Craft Villages

Da Si village, famous throughout north Vietnam for its high quality knivesTraditional craft villages are a longstanding convention in Vietnam as a means of supplementing income from farming – nearly always rice cultivation.

Over time, the members of individual villages developed special skills and combined their efforts, either working as single units making a common product, or working on a particular element of a more complex article, such as inlaid furniture, where the production process could be broken into stages – an early forerunner of the ‘assembly line’.

Hanoi’s craft villages
The heartland of craft villages is the Red River Delta, and particularly around Hanoi. Ha Tay Province, adjacent to Hanoi to the south, has hundreds of them specialising in products as diverse as fine silk, bamboo bird cages, knives and woodcarving. On the outskirts of Hanoi, Bat Trang village has become famous for its ceramics and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Economies to scale
The craft village concept has its roots in the Vietnamese family structure and the availability of Chuyen My village specialises in furniture with nacre (mother of pearl) inlays - the villager in the picture is filing an inlay to sizelocal raw materials. Non-competitiveness meant that labour could be pooled, costs shared, and products delivered in large consignments to wholesalers in the city, therefore cutting down on time lost in transportation.

In an environment where innovation hardly ever occurred, the market was stable and production levels could be controlled to fit in with the peaks and troughs of rice production.

The Old Quarter in Hanoi was the destination for most of the products produced in craft villages. The areas were divided into specialist streets, each selling a specific product range. From there, the merchants would retail direct, or sell the products on for retailing elsewhere or for export.

Chuong village makes the distinctive Vienamese conical cal hats - the picture shows palm leaves, the raw material, being laid out to dryThe decline of the craft villages
The craft village tradition thrived through hundreds of years, but after Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence in 1954, the new government of North Vietnam implemented a programme of collectivisation based on the Marxist-Leninist USSR model. This mainly affected agriculture, but also included light industrial production.

Small producers were linked together, but the theoretical advantages of economies to scale were overwhelmed by the loss of communal benefit and ownership. A softening of the policy from collectives to co-operatives did little to stem the decline of craft villages.

New opportunities open up
The introduction of the ‘doi moi’ (open door) policy inHa Mo village's crochet work is very popular 1986 breathed new life into the craft villages. However, two other factors led to their resurgence. As ‘doi moi’ gathered pace, the government committed itself to tackling the enormous legacy of poverty left by nearly a century of conflict.

Realising the potential of the craft village model, the authorities began to encourage other poor villages to specialise, and to welcome investment and projects aimed at helping poor people to work communally to generate income.

Simultaneously, tourists began to arrive in ever increasing numbers. Traditional crafts were a big attraction, and several villages began to cater for the new market that was opening up.

Apart from  selling high quality ceramics to domestic and foreign customers, Bat Trang village is one of Hanoi's main tourist attractions Bat Trang, originally a poor village producing low quality pottery products from clay from the Red River for local consumption, is a good example. Investment in skill training, marketing and new kilns enabled the village to upgrade to ceramics.

Since then it has gone from strength to strength and now sells large quantities of fine ceramic products to the domestic, tourist and international markets.

The title ‘craft village’ for Bat Trang is something of a misnomer in these days of large-scale production schedules and major export contracts! However, plenty of the craft villages are still involved in ‘high-skill, low-tech’ production for the local and domestic markets.

A key role for the craft villages
Son Dong villagers are expert wood carversCraft village development is now a key element in the government’s poverty alleviation programme. New craft villages are being established all over the country, particularly in poor areas.

In June, 2003, Ho Chi Minh City announced that it would be developing several new ‘craft villages’ in the very poor area surrounding the city. Hardly ‘traditional’, but very good for generating employment and wealth in impoverished communities!

Nevertheless, plenty of authentic traditional craft villages, barely touched by tourism and offering fascinating insights into a bygone time, are available to Haivenu customers!

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