Now that we’ve seen most of what the centre of Hanoi has to offer, we’ve started to venture to the outskirts of the city, to those places Lonely Planet suggests you visit but no one ever does due to time constraints. Luckily we don’t have that issue! We spent an afternoon in Bat Trang, known as the ‘ceramic village’ and Van Phuc, specialising in silk.
Bat Trang is a seven-century-old pottery village, 13km southeast of Hanoi. Here, artisans mass-produce ceramics and for very reasonable prices. There are hordes of shops greeting you upon arrival, with some sellers twisting your arm to come and try your hand at pottery making yourself. But we made a beeline for the one main ‘market’ in the centre of the village where most of the ceramic shops were crammed together side-by-side, spilling out onto the narrow pathways that us buyers meandered along. Most of the shops seemed to be selling the same things with similar colour pallets of white, blue and green patterns. The main ceramics were teapots, mugs and vases, all beautifully made, but there were some more obscure items too, including animal figurines and eggcups. It was nerve wracking manoeuvring around the tiny stalls, crammed from top to bottom with shelves of fragile objects. One wrong stepping of the foot or a careless swing of the rucksack would have caused chaos. Naomi purchased a handmade mug and saucer (for about a fiver!) after an hour or so of deliberation and a couple of rounds of picking our way through the unruly stalls.
We also poked around the back lanes where some of the craftsmen and women were at work and their kilns in use. But the little village felt very quiet and slightly eerie. We were the only foreigners there and it seemed like a slightly forgotten piece of Hanoi. It was amazing that this ceramic village existed at all considering nobody seemed to be buying much. But we had read that Bat Trang ceramics are produced for daily household use, worshipping and decoration purposes.
Back in the day, Bat Trang’s ceramics were not only sold in the domestic market, but also foreign ones thanks to the Western, Chinese and Japanese trading boats that passed by. Moreover, the area itself is rich in clay and lies beside the Red River. It was also situated between two ancient trade centres in the 15th-17th century, making it an ideal market place. Due to restricting foreign trade policy in the 18th and 19th century, ceramic villages like Bat Trang went through some tough times with difficulties in exporting pottery products from Vietnam. But in recent years, more effort has been vested in ensuring these villages don’t die out and the world gets a chance to know more about glorious Vietnamese porcelain.
On another Saturday afternoon we made it to Van Phuc, just 8km south of Hanoi. At 1,200 years old, Van Phuc is the most ancient silk village, providing the finest silk in Vietnam. It was basically just a high street of shops selling silk fabrics, clothes and silk embroidered artwork. Lots of visitors come here to buy or order tailor made clothes. There were some very funky silk ties, shirts and beautiful silk-covered decorative conical hats. However we also got to see the silk come together on the very noisy power-looms.
Van Phuc’s silk is known for its ‘smooth, lightweight, elegant appearance’ allowing the wearers to feel cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The village makes more than 2 million meters of silk per year. For a long period of time, silk was considered extremely precious and was only worn by Royal members and aristocrats. Even though those days are long gone, it doesn’t change the sense of luxury imparted by the silk being made here and the weavers are still just as busy.
Whilst neither village would be many people’s #1 choice of destination, it was pretty fascinating being able to walk around for an afternoon, admiring and appreciating the skill and history behind each craft. It’s the little half day trips to obscure places like the silk and ceramic villages that make living in Hanoi all the more worthwhile.