Mary has travelled and worked in many countries in Asia for more than 40 years and has enjoyed several of them.
The Village of Bat Trang
Bat Trang's ceramics cover the whole pottery spectrum from traditional dinner sets to historic vases onto the most modern of European designs. The family kids often do the painting after school with grandma providing equal parts of teaching and tradition.
Some of the decorative art painted on clay tiles are beautiful and show the lens through which some Vietnamese look at life. Often, they are complex. Almost always, they draw you into yourself. Of course, if you are a triumphal Philistine, the crafters have learned over the last 700 years how to smother a giggle and not spit on your shoes.
Poking about and shopping is fun, but getting your hands muddy and learning how to throw a pot is even better. Kids come from schools and immediately park at the wheel each and with a fine paintbrush, their fingers learn another piece of Vietnamese history.
Why Bat Trang Prospered as a Pottery Village
This little pottery village of Bat Trang reaches back perhaps 700 years when each family along the street had its small factory at the back of the house and a sales area right at the front and spilling on to the streets. What a contrast to the vast factory colonies along the highways from Hanoi.
Tucked into the Hong (Red) River's left bank and between two ancient trade centres of Tha Long (Hanoi) and Pho Hien, Ba Trang prospered in its pottery making. It has readily available clay perfectly suited for ceramic work.
It makes pottery for daily use and decorates and designs some of the best pieces to fit into religious rituals. The creations are usually hand-painted, and painters pass on the intricate techniques used to do these from generation to generation.
In the Village is a division of labour that accounted for much of its success. There is a factory that makes the glaze and supplies this to the potters. We visited one factory that makes only traditional teapots and supplies all the village stores.
The Village organizes itself to keep the tradition going. Recently, this cooperation has moved to welcome tourists and day-trippers from Hanoi to the area. They have made their Village much more interesting than just pottery.
Things to Do in Bat Trang
Here are some of the interesting things you can do while visiting Bat Trang:
1. Walk Around the Village of Bat Trang
About 10 km. from Hanoi, Bat Trang is an easy day trip. You will have a chance to peek at a more rural setting, a reprieve from the crowded streets of Hanoi.
The walk around the Village offers many exciting highlights. Some temples are open for anyone interested to poke around. Follow the narrow streets and venture into some of the narrow alleyways. There is a whole experience waiting for you as people open their homes, workplaces, or factories. They even invite you for tea.
But for those whose primary interest is to look at ceramics, there are streets with hundreds of stores offering all kinds and colours, a mix of traditional and modern design.
Walking in the main street, we met many Vietnamese families looking at ceramics for their homes while they're in the Village. The ramping up to the TET festival has started, and the glazed eye shoppers would do well in a pre-Christmas sale in North America.
2. Learn About Vietnamese Ceramics
Vietnamese ceramics are distinctive, and Bat Trang produces some of the best. The Vietnamese have a folk legend that tells of Vietnamese suitors promising the ladies they are courting to make them homemade Bat Trang bricks if they marry them.
While many ceramics have adapted modern designs, many still stick to traditional techniques. Such traditional symbols are meaningful expressions important in Vietnamese culture. Most common are lotus flowers, peonies, chrysanthemums, cherry blossoms, clouds, tigers, and dragons. Take note that the dragons only have three claws as only the king is allowed to have five claws in the dragons.
The Irishman in our group admired how the Bat Trang locals designed the ceramics, most especially the vast wall frames. Some of the designs are three-dimensional and very intricate. Often, these are the ones reserved for the temples.
3. Try your hands on the potter's wheel in Bat Trang
That day we were in Bat Trang, we saw many young students getting into learning the basic hand skills and creating a piece of art on the potter's wheel.
At first, it's a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time while trying to make your thumbs work into a design. Grumpy says it's like learning how to play the bagpipe.
When we first went, there was only one place offering lessons on how to make pottery. The second time around (after two years), there are several places right in the main street where you can try your hands at making the unique design you have always wanted.
I limited myself to ask one of the local crafters to show me how he did the pottery I purchased from his store. But it would be more fun to try doing your pottery. Everything is made ready for you except the design. So have a design in your mind before you go.
Watch this video on Vietnamese ceramics
Traditional Designs of Bat Trang Pottery
This traditional design highlights the lotus flower, which is a powerful symbol for Buddhists. Lotus grows in swamps, often with murky water. It symbolizes the purification of the soul, beauty coming out of the gray, the dark and dirty. It speaks of fidelity, coming out of what is unclear to seek enlightenment. It is rising from suffering and become life-giving.
For Buddhists, the various colours of the lotus flowers each have a special significance. Red, in these plates, means compassion. White symbolizes purity of spirit. Pink represents the history of the Buddha. Blue is for wisdom and logic towards enlightenment. Purple symbolizes spirituality and mysticism. The colour to top these is gold as it represents the enlightenment of the Buddha.
Typical Vietnamese Design
More Traditional Ceramic Products in Bat Trang
More Modern Designs in Bat Trang
Bat Trang: Pottery Making for Seven Centuries
4. Get some Bat Trang Pottery
If you go to Bat Trang, you must come back with a memory. We already had a few pieces featuring a very distinctive fish design, and we were lucky enough to stumble upon the little factory that is famous for this bit of art.
In this kind of shopping, we usually don't use a guide but try to talk to the local shop keepers and with hand signals, smiles and little drawings, discover what they think we should see. In several, we were hurried into the deep, dark depths at the back of the shop and found some lovely little treasures.
Talk with the Locals in Bat Trang
5. Talk with the Locals
The teapots were just unique. We had a great demonstration of how they make tea and coffee pots in these classic old designs. Little strainers inside little pots on top of ceramic heaters near tiny small teacups, imminently suitcase-able.
In one of these shops, the owner set up his little tea area, which was a delight. It also earned us the reward of a personal inspection of each of our pottery choices, and in fact, he found a flaw, and he changed it. We explained to him that we liked the flawed pot's texture, but he refused to sell it to us. At first, we couldn't find a replacement that had that lovely aged colour that makes the pot so unique, but in a few minutes, he came back with exactly what we wanted, claiming that he just stained it with a little more tea. We made good our escape with assorted bags of cups, teapots, trays and vases—each one selected as a gift for someone back home.
I also found some designs resembling Japanese pottery, which I like because of its natural colour. I bought a few, and while in the store, the owner offered to show me how he makes these in his potter's wheel. We were delighted to watch him.
Bun Cha in Bat Trang
6. Try some local Bat Trang Street Food
While walking along the Bat Trang streets, we smelt intense cooking in one of the street corners. They were grilling beef on skewers, and the smell was so inviting that we just had to try it. It was delicious.
The Red River Flowing in Bat Ttrang
7. Enjoy the flow of the Red River
Yes, when you have had enough of looking at pottery, go to the edge of the Red River and watch the ferries; some of these are huge, flowing steadily with their heavy burden of sand for the construction sites. There's so much life going on in this river.
Temple in Bat Trang
8. Visit the Bat Trang Temple at the edge of the Red River
You can't miss this temple when you walk along the Red River in Bat Trang. Go in and have a look at what 23 families in Bat Trang managed to build in thanksgiving for their pottery.
Here's your Challenge: Look in Bat Trang for this house of the Composer of Vietnam's National Anthem
© 2013 Mary Norton