The Hands of Hoi An

Once again, the port city is booming with arts and crafts

Situated where the Thu Bon River meets the East Sea, Hoi An enjoyed a long history of maritime trading, stretching as far back as the 2nd century BC with the Sa Huynh civilization. Later controlled by the Cham people in the seventh to tenth centuries, spices and silks made Hoi An one of the most prosperous Southeast Asian port cities along the so-called Maritime Silk Route. In the 16th to 18th centuries, Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, and Indian merchants passed through the city before the river silted up and trade moved northwards to Da Nang. As a center of trade, Hoi An’s arts and crafts scene blossomed, exporting ceramics, silk and carved wood to far-flung locales. Today, the townspeople point to its rich history as to why these professions have survived and even thrived, with hundreds of workshops dotting the city, churning out tailored clothing, embroidery, leather goods, shoes and more. On the outskirts of the city are also villages dedicated to single crafts for centuries.

Hoi An - Craftsman-11 (OiVietNam_3N)

Nguyen Thi Duoc has lived in the pottery village of Thanh Ha, on the banks of the Thu Bon River, for all her 92 years. Her easy smile reveals teeth blackened by years of chewing betel nut. Dressed in bright blue polka dot pajamas, she walks hunched over to the potter’s wheel that’s manually powered by the rhythmic kicks of one of her grandchildren. Once she sits down, though, her wobbly gait gives way to surprisingly steady hands that encompass a lifetime of experience. “I was born in 1923 right here in Hoi An,” she starts. “This village was founded by three people from Thanh Hoa, in Vietnam’s north, in the 16th century. Our family has been making pottery for six generations now. I come from a big family, 10 brothers and sisters. I’m the only one still alive. My husband died 30 years ago. I’ve also outlived my three children who died in the war.

“The Hoi An of my childhood is nothing like the Hoi An of today. When it rained, it flooded. I remember wading through the mud up to my knees on the way to school. I guess it wasn’t really a school. Because all the kids worked with their parents during the day, we went to a tutor at night, learning by oil lamp. I don’t have any pictures of my childhood; no one had a camera. Hoi An was a poor, countryside town back then. My family made pottery, simple things for home use: big water urns, bowls, lamps and the like. I was 13 when my mom taught me how to make pottery. I was glad to help because I could see her working so hard to take care of all of us. They’d work all during the day and into the night, churning out a hundred pots a day. The women made the pottery while the men looked after the heavier work of cutting the wood, loading the kilns, preparing the clay… At that time, the clay was from the river bed or from the rice fields which helped lower them, making them easier to irrigate. Now, the clay is still from Quang Nam, about 10-15 km from here. We’d load our finished wares onto boats and sell it to people in nearby Da Nang, Quang Binh, Quang Tri. Since the tourists have come, though, they’ve changed the way we work. Gone are the simple designs that were big and heavy. Now it’s all about decorative elements. We make whatever sells. But in a way, it’s still keeping the tradition alive. I can’t imagine not making pottery. It’s what has clothed and fed our family for many generations. It hasn’t made us rich. I’ve never been to Saigon or Hanoi. The furthest I’ve been is Da Nang to visit relatives. We’re not rich, we’re not poor, but our family is together.”

Hoi An - Kim Bong Carpentry Village - Image by James Pham-36 (OiVietNam_3N)

All in the Eyes

At the carpentry village of Kim Bong, 25 year-old Uyen sits with a wooden Buddha statue wedged between his feet. “It’s all in the eyes,” he says deftly adding the finishing details. “These statues are just like people. They need you to put a soul into them. Just one slip of the hand means you’ll have to throw the whole thing out. They’re like us. A misstep and they’re disabled, something you can’t fix.”

Uyen has been carving since he was 13, following in the path of his uncles and grandfather. “It’s my passion,” he says. “Carving combines many arts in one. You need patience and perseverance. If you’ve been drinking or had a day off, it’s hard to regain the focus you need.” Clients come to the workshop, usually with a design in mind – a picture, some words, a half- conceived image and choose a type of wood – jack fruit, doussie, coffee, among others. But it’s up to the craftsman to bring the idea to life. “We have a lot of freedom in what we do; the details are up to us,” says Uyen. “That’s what I love about this job – the creativity, sketching out the finished form, looking at the characteristics of the wood to incorporate them into the design.

Hoi An - Embroidery - Image by James Pham-63 (OiVietNam_3N)

“When I first started out, it was hard, hard on the back to sit in one place for so long. I got headaches from trying to concentrate for hours on end, especially when you’re already tired. There’s an intensity required. I’ve been at this more than 10 years but I’m still just an apprentice. I don’t know when I’ll become a true craftsman. It takes years of training and a lot depends on your natural ability. Every year, there are competitions where you can demonstrate your skill and get government certified. I’m lucky that there are lots of craftsmen at the workshop where I work, so I can learn from them. Here, one person takes the carving from block of wood until the very end, so it’s all on you. But that’s what I like about it. You can look at the finished product and know that this is a combination of Man and Nature. Nature provided the materials and I contributed my skill. I can see myself growing old doing this.”

All around Hoi An, hands are busy weaving, embroidering, carving and sewing, as they have for centuries.

Images By James Pham

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