heydays with hanna

a design, lifestyle, and travel journal

HANOI: EXPERIENCING BAT TRANG CERAMIC VILLAGE

One week in, and Hanoi still has its effect on me. It was one of the places I have always wanted to visit because of the different layers of culture, history, design, and visual narratives. Hanoi did not disappoint, the marriage of unfamiliarity and familiarity has taken its course as we experienced the place one day at a time.

We knew that one of the best ways of experiencing Hanoi would be through the help of locals who are passionate about introducing their culture to the rest of the world. While researching about different experiences in Hanoi through Airbnb, we came across this unique tour package. Since I was personally curious about learning more about pottery, we took the chance to take this tour and immerse ourselves to a more local side of Hanoi and learn about one of their means of livelihood.

Upon booking, our host Son messaged us directly to coordinate the details of the tour - where he will meet us, what time, and if we have any special preferences for the tour. He was very efficient and professional, something one can expect from an Airbnb Superhost!

We took this experience on our second day in Hanoi. It was a trip outside the city proper and it allowed us to experience the local commute system - which was the city bus. Son asked to meet us right across the Long Bien Bus Interchange in the morning, from our Airbnb flat it was a 15-minute Grab car ride.
I took away all expectations in my head and prepared myself to take in what will be given to me, it was a personal choice to manage my expectations this time around and just purely enjoy the trip without having to worry about taking the perfect shot or capturing every single thing I saw. Honestly, it felt liberating. I rode the bus with my husband, Son, and his cousin's friend Giang without taking out my camera or phone. I enjoyed observing the road ahead of us and listened to Son's back story about the route we were taking; I shared a conversation with Giang who was in her first year in University; and as we went deeper into the roads, the row of shophouses have faded and was replaced by lush greenery and clear blue skies. I knew we were almost there.

These are the list of activities our guide Son prepared for us:
1. Visit different ceramic workshops to witness the process of production and have an overview of the history of Bat Trang Ceramic Village
2. Have an Authentic Vietnamese Lunch
3. Experience making our own ceramic products with the help and guidance of a local ceramic artisan
The Bat Trang Pottery Village was the last stop of the bus. We got down and I immediately observed the difference from the place we were staying in Hanoi. It was still Hanoi, but it was a different kind of charm. It was peaceful, with little to no tourist, motorbike, and car influx. The vendors stayed in one place and smiled at those who would walk by. It was very laid-back and if time went slow in Hanoi town proper, it definitely felt slower in this side of town.
The Bat Trang Ceramic Village is an old town famous for the production of high-quality ceramics of both utilitarian and decorative functions. Established between the 10th to 14th century, this old town became a relocation area for crafters, traders and a huge population of potters who built kilns in the town because of its abundance in the supply of clay.
Located next to the Red River in the Gia Lam district, Bat Trang ceramic village hold an important value in the history of ceramic art and production in Asia. The town became a hub for local and international ceramic trade between Vietnam, Japan, China and other western countries who passed by the river. It faced a down low in the 18th to 19th century when there was a restriction on foreign trade policy and only jumped back in the international market again in 1986. At present, Bat Trang still houses a community of potters and ceramic traders who produce and supply products for local and international trade.
We were accompanied by our guide Son, his cousin Trang and friend Giang. When we got to the village, a local potter and trader Mr. Hoang met us to show us around the Old Ceramic village. The good thing about this Airbnb experience with Son is that you will not only get to see the shops but also get an exclusive pass on the different pottery shops inside the old village. 

Pro tip: You will not be able to access the old village without a local guide so if you came to Bat Trang without a scheduled tour, you won't get to see this charming side of the village. I seriously recommend this integral part of the visit because we were able to understand the process of production and preparation of products before it goes to the display shelves of the stores.
 Our first stop was a ceramic production specializing on decorative vases from all sorts of scale. The compound was divided into four areas: A showroom where all the finished products are showcased; 
a covered courtyard where all the items for painting and molding are placed; 
 a covered and airconditioned studio where the painters who need to seclude themselves and concentrate would opt to work on their pieces;
and a production area where the large clay mixer and kiln is located.

This particular studio showcased the art of hand-painted ceramics. When I asked Son about the production time of one painted vase, we were told that an artist usually takes a maximum of one week to finish a large painting work. I really got fascinated by how the artists dedicate so much time, patience, and creativity to be able to produce a product of excellent quality. Being able to witness the actual process of production gave me whole new respect for the craft and the business of ceramics.
It also made me feel sorry for all the times I broke my grandmom and mom's plates and vases! Lol.

Going around the ancient village was like being in a labyrinth! The passageway was very narrow-enough for a motorbike to pass through and the perimeter walls are high enough to make one feel small enough. As we walked along this maze, there was a certain sense of excitement for what we would be able to discover and see at the next end of the seemingly endless road.
 There are two types of ceramic art: painting directly on flat surface or painting on top of an embossed or high relief surface. Seeing all these things in front of me gave me a serious throwback from where I would read huge amounts of research papers and articles about ceramic art. It was like all my readings are coming to life and I am finally getting to really understand what all those readings were trying to tell me. This tour really gave me so much joy!
We were watching this guy work on one vase and it was so amazing how he was painting directly on the surface with little to no trace of pencil marks and he did it with so much mastery. We realized that it does indeed take years of experience and great love for the craft for one to completely do this kind of job for the rest of their lives.
 We came across a few old houses being renovated for expansion to meet the demands of business and production. We also learned through this tour that each house really master a specific type of product and it is a family affair - the craft is passed on from generation to generation.
This is our friendly and knowledgeable guide Son explaining the different finishes of glazing for ceramics. In this particular shop, we were told that the products were mostly used for rituals - these were items that are most commonly used in every Vietnamese home.
This cracked looking pattern on the vase is a ceramic glazing technique called Crazing. This effect is achieved and developed when the product is taken out of the kiln immediately into an open space. Generally speaking, a Crazed ceramic is not used for the utilitarian purpose at it is considered to be weaker and can harbor bacteria more than an uncrazed product.

We were also allowed to get inside their workshop to see more of their products.
If in the first workshop the artists were Seniors, this workshop gave the younger generation the upper hand in production. We were told that this was the usual order of work distribution - The younger ones carve out the patterns and the older ones would paint the patterns as painting requires as a higher level of understanding and skill in ceramic art and finishing.
But as I observed I also developed another kind of admiration for these young artisans. As they work on their tasks, one would observe their high level of concentration and mastery in carving each pattern that is almost identical from one product to the other. By observing, you will know how much time these young people dedicate to understand each depth, each patter, each scale and you will truly see that in both carving and painting, one would experience Fine Art at their fingertips.
Some interesting textures found in the workshop: Different ceramic molds
The last workshop we visited has a more simplified method of production wherein the curing and drying time of products were faster, the finished products do not go into the kiln or glazing process as well. The finished products were sent out to specialty stores that enable their buyers to be the ones to paint the items themselves.
Our walk in the old village ended with a view of the Red River. Our guide Son and Mr. Hoang brought us to the temple dedicated to the previous generations of potters and artisans.
After our walk around the ancient village, Son and Mr. Huang took us to the location of the first and the largest kiln made in Bat Trang. This was how and where the old generation potters finished their products. The method was very traditional: Vases were brought in the domed kiln made of bricks and it then will be sealed by lots of wood and stone. Firewood is used to ignite the fire inside the kiln and the products would sit inside for drying.
At this point of the tour, my husband and I have developed a profound manner of admiration and respect for the people of Bat Trang. Seeing how the craft and practice of pottery and ceramics making have continued to thrive in this place only meant that they truly love their heritage and the art of making.
After our immersion in the village, our eagerness to try out our hand in potter became more evident. Our instructor and local guide Mr. Hoang who also owned a workshop and store in the Bat Trang Porcelain Trade Center was the one who facilitated our activity. Our Airbnb guide Son gave us a pro tip: When you are in the wheel, just keep making as much until you get the hang of it and eventually create your best piece.
Mr. Hoang guided us in the whole process, what we did in an hour and a half is something that is usually being mastered or studied for months. To make the most out of our time in the workshop, our instructor was the one who initiated the throwing in the wheel and we followed through his instructions and began forming our desired size and shape. It felt satisfying to be able to form a volume with the use of your own hands; there was this certain sense of glee and accomplishment in my part for each and every single time I finish one piece. Our wheel was manually spun, so it really took twice the effort to consciously keep the wheel spinning, balance the pressure of your hands while forming your piece. 
I decided to keep my projects simple, this way, I was able to try out making 2 plates and 2 bowls of slightly different shapes. My husband, on the other hand, managed to challenge himself more and focus on mastering a more complex form. I would say it is complex because initially, I also wanted to do a long-necked or curved vase and failed to do so. This particular exercise has proven us that pottery was not an easy craft when you are just someone looking at the product, you'll appreciate it's beauty but you really won't get to understand and feel how much time, patience, and effort was given to produce one perfect piece.
These were the products Dennis and I were able to produce during our workshop. We were asked to pick one piece each to finish so we can take it home with us to Manila. Our tour package allowed us to take home one finished product each, but if you wish to take home some more pieces, you would have to add 100VND for each piece. It was a price I was willing to give so I can take home one more piece!
While waiting for our products to naturally dry out and be ready for painting, Son took us to lunch (part of the package!). We stopped by a local restaurant to cool ourselves off from the Hanoi heat and enjoy our delicious meal. We had a generous serving of the Bánh Cuốn - a type of rice crepe with minced mushroom and ground pork inside. This is definitely one of those 'must-try' dishes when you visit Vietnam; I loved every bite of this dish and I still long for the specific taste that I was able to imprint in my mind!
After about 30-35 minutes of lunch and chit-chatting with our new found friends Son, Trang, and Giang, we went back to Mr. Hoang's workshop to continue painting our products. Dennis chose his beautiful mini vase and I chose 1 bowl and 1 plate to create a set. This activity was the end of our Ancient Ceramic Town experience by Airbnb. We were informed by our guide Son early on that our products will be delivered to us before we leave Hanoi since they needed to properly dry the products, glaze it, and put it in the kiln.
As we waited for our guide Son to finish his business with Mr. Hoang, we walked around some more around the trading center and saw a whole compound filled with beautiful ceramic products. One will be amazed at how these traders manage to thrive without having to compete with each other. We were told that each trader is expected to have one signature product and so as the rest of them, it was also a custom in their community to support each other and help each other out in the business. This is one of the observations that I have had throughout my stay in Hanoi - they are all forbearing, hardworking, and humble. While we complain of the heat, they walk under it without any complain and carry heavy products to sell for the rest of the day. 

Oh, how I love and admire this seemingly simple yet hard to acquire characteristic that these Hanoians have developed for themselves. It is truly something we can all learn from.
 As we waited for the bus taking us back to Hanoi proper, we had our celebratory iced tea drink with our dear guides turned good friends Son, Trang, and Giang. Though we started our day pretty early and walked around in the heat, these 3 friends have given us more than we have expected to learn and hear - from pottery to their culture, and even their way of life, this experience is truly something not every tourist gets to have every day. 

Some tips if you wish to take this Airbnb Experience:

1.) Make sure to get to know who your HOST is. Our host Son was given a SUPERHOST status by Airbnb, this would mean that he is experienced enough to provide you with great service. Son felt like a friend we have known for years, he took care of us and made sure that we were supplied with all the information that we needed and even wanted. He also has a few other Hanoi experiences lined up in Airbnb, you may visit his profile here to know more about Son!

2.) Read all instructions on the brief. You host will more or less provide all the needed information about your experience. From time duration, meeting area, and inclusions of the experience, it will more or less be written there. Make sure to get all the necessary details before you book your experience. If there are things you are still unsure of, the hosts are very accommodating and prompt in replying, do not hesitate to message them.

3.) For this experience, it would be best to book it on your first or second day in Hanoi. We stayed for a whole week so we took the experience on our second day. Since your products would need to go through the proper process of glazing and kiln drying, you would need to give your providers time to do these things. You may also opt to take home the RAW versions without the glaze and the kiln dry, but expect for the products to be vulnerable to breakage and moistening.

4.) Bring your umbrella, a jug or bottle of water if you do not want to spend extra, and wear comfortable clothes - those you are willing to get messy on!

5.) MOST IMPORTANTLY: While it is indeed a once in a lifetime experience in a foreign country, be in the moment and less of the Instagram shots or Youtube worthy clips. Honestly, there were things I saw and experienced that I was not able to take photographs of and at the back of my head I still scold myself! But you know, I realized that the memory is so much special and meaningful when your heart, mind, ears, eyes, hands, and legs are aware of the sounds, the rough roads, the polished texture, the glistening to the sunrays in the middle of trees and leaves. There is so much more if you are IN the moment and not busy taking the perfect shot. That is what real experience is, at least for me.
 On our last day in Hanoi, Son was kind enough to go out of his way to meet us and deliver our finished ceramic projects! This guy is so passionate about expanding how one could experience Hanoi and I know that the next time we get to see each other, he will have more things to offer. What I truly liked about the experience we had was the whole glimpse of a specific part of Hanoi in front of us. We were able to live it, breathe it, and even somehow be it. It was so much worth than just mindlessly walking along the path and hardly really knowing what is in front of you, what it truly stands for, and how it began. Our Airbnb experience with Son was personal, it was local, it was something that you can take home with you.
My accessory dish and bowl and Dennis' pot. Our first pottery project, something that will definitely and instantly remind us of Son, Trang, Giang, Mr. Hoang, Bat Trang Ceramic Village, and Hanoi - for the rest of our lives.

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Have you been to Hanoi or any part of Vietnam? What did you love most about your stay?

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