Posted by: sharemore1 | October 5, 2011

Backstage in Bat Trang

Sunday is not a day of leisure in Hanoi.   Many people work and everyone else seems to be on the move, often visiting family outside the city.   To travel to the pottery village of Bat Trang (pronounced “Bat Chung”), we had to shove our way onto the #47 bus, where we were packed in like a fistful of chopsticks.

Pottery Market

Since my husband Moshe and I had been to Bat Trang before [See “A Trip to the Pottery Village”], we wanted to make sure our Australian friends, Brian and Kathy, saw more than the tourist market, where shelf after shelf of pottery is as overwhelming as a big box store at home.  We had two Vietnamese students, both named Ha, to guide us through the narrow, winding alleys of the village on the banks of the Red River.

Women in Bat Trung

Bat Trang has been known for its ceramics since at least the 14th century.  The maze of streets has confused invaders over the years and helped hold back the river when it overflowed its banks.  Like many before us, we got lost and even the locals sometimes had difficulty directing us where we wanted to go.

Freight Bike

As we wandered down the alleys, stepping aside for motorbikes bulging with pottery, we wanted to learn more about how people lived in the village and how the ceramics were made.  We poked our heads into workshops where people graciously took time to answer our questions.

Putting Moshe to Work

In one factory, we picked our way around stacks of pots and up an unguarded staircase to the second floor where the workers were getting ready to unload a kiln.  Always eager to get into the act, Moshe helped remove pots from the kiln and push the next load in to be fired.  To keep up with the demand, workers are on the job eight hours a day, seven days a week, only taking time off on holidays.

Drying Charcoal

The modern kilns, like the one Moshe helped unload, run on gas.  Charcoal is still used for fuel in the old-fashioned chimney kilns.  Workers make the fuel by shaping patties from coal dust and sand or pottery waste and slapping them on the walls to dry.

In one shop we saw the giant molds used to make the seven-foot-high vases.  We watched as two men carried one of these vases upstairs from the mold to a turntable.  One of the artisans slowly turned the vase as he smoothed its sides, then allowed us to give it a try.  When he was satisfied the vase was ready, he wet the top edge and added the lip, which he secured to the base.  Nearby a woman skillfully painted an intricate design on another vase.

Helping Smooth the Vase

Finished Vases

Although most villagers make their living from ceramics, we found an interesting exception.  He was a Vietnamese cowboy, fancifully dressed in a Texas hat, a red shirt, leather boots, and pants laced up the sides with red rope.  He knelt as he put the finishing touches on a large landscape propped up against the wall.  It takes him about a month to paint each mural, which he sells for $600.

Cowboy Painter

Little Red Teapot

In our guidebook (Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam by Fanchette and Stedman) we’d read about Delicious Ceramic, a shop where Mr. Nguyen Xuan Nguyen makes small pots and plates of his own design.  After many false turns and stops for directions we finally found our way there.  Although the potter was nowhere to be seen, his mother showed us his wares.  I quickly fell in love with a little red teapot, decorated with a sitting woman, knees drawn up and hands on her cheeks in a “woe is me” pose.   I also bought some tiny teapot-shaped plates for tea bags.

As I was paying for the pottery, Mrs. Nguyen invited us into their home across the courtyard.  There Mr. Nguyen, the potter’s father, urged us to sit down for a cup of tea.  A gregarious man, he apologized for his English, saying he was better at Russian, which he’d learned studying in Moscow.  He showed off his collection of homemade alcohol, including a large bottle of wine with a coiled snake inside.  “It’s good for your bones,” he insisted.  Fortunately he only offered us tiny cups of his apricot liquor, which went down smoothly and brought a glow to our cheeks.

Mr. Nguyen

“Are you hungry?” our hosts wanted to know.  It was too late to shop for groceries, but they could fetch bowls of beef pho from a nearby restaurant.  When our guides assured us we would be allowed to pay, we happily agreed.  Soon we were slurping the steaming beef noodle soup and chatting with our new friends.  As we left they gave us several business cards, urging that we  call in advance next time so Mrs. Nguyen could cook us a meal herself.

We headed back to the bus, our stomachs full.  Even when the effects of the liquor wore off, we felt an afterglow from our time with the villagers and the glimpse they’d given us into their work and their lives.


Responses

  1. I’m so so jealous! That teapot is perfect. Sounds like such a wonderful day. When I lived in North Carolina I went to a town called Seagrove where the economy was pottery based and absolutely loved it. There are over 99 pottery stores that you drive all over to find. This brought me back to that visit. I brought many items back as gifts for the holidays (hint hint). Nothing as ornate as the pics you show here. It is rather interesting to see the differences in style of pottery. Keep writin!
    Maya

    • Thanks for responding when you read the blog. It’s nice to know someone is out there reading what I write. You guys should come and visit and you can pick out your own gifts.

      Sharon L. Morris Read my blog: sharemore1.wordpress.com

  2. I am also reading all of the blogs and enjoying them. Thanks

  3. Great scenes of people working. That first picture of the pottery store made me nervous– one misstep by the proverbial bull in the china shop and the whole place could crash!

  4. OK, the pottery village brought me to tears! I hope that you go back and find something wonderful for your number one daughter! Even though I am downsizing my possessions, I think I could find room for ONE MORE TEAPOT! Thanks for memorializing your adventures. What wonderful people! I can’t wait to visit and meet them for myself some day…
    Becca


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