From Hanoi by hand

By Michael Smith, Thanh Nien News

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Bat Trang famous ceramics village near Hanoi. Visiting the village and seeing teapots and bowls being made gives your souvenirs a deeper meaning.
The owner replaced the original coal-fired kiln only 10 years ago with a modern gas model.
Other things have changed too, but the results are still the same – high quality ceramic cups, bowls plates and teapots painted with traditional designs.
Hoa Lan ceramics factory in Bat Trang pottery village employs about 50 workers.
They range in age from 18 to 40 and the longest serving employee, Trieu Quang Ha, has been there 15 years.
It is a small family-run factory and the owner, Sam Minh Thang, says all the workers are trained on the job as there is no other way for them to learn.
The skills are very specific – from turning hundreds of cups or bowls, to painting traditional designs and kiln firing.
The cups aren’t completely turned by hand.
The clay which is mixed with kaolin (the main material used in porcelain or ceramics) is rolled into 60 cm long cylinders about 10 cm in diameter and then cut into slices.
Each slice gets slapped into a mold for a cup or a dish and a high revving plastic mold is lowered down into it using a lever, which pushes the clay pat into the shape.
From there on all the work is hand done.
Cao Van Tam takes the cups next.
He centers each on a potter’s wheel, rounds off the edges of the rim and puts a hand-finished touch to it.
He does about 200 a day and works eight hours, five days a week.
He passes them to another worker who puts the handles on.
Teapots are made by pouring liquid ceramic mixture into molds.
Hoa Lan factory was opened by his father about 40 years ago, Thang said.
Before the family started making ceramics they were in the military.
A lot of the designs that are being made there today started back then, but Thang says they had to evolve and change with the times to make them more interesting.
Different families had different designs, he said.
The pieces go through the production line in daily batches of about 200.
Each batch item is hand-painted with an identical painting.
The artisans each have a repertoire of designs they can do with machine-like precision.
The designs of trees and traditional house scenes are quite intricate so it is no mean feat for the skilled painters to replicate the design on every cup.
It is not a flat canvas so the designs have to join up round the other side of the cups or bowls.
They get it right every time.
The painters work quickly, executing each stroke with a deft hand movement.
The designs are beautiful: pagodas, lotuses, dragons, phoenixes and bamboo.
They mix the pigments together to create exactly the right consistency as this will affect the color.
Although each painter is an expert, they don’t do the lines which ring the whole bowl – that is another specialist’s job on the wheel.
The boss says the ingredients for the paints, the ceramic and the glaze are all secret. Each family has their own.
It is the secret recipes that give Bat Trang the reputation as the premium producer of ceramics in Vietnam and each factory is unique.
Thang says it is the quality of the ceramic that is the main factor.
All the good clay and kaolin in Bat Trang has been exploited – only low quality clay with high levels of extraneous matter remains, Thang says.
So he travels to two other provinces, Hai Duong and Tuyen Quang in the northern region, where he buys raw materials which he mixes together for the quality he wants.
He uses 15 percent clay and 85 percent kaolin.
There is also an old family recipe for the pigments and the glaze which he mixes from ingredients he buys at market.
The finished products are sold in stores in Bat Trang and around Vietnam.
There is also a small amount exported to France and Japan, the owner said.
Visitors to the factory are warmly welcomed (in Vietnamese) and invited to paint their own designs on tea pots, bowls or rice dishes.
You can pick them up after they have been fired, a day or two later, or have them sent on.
Otherwise you can go out to the packing area and select bits and pieces that you like.
They are high quality products and highly sought-after in Vietnam, so they make wonderful souvenirs or gifts.
There is also a retail shop in the main street.

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