Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Visit to Bat Trang Village

Bat Trang Village is about a 35-40 minute ride from Ha Noi, if you are with people who have an idea of how to get there. Luckily for us, we were, as Chuck's group of photographer friends are always looking for interesting things to shoot. I normally do not join these "men" outings, but when I heard that ceramics and pottery were involved, it was not possible to keep me away.

The map above may give the reader a sense of the layout of the village, but for me, I prefer to stay away from maps and lose my way around. I did know, however, that the village would be hemmed by the Hong (Red) River, and that artists' shops could be visited without advance notice. Sounded like a plan.

A bit of history about this place reveals that by the 14th century, some craftsmen were already picking up the slack from China, who at the time, had banned export of their renown blue and white ceramics. Blessed with an abundance of white clay and readily available water, it wasn't long before Bat Trang earned a reputation for the quality and beauty of their products; eventually celadon and crackled glaze were added over time. Unfortunately, exports slowed to an eventual halt when China resumed its own exports by the 18th century. Today, Viet Namese pottery and ceramics have earned their own signature and feature some of the most exquisite modern designs, though one can still find the traditional blue and white motifs everywhere.

Since food is always part of any outing, the group introduced us to this café which sat right in the center of what I'll call the commercial area. This is where tourists buses park and unload their passengers. The assortment and quality of the products encompasses anything you can think of plus more. It is virtually impossible to walk away from Bat Trang without carrying something back. As we stepped inside the café, we realized we were the only visitors. At this point, we opted for a very traditional lunch of nem rolls and seafood noodles with warm tea. The other men didn't eat as they were much more interested in taking pictures of each other and discussing the eccentricities of lenses, cameras and shooting angles. Needless to say, the food was outstanding.

Look at the design of the back of the chair that Chuck is sitting on. The Chinese influence is unmistakable, as we found the case to be in almost every historical place we visited. One of the most beautiful was the ancient capital of Hue, and I'll cover that in another post.

As we finished our meal, we took turns taking pictures of each other, and I did the honors by taking some of the entire male group together. It was now time to take a walk around the village and visit some of the workshops.

Pagodas are ubiquitous in Viet Nam, and the further away from the big cities, the more there are. Sometimes, they are just gateways, but have this very colorful and historical presence. And this village was no exception.

We started walking away from the main tourist area, we began to see some of the locals either at work or play. Why do I get the feeling that women are working harder than men here? We caught glimpses of several women pushing overloaded bicycles filled with large planting pots, heading towards the river.

What a clever way to leverage a bike's utility...and yes, that's a woman pushing.

Some of the doors leading inside the workshops were wide open, others not. Since no one spoke English, but we had our built-in guides, it was easy to introduce ourselves and get inside to see works in progress. One such piece caught my attention, and it is the clay multi-leveled home with the front courtyard. I had no idea if this would be dried and kilned and sold as natural clay work, of if it might be glazed afterwards. I loved it just as it was. On the floors, there were hundreds of vases, flat dishes, planters, some unfinished, others decorated but faded, and most just gathering dust.

It was hard to tell whether these were abandoned projects or unwanted pieces. Had I been able to carry all of these precious ceramics home, I would have taken them. Or bought them, whichever worked.

One of the most interesting things to watch was the "delivery" of the wet clay to the artist. In the photos below, you can see a huge mound of fresh clay which the woman will apportion by using some sort of a steel string to peel the material away and carry it inside. I took a close up shot of the clay which looks more like smoked oysters to me.

The artist is immersed in his work and is not really paying attention to any of us, which is good, I think....

This was at first startling then made a lot of sense, since the pieces have to be placed in ovens at high temperatures. The greyish patties you see are made of coal and they are plastered onto the outside walls of the "studio" for drying, and will be used for fire.

This is so labor intensive that it's a miracle that it does not translate into exhorbitant prices of the finished goods. But considering that China is outsourcing to Viet Nam, labor is still cheaper here than it is there.

The barges serve as homes to the tradespeople as well as transporting

to markets in Viet Nam and for eventual export.

This child is beyond adorable; many of them accompany their mothers who have stalls in the "commercial" area of this village. I started wandering in and out of each stall, picking up a vase here, and another one there, and then changing my mind, and my vases each time I saw something more amazing.

In Viet Nam, people will offer you whatever it is that they are eating. I found that they have the most peculiar way of eating guavas, a fruit that I kill to eat. The only other place I was able to find guavas was in Mexico City. Well, here they dip quarters of the fruit in hot chili powder and swear by it. This is my cue to take a hike as I cannot handle chili in any way, shape or form, especially in the Orient. The extent of my chili experience stops at Chili con carne. Full stop. I love food that is well spiced, but cannot tolerate "hot" spice. The women who had offered me the fruit were all laughing at me because I begged away from them.

I am very close to victory here, as I spot these very unsual bowls
which are dotted in white with a melon background. It is only now that I notice that they match my dress. This is what they call sublimation I suppose.

They were sturdy and beautiful and luckily for me, micro-wave safe, which meant they'd be perfect for my morning oatmeal on freezing New York mornings. One has to plan in advance. A set of 12 would have worked well, except that we had already purchased a couple of suitcases in order to be able to fit all that we had not been able to "resist" in our travels. The final purchase was 4 bowls which I still have to this day.

In addition to these bowls, I fell in love with 2 other ceramic vases, which I will post on the blog at some later date, since I will have to photograph them. One of the vases caught my heart because of its unusual triangular shape at the top, and its exquisite blending of earth tones in a very subtle block pattern. The other vase was more traditional and had a curled lip of sorts, but hereagain, the color was greyish, but upon close inspection, one could detect some blue and reddish hues in the mix. An added bonus is that instead of giving you shopping bags, they put your puchases in these straw matted pouches with handles (see it pictured next to the crouched vendor in the photo). I was very excited about these as I immediately envisioned other potential uses for the pouches when they would arrive in New York.

This is what you see as you enter the parking lot, but it's only a fraction of the array they have. You can spend an entire day, weaving in and out of stalls, and if I had a ceramic business, this is where I'd make my wholesale purchases. Forget the Lenox and the Wedgewood. I am as far away from those brands as anyone could be.

I hate to poop the party, but these men want to go on and shoot more pictures and I am worn out. I take a firm stand and declare that I really must get back to the hotel. And of course, it does take about an hour for the ride back, as we hit some traffic coming into Ha Noi.

Bat Trang needs me back, for perhaps a half-day, but this time, without a bunch of clickers. Watch out for the cows on the way home...they are all over the place, grazing.

Read about the new way to visit this village...via buffalo. Follow this link.

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