A Paper Trail

A visit to Suoi Co in Hoa Binh to find out how to make artisanal Dó paper using traditional techniques

Dó Paper has been made for centuries in Vietnam. It’s part of the country’s rich heritage of traditional craft, dating back as far the Ly Dynasty in the 13th century. More recently, it was made in Buoi Village close to Westlake in Hanoi, but such artisans are nowhere to be found in this area now. There are only two families throughout the nation who still make Dó paper using original methods.

Since 2013, however, a social enterprise named Zo Project (zopaper.com) has helped to revive the skill. Founded by Tran Hong Nhung, they aim to create a sustainable business model to support disadvantaged communities and keep the art of paper-making alive. Working with the family in Suoi Co, Nhung and her team help them to improve the quality of their paper and expand production. Part of the challenge, she says, was convincing the villagers the tradition was “worth saving.”

Making the paper isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite a laborious process, taking around one month to go from bark to paper. It’s made using bark from Dó (Rhamnoneuron Balansae) and Duong (Mulberry) trees, which must be stripped from the trunk and soaked in limewater. It’s then boiled for 24 hours until soft, and what remains is beaten to a pulp (hence the expression.)

Boiled bark – Bark after boiling

The next step depends on the kind of paper you want to make. If it’s white paper you’re after, then adding some Javen (a type of sodium) helps to purify the pulp, giving it a white appearance. Alternatively, you could dye the pulp gray by adding some Chàm leaves. In Suoi Co, they use different proportional mixes of Do and Duong pulp, depending on the kind of paper they want to create.

Mixing the pulp – Draining the pulp

In order to create sheets of paper, the pulp must be removed from liquid suspension using a bamboo screen. It’s such a tricky task that only one worker in Suoi Co, Miss Hoang Thi Hau, is trusted to do it. She uses the screen to sieve through the pulp, which is mixed in with water and natural glue from a plant known as Mo. What’s collected must be evenly spread out to ensure the symmetry of the paper. As it rests, the fibers interweave and meld together to create a sheet, which is then pressed to remove excess water. Amazingly, piles of wet sheets can be separated, but they must spend weeks drying naturally in sunlight.

pressing the bamboo screen

Pressing the bamboo screen

This lengthy, manual process produces beautifully soft but resistant and rustic paper that doesn’t smudge ink, is highly resistant to humidity, totally acid-free, and, most surprisingly, can last for centuries. The paper made from Dó bark is very smooth and absorbs ink easily, so it’s suitable for calligraphy or painting and plays an important role in folk art. Paper made from Duong bark is rougher and more suitable for craft products.

Sheets of Do Paper

Sheets of Do Paper

Zo Project uses the paper to create the items they sell in their store in Hanoi. They make everything from notebooks, cards and calendars, to posters, lamps, fans and necklaces. I can see why it resonates with people. There is a kind of organic purity to it that helps you understand and appreciate its origins. The aesthetic is infinitely more satisfying than that of bleached white paper we all find in office printers. It is as if you can feel the paper’s history when you touch it.

That heritage is now under threat, with so few skilled workers producing Dó paper in Vietnam. Thanks in part to Zo Project, however, this particular craft may be protected for many years to come. More recently, they’ve even been training new families in Suoi Re, a nearby village, in an effort to expand and sustain the tradition and, hopefully, pass on the skill to younger generations.

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