in Beijing, the Sri Lankan lunghi acquired in Negombo, and the Saddam Hussein baseball pennant purchased in Jogjakarta during the Gulf War. My on-the-road shopping has always been somewhat scattershot due to lack of money and carrying space and my Asian souvenirs are as random and low-budget as my travels. Doubtless when I go to Vietnam I'll be as haphazard a shopper as ever, but this time I'll at least have a head start by reading Arts and Handicrafts of Vietnam (1992).

Unlike other books from The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi, this book is primarily a photo collection. High-quality color pictures fill most of the 9" by 10" book's 84 pages. Photographs of priceless masterpieces abound, but my favorite shot depicts more affordable grapefruit carved into fuzzy toy creatures for the mid-autumn festival. The most mysteriously out of place photograph is of the horse market in Lao Cai Province, the artistic merit of which goes unexplained.

The book is organized into chapters for different art forms, including handicrafts, ceramics, paper-based art, hand-printed paintings, lacquerware and puppetry. Along with a generous selection of photographs, each chapter contains a short block of text that relates that particular art form's history. I found the chapter on lacquerware to be particularly informative with its description of how lacquer tree sap is collected, fermented, strained, blended with oil and finally applied to wooden objects as a varnish that is both protective and attractive.

Arts and Handicrafts of Vietnam is not the best translation of the title, since the English term "handicrafts" tends to be a subjective term applied to supposedly inferior objects that are not really considered "art." The authors of Arts and Handicrafts of Vietnam, however, do not suffer from such snobberies. They consider handicrafts to be works of art in themselves. As the book points out, before the twentieth century the Vietnamese drew no clear distinction between art and handicrafts, and they still hold all creative works in high regard, no matter how humble or utilitarian. The history of Vietnamese art dates back thousands of years. According to the book's introduction, archaeological evidence points to pottery use as far back as the Neolithic Age; metal work began with copper casting four thousand years ago. By 500 B.C., the Vietnamese produced sophisticated ceramics. Traditionally the arts centered in the villages, especially in the plains of the northern delta. This tradition has carried on to the present day, with Bat Trang, a village outside Hanoi that makes ceramics, being one of the more famous and well-visited examples. In more recent centuries, craftspeople and artisans migrated to the growing urban centers where they congregated in guilds based along certain streets. Hanoi had its pho phuong, or guilds, known as the "36 Streets." Each street produced and sold a specific product, from tinware to paper goods, leatherware to coffins. Many of these streets still exist in Hanoi, and some even remain faithful to their name.

Whether you plan to travel on a budget and can carry only what fits in your pack, or whether you have more ambitious plans, this book will serve as an excellent primer on the varied artistic traditions of Vietnam. Whether you want simple wicker work for a few thousand dong or a thousand-dollar lacquerware masterpiece, Arts and Handicrafts of Vietnam will guide you in your purchases. Indeed, the book itself can be reckoned a fine souvenir. But even if you don't plan to visit Vietnam at all, you'll still enjoy this book's well-illustrated introduction to the artists and craftspeople.

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