The importance of pottery

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The history of ceramics in southern Vietnam reveals how local people lived and how old cultures interacted

Bui Van Trung (L), 73, who runs the oldest lo lu (pottery kilns that produce water jars) workshop in Binh Duong Province, applies enamel to water jars with his coworker. The jars are exported to other provinces, Hanoi and foreign countries like Cambodia and Thailand.

The history of ceramics in southern Vietnam reveals how local people lived and how old cultures interacted

If you read Vietnamese history, listen to folk songs or come across countryside proverbs, or if you're just a traveler in Vietnam with a Lonely Planet, you'll likely recognize the name of Bat Trang, a pottery village just outside Hanoi. Bat Trang ceramics are an inseparable part of Vietnamese art, history and culture.

But many don't know that Bau Truc Village in the central province of Ninh Thuan is one of the two oldest ceramics villages in Southeast Asia. And many more also don't know that in the southern province of Binh Duong, ceramics villages account for more than one third of the ceramics produced nationwide. The province's potters earn over US$100 million every year, thanks to a mix of modern technology and steadfast tradition.

To learn more about the important role pottery has played in Vietnamese civilization, the history of the art in Binh Duong is a good place to start.

Going Vietnamese

Ceramics production appeared in Binh Duong in the 18th century and the craft began developing rapidly when Chinese potters arrived in Binh Duong with trading ships. The province is home to more than 80 clay and kaolin mines.

The Chinese potters decided to stay in Binh Duong after they saw the high quality of the local clay, the forests available for firewood and the large kaolin deposits that could be mined easily. It was in this area outside of modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, hundreds of years ago, that southern pottery, an art and profession that remains alive and well today, was born.

Ceramics in the north were at first influenced deeply by Chinese art, but the craft has developed over time to become distinctly Vietnamese. Traditional Vietnamese enamels and symbols are used such as the rooster, banana trees or a boy with a flute riding a water buffalo. Using the excellent clays of the Red River Valley, northern artisans created some of the most sophisticated ceramics in Southeast Asia.

"Vietnamese potters did not copy Chinese ceramics directly; they combined elements in original and idiosyncratic ways, experimenting with new ideas and adopting features from other cultures, such as Cambodia and Champa," according to Vietnamese Ceramics (Art Media Resources, 1997) by John Stevenson and John Guy.

Staying hydrated

Southern Vietnam's long dry season meant that people there needed big containers to store and keep water to use for the whole year. Thus, hundreds of lo lu (pottery kilns that produce water jars) were built. Tuong Binh Hiep District in Binh Duong's Thu Dau Mot Town became the area's lo lu hub

A high-tech applied porcelain vase made by Minh Long 1 Company in Binh Duong Province

Bui Van Giang's 150 year-old lo lu factory still houses many lo lu made in the town. It was acknowledged as a provincial historical relic by the local government in 2005.

Giang, 57, said that the factory, which he calls Dai Hung, is appreciated because of its historical significance. It was built beside Lo Lu Canal, hence the name of the kilns.

Thu Dau Mot's Nguyen Thi Nga, 60, said the water jars were not simply containers. "They are much more to southern people; they are the symbol of wealth."

Nga, a retired lecturer at the College of Education in Binh Duong, said, "In the past, water was not always available like it is nowadays, so people had to store and keep their water in big jars. So the more jars you have, the richer people think you are."

Giang, however, said that during 1990s, the locals replaced the ceramic jars with plastic tanks that are lighter and easier to transport. But he said it was bad to keep water in plastic outdoors under the scorching sun.

He said the temperature of the water in ceramic jars was always cooler than outside. This was one reason he said people had begun replacing their plastic tanks with the traditional ceramic jars recently.

Giang, who has run the ceramics factory with his elder brother Bui Van Trung, 73, since they were children, said that the name of Dai Hung's founder has been lost to time, but that most agreed he was a Chinese immigrant.

Giang said the founder had probably chosen land near the water as it would be easy to transport the jars via boat.

"Many tourists come here not only to learn how to make porcelain, but also learn the history behind the handicraft," Giang said.

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