Starry, starry village

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Children help make lanterns at Bao Dap village in Nam Dinh Province. Photo: Thanh Tung.

Vietnam's Mid-Autumn Festival is changing.

It used to be that the streets would be filled with children (not motorbikes) parading simple but beautiful lanterns: mostly in the shape of stars, made from bamboo sticks, colorful paper and cellophane, and lit up by small candles.

But when this year's festival hits on Sunday, it will likely be a parade of kids towing Chinese-made plastic electronic lanterns that play crass musical tunes and are lit by tiny light bulbs. The twinkling childhood hula-hoops of yesteryear, which used to be a ubiquitous staple of the holiday known as Tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese will be hard to spot, if they are seen at all.

However, the traditional lantern-making village of Bao Dap in the northern province of Nam Dinh is an exception. There, whole families of artisans are still preserving the tradition of making the simple paper lanterns of the olds days.

The village in Hong Quang Commune, Nam Truc District, is the oldest lantern making village in Vietnam. It has been busy and bustling recently, just as it has every Tet Trung Thu since lantern-making became its big business in the late 1930s.

"No matter what happens, we won't leave the job of our forefathers," local artisan Nguyen Duy Phuc told Tin Tuc newspaper.

But Phuc also said the village's lanterns now face a lot more competition than ever before.

"Children have many more choices than in the past, so many choices it can make you dizzy."

But Phuc, as well as other local lantern makers, are sure their craft is not dying. They urge traditionalists not to worry.

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"There were some lows. But there're also years when we sell out completely," Phuc says.

He says the business relies a lot on the weather.

"In years when it rains during the festival season, dealers cut their orders and we have to stock the lanterns for the next year. That means that many families then have to scale down production the following year."

This year, the villagers are trying a new strategy to survive the competition. They are targeting rural and mountainous communities where parents can't afford the plastic and electronic toys that have captured the imaginations -- and pocketbooks -- of urban families that can afford them.

Bao Dap artisans have tried to cut costs, so that each lantern is sold for between VND3,000-5,000 (US14-24 cents). Most locals here consider the toy somehwat sacred, and a necessary item for Vietnamese children during the holiday, so they want everyone to be able to afford one.

"Once a customer from the mountains far away made a small order for just 100 lanterns and I still packed and had them delivered. I just thought some children would be happy," said Vu Van Khang, 63, whose family is said to make the most lanterns in the village.

Families have already delivered most of their products for this year's holiday. They've each kept a small stock for nearby customers from Hanoi and Hai Phong.

Khang has a few piles of lanterns, which are taller than he is, in his front yard.

He said his family expects to sell 100,000 this year, including orders from Cambodia and China.

His wife said the family earns between VND50 and 60 million (US$2,400-2,876) in profit every season after all costs.

Some locals say a good season of lantern making can earn more than rice paddy fields.

But Hoang Cao Phe, an experienced maker, said the job makes a profit only for those who work hard, and thus whole families are often put to work, from the youngest to the oldest.

Phe uses all three of her daughters. The youngest is in second grade.

Hoang Thi Anh, one of Phe's older daughters, boasted of her skills:

"I was taught to make lanterns when I was six years old. Now I just needs five minutes to make one if I have all the materials at hand."

Vu Thi Dung, a child from another family, said she can help make between 100 and 200 lanterns a day, depending on which job she is assigned either splitting bamboo sticks, assembling frames, painting flower designs on the paper, or connecting the colorful paper to the frame.

Dung said it was nothing special that children in the village are good at making lanterns.

"It's the family job and we have grown up with it. I started to know a bit when I was a little, and it has been more than ten years already."

The festival falls in the eighth month on the lunar calendar, but the village starts putting things together five months beforehand. Bamboo sticks, around 400 tons of which are used every season, have to be soaked in water for two months to make them strong and preserve them so they don't go rotten.

Work is busier after June when children have their summer break from school. Children from families that do not ply the trade also come to work for other families for around VND50,000 a day.

According to locals, the village produces around two million lanterns every year, providing enough for the whole country.

All of the village's 1,000 families used to make lanterns, but now fewer than 400 still do it because it doesn't make anyone rich.

Still, some people in Bao Dap said they would never stop making lanterns, even if they had to start operating at a loss.

"As long as there're still people playing with lanterns, we will be making them," said Khang.

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