If stakeholders prevent the promotion of craft villages from descending into crass commercialization
One of the most alluring, enduing aspects of Hanoi, for both visitor and resident, is the Old Quarter a network of 36 guild streets that flourished centuries ago, and are flourishing today, retaining a lot of their original charm.
Now plans are afoot to highlight the attractiveness of guild villages, which are a traditional feature of Vietnam, particularly concentrated in and around Hanoi.
As the capital city prepares to celebrate its 1,000th anniversary, five traditional craft villages within the municipality are being surveyed to be built up as tourist destinations for a "Hanoi Traditional Craft Villages Tour."
By reputation, these villages practically select themselves.
Bat Trang ceramics, Van Phuc silk, Phu Vinh rattan and bamboo, Ha Thai lacquer and Chuon Ngo Mother of Pearl are all famous products of the capital city, which have made these villages' names well known for hundreds of years.
The reputation has, of course, been economically beneficial for residents and craftsmen and craftswomen of the village.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of most of the 256 craft villages in the capital city that are mired in all sorts of difficulties and need serious support in order to preserve and develop their traditional crafts.
The Hanoi Craft Villages Tour program is expected to address their problems.
The tour is part of the second "Hanoi Craft Week, held from August 4 to 9 by the city's Department of Industry and Trade.
According to information carried on its website (www.hanoicrafiweek.com) the tour will be designed and organized by experienced travel experts and famous craftsmen, and will offer practical experience with the crafts apart from sightseeing beautiful, historical sites in the vicinity.
Luu Tien Long, director of Hanoi Department of Industry and Trade and also director of the exhibition organizing board, said the five villages chosen met all the criteria including history, location, occupation of residents and expressing the "quintessence of Hanoi".
Hub of traditional crafts
After the erstwhile Ha Tay Province was merged into Hanoi, the capital city has become "the land of a hundred traditional crafts" about one fourth of which are more than 100 years old.
In fact, work to exploit the potential for tourism development in the traditional craft villages began almost 10 years ago, but has not made much headway.
Apart from the big names like Bat Trang and Van Phuc, many villages still remain unknown.
Local authorities have identified different problems and acted on them, but to no avail. They have blamed the situation on inconvenient location or poor infrastructure and invested more in upgrading roads, building exhibition houses and setting up shops.
At the Phu Nghia Rattan and Bamboo Village in Chuong My District, money was invested in an exhibition center, but only 30 foreign visitors have been to it over the last eight years. Many other villages are conveniently located on the way to famous spots like the Huong Pagoda, Duong Lam Ancient Village and the Ba Vi National Park, but there are still very few visitors.
Bui Thi Linh, owner of a workshop producing hats in Chuong Hat Village, Thanh Oai District, says improper investment is an obstacle to tourism development. "It usually takes too much time to carry out a project," said Linh. "For example, the trade center in our village has not been completed after almost ten years, and no one knows when it will be finished. Besides, we are not instructed on how to provide tourism services properly."
Sarah, a tourist from Australia, had just returned from the Ha Thai Lacquer Village in Thuong Tin District.
"After reading an article about Ha Thai, two of my friends and I decided to discover it on our own on motorbikes. The artisans in this beautiful village were doing great work but to our disappointment, there was nobody who could help us understand more about their products.
"They live very close to the capital and there is great potential for developing tourism but there was no local guide and it was difficult to find anybody who could speak English," she said.
Marianne from England followed a tour to the Quat Dong Embroidery Village last month and did not have a better experience. She was rather annoyed when asked to buy an embroidered handkerchief at the village at a very high price.
Luong Thu Hoai, a tour guide with the NTT Travel Company, said many local artisans charge very high prices for their products from foreign visitors.
"They do not deal with foreign tourists frequently, so they do not understand these customers," Hoai said. "I usually advice the local villagers not to do it but many of them just want to fish in troubled waters."
However, Hoai reserved praise for the Bat Trang and Van Phuc villages for their "sharp mind" in dealing with the modern tourism market. "The artisans in Bat Trang Village have introduced many new products to attract visitors like the buffalo cart ride or the "Play with Clay" service which has visitors make their own products under instructions from artisans."
Nguyen Van Hung, chairman of Van Phuc Silk Collective, said the village receives some 100,000 visitors every year. "Visitors make up 30 percent of our customers," he said, adding cooperation between travel companies and artisans made this success possible.
Travel agents should also share some responsibility for the lack of tourism development in Hanoi's craft villages. Many visitors have criticized local travel companies for their repetitive itineraries and poor products.
The experiences of tourists in Hanoi and elsewhere in the country make clear some of the basic necessities to make tourism succeed and be sustainable, experts say.
There is a clear need for good guides who are fluent in English and also well informed about the history and cultural traditions of a place. Tourism must be perceived as a long-term benefit, and the temptation to sell substandard products at high prices should be resisted firmly as the villages' reputation is at stake.
The tendency to set up similar "modern" facilities everywhere, like exhibition centers, or hotels, end up destroying the traditional, unique charm of a village. This should be a avoided at all costs, because visitors have already complained about the excessive commercialization and monotony of many tourist spots in the country.
If they do not find genuinely unspoilt places, visitors will stop treating Vietnam as a serious destination. And Hanoi's craft villages will cease to be a tradition that the capital city can take pride in.