Deputy Chairman Nguyen Duc Tri of Kim Lan Commune’s People’s Committee is more than happy to be trained as a tourguide for visitors to Kim Lan pottery museum as the first community-inspired museum in Vietnam
Two years have passed since the artisans of Kim Lan Village built their modest but eye-opening museum.
However, despite the Hanoi village’s proud 1,300-year history of expert ceramics-making – and the popularity of the Bat Trang Pottery Village just a few kilometers away – few people ever visit Kim Lan.
The Kim Lan villagers still at their kilns are plying a trade that has been practiced on the hallowed ground (for ceramics lovers, at least) for thousands of years, as attested to by the museum’s 300 ceramic artifacts, all of which were unearthed in the area.
But still, although Kim Lan essentially the cradle of Vietnamese porcelain – porcelain ceramics appear to have been crafted in this area before any other place in Vietnam – Bat Trang is still the only place people know or go.
“Though we are next-door to Bat Trang, local motorbike taxi drivers and policemen have no idea about our village, let alone the museum,” said Nguyen Van Nhung, one of five Kim Lan elders that initiated a community archaeological project 16 years ago when people began finding interesting artifacts in the soil. It was this collective digging that enlightened the village to its own history, brought in foreign experts and eventually prompted the opening of the museum.
These days, besides a few students, researchers and painters, there’s almost no sight of tourists visiting the museum, which is now open only on the weekend, according to Nguyen Viet Hung, deputy secretary of the Kim Lan Youth Association, who has been in charge of the facility since its opening on March 20, 2012.
Business in the village is also struggling. The number of kilns has declined to 200, down from 700 in the 1990s. Their main products are no longer sophisticated porcelain, but tiles.
Nhung also said that not all Bat Trang ceramics on the market are actually from Bat Trang, but many are made by his villagers who sell their products to neighboring villagers for re-branding and distribution.
Nhung’s kiln is considered the biggest in Kim Lan, located in Gia Lam District’s Kim Lan Commune, but at the moment, he has only one worker. “My family – generation after generation – has survived on the craft, but my children currently produce only tiles because our traditional products no longer have customers,” said Nhung, who together with four other elders founded the group Tim ve coi nguon (Tracing the Origin), which first initiated the collecting of artifacts in the area. The group has collected and preserved pottery and other ceramics found in the area and has recently received the support of local researchers from Hanoi as well as international experts.
This contrasts to Kim Lan’s golden era in the 13th-14th centuries, when their porcelain was purchased by Korean and Japanese merchants. Several layers of ceramic pieces have been unearthed in the ground along the banks of the Red River in the village. The fact that some of the ceramic jars were full of coins means that some of those artisans must have prospered healthily from the trade.
“Since the Ly and Tran dynasties,” Nhung said, “Kim Lan residents have been making high-quality ceramics that even the best Bat Trang craftsmen with latest technique and equipment are not able to compete with. We are so proud.”
However, Nhung admits that it was only once he and his friends retired and began dedicating their free time to digging in the dirt for ceramics pieces around their hometown that they even became aware of what they call their “proud history.”
They’d always assumed ceramics had only been made in the area for a few generations, 100-200 years at most. But once their findings prompted a Japanese scientist to get involved – as well as the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology – it became clear that pottery and porcelain were not passing fads here.
Story as history
It started 18 years ago when Nguyen Viet Hong, head of the group, decided to retire after decades in the craft.
When floods exposed pieces of artifacts on the ground along the bank, Hong, 79, and his friends spent their leisure time picking up the items.
The village had waited until 2000 when they had collected adequate evidence to persuade scientists for further research. Hong’s letter to the Institute of Archaeology and the Vietnam Museum of History the same year worked and the experts they sent were amazed by the layers and layers of porcelain in the earth dating back to the 7th century.
“The first evidence of the making of the high-end Vietnamese blue and white ceramic in 14th century was found here. This discovery is very significant to our study in the field and it will help us restore the traditional crafts that have been disappearing for centuries,” said Dr Bui Minh Tri of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.
Japanese archaeologist Nishimura Masanari takes photos during a working trip in Kim Lan Village. The scientist, who was credited for the construction of Kim Lan ceramics museum, died in a road accident in Hanoi in 2013 at the age of 48.
Nguyen Giang Hai, deputy head to the academy, said such discoveries also sparked the interest of Kim Lan’s most important supporter, Nishimura Masanari, who was fluent in Vietnamese and had thorough knowledge of Vietnamese culture and history.
“The love for archaeology brought Japanese scholar Nishimura to the village where he met his older soul-mates,” said Hai, “and helped them to pursue their dream of opening the museum inside their hometown as the people’s way of having a deeper understanding about their history and culture.”
However, the archaeologist, who had been based in Vietnam for more than 20 years, died in a tragic road accident last June in Hanoi, and rather than his home country Japan, he was buried in the village per his family’s request as saying he had loved Vietnam and wanted to work and die in the country.
“I could tell that we were friends the minute we first talked to each other as we both loved history and ceramics,” said Hong, who helped the Japanese researcher fulfill his thesis on Vietnam by providing him neccessary documents. Chapter 14 of the thesis is titled The Kim Lan Ancient Porcelain Village. “He had theory while I master the technique,” said Hong.
In return, not only giving his helping hands to Hong and others in research and categorizing the museum (which is has trilingual exhibits – Vietnamese, English, and Japanese), Nishi – as the villagers called him – raised US$30,000 to build the museum.