Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day Visit to Bat Trang Pottery Village

Last Saturday, my first since getting back to Japan, I decided to visit Bat Trang Pottery Village on the outskirts of Hanoi. I’d been here twice before – once in the summer of 1994, and once in the winter of 1997 – and remembered it as being quite different from what I found on this visit. While Bat Trang is still interesting and worth spending time wandering its quiet, tree-lined back streets – avoid the commercial center as much as possible, unless you’re there to buy kitschy souvenirs – it’s become a bit of a maze and finding high-quality pottery is not necessarily an easy task.

After crossing Long Bien Bridge into Gia Lam and then winding along dusty, multi-layered roads full of construction and reckless car drivers, we found our way to Bat Trang village, panting and wheezing, and parked across the street from the entrance to the main pottery market. We entered the market, ignoring the touts asking us to pay 50,000 dong to watch pottery demonstrations – we were aware that you needn’t pay money to see this, as the back streets offered free access to many families creating pottery in their homes – and skimmed the various sale-shelves of pottery and ceramics, which were incredibly cheap but not of particularly high quality. Still, the sheer number of pieces for sale was impressive, and it was fun wandering around.

After about 45 minutes we exited the market and found ourselves in a charming alley. Bat Trang is 1000 years old, and many of its ancients streets have been preserved. You won’t find 1000 year-old homes or artifacts of any kind, but everything here is old – perhaps the oldest thing you’ll find is the physical layout of these crumbly, narrow back streets.

We quickly happened upon a wood-and-brick house that looked as if it might collapse under the next storm that rolled through. In the window, which was barred, were several children painting at a table. We entered the very weathered, sideways-leaning door and found a woman teaching a handful of students how to spin a stone wheel and fashion objects out of clay.

Behind the students was the table we’d seen through the window. They had bought (or rather, their parents had bought them) clay figures the teacher had made but not yet painted in. For 10,000 dong one could make pottery under the teacher’s guidance, and for another 5000 dong you could paint it however you’d like.

When the students had finished making their pottery, the teacher took the objects outside and under a low, caved-in roof she placed them before a small electrical heater (whose wires she had to figure out first). At the same time this small heater was pumping out hot air, a fire beneath the board on which the objects sat also contributed to quicker drying.

We watched this for a while, then moved further down the street.

While not every house here is involved in making pottery, it’s still fairly common to find yards filled with objects at various stages of completion.

One even finds steps used for drying vessels under the sun.

Loading up (or down) a motorbike with pieces to sell at different stores.

We found a few people in front of a house transporting clay inside, and we asked if it was okay to observe how the family made pottery. In fact, although the pottery studio was family-run, it had a staff comprised of several non-family members, too. It was fascinating to see the process firsthand – quite different from what I saw in Kanazawa, Japan, two weeks earlier.

Each woman paints about six vessels per hour. It's nothing short of amazing to watch them fill in the white space with various images.

The house is open like this to allow the heat from the kiln, which is just to the left of this photo, to pass through.

By the time we’d finished, the heat was unbearable and we went off to find some place to eat and re-hydrate ourselves. We entered a bia hoi and asked for an air-conditioned room, but the room was a storeroom, and although the owner began moving everything outside so we could eat there, we told him we’d sit by one of the restaurant fans instead to cool down. We ended up ordering a plate of cut cucumbers (40,000 dong) that came with a dipping sauce of salt, pepper, chilies, and lemon juice, and also a dish (60,000 dong) of boiled lamb and an herb called lá ngổ that was simultaneously bitter and sour and very good, all of it sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with a mildly flavored dipping sauce made from fermented soy beans, ginger, and sugar. This was a surprisingly satisfying lunch, though I definitely could have done without the pieces of skin, many of which needed a few swipes of my Mach 3 razor.

Overall the trip was a nice break from Hanoi, but coming here on such a hot day, and on a weekend, probably wasn’t the best idea. One can arrange tours to Bat Trang through any number of tour agencies in Hanoi, or, if you have your own motorbike, you can just find the fairly well-marked signs to Bat Trang. Finding good ceramics and pottery takes some doing, and wandering through the older part of the village is a good way to discover them. The ceramics prices are negotiable, and you can often get a discount between 10-20% in the market. Make sure to look each piece over before buying, as small flaws are fairly common.

These two I particularly liked. The styles are based on an old type of ceramics that Bat Trang once specialized in.

This guy was checking me out in front of a store as we left Bat Trang.

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