(No.11, Vol.4,Dec 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Potters at work

One can recognize the ceramic village Phu Lang, Que Vo District, Bac Ninh Province by neat walls of pots, jars and sarcophagi that wrap around it.
We came to the 68-year-old artisan Pham The Tue when his family was baking a new batch of ceramic. Adding wood to the fire, he said, ‘I started this fire yesterday at noon, now we can unload it.’
Sipping tea from his product, Mr Tue said, ‘Tho Ha clay is blue, Bat Trang clay is white, but ours is brick-red. Here we do everything by hand, from shaping to painting and enameling, and then it’s dried in the sun. After baking, the clay becomes pink, and the enamel light brown or dark brown, like eel skin. Those are the predominant enamels that we use. Our ceramic looks rough and tough, because that’s the beauty of earth and fire. That’s what makes Phu Lang ceramic attractive.’
Ms Pham Thi Ha, Mr Tue’s daughter, told us how they did it. Clay is bought and brought here from Bac Giang Province by boats, ground and sun dried to make it fade, then soaked for some time. Then it is pressed and rolled until the texture is as fine as possible. Only then it can be used to make things. When a product is formed, and the clay is no longer sticky, a worker gently pushes its wall from inside to create a relief on the outside. After the clay has faded even more, the product is smoothed, enameled and sun dried again. When the enamel coat becomes opaquely white, it’s time to bake.
The all-natural enamel used here is Phu Lang’s secret, which is passed down through generations. Ash of Erythrophleum fordii, Madhuca pasquieri, Burretiodendron hsienmu and talauma wood is mixed with lime, ground pebbles and white silt. The mix is dried and ground again, then put in water and stirred to form the enamel, and then it is ready.
Mr Pham Tu Tai, owner of ‘Gom Tai’ explained, ‘To bake the ceramic, most of us use a dragon kiln, which has three connected compartments with flat but slanting floors leading to the chimney. The baked products are cleverly arranged; small vases and bedside lamp bases are put inside the big jars and pots. The wood for burning must be of high quality. Experienced workers can tell by the colour of the fire when the ceramic is done.

Potters at work

Inside a kiln
Photos: Phung Chi

The materials used today remain the same as hundreds of years ago, but the new generation of artisans, educated in artistic schools, has brought a fresh breath into the trade. Today’s products are more diverse in purpose, use, design, shape and form, taking the art of ceramic making to a new level.
Nhung and Thieu are two of the most vanguard trademarks of Phu Lang today; particularly Nhung, a generations-old workshop that flourished during the last decade. Young workers are keen to experiment with new materials. Some delicate designs of flowers, trees and leaves are inspired by nature. Nhung ceramics have established a firm foothold in the highly demanding markets of Japan and South Korea.
Mr Nguyen Minh Ngoc, owner of Ngoc workshop, told us his forefathers used to make only household utensils and spiritual objects. Recently, the more economic plastic has almost choked out the ceramic trade. After the success of artistic ceramic pioneered by the Nhung and Thieu families, in 2001 he strived to get admitted to the Hanoi Institute of Arts. What he learned helped a lot in creating shapes and forms and mixing colours. Now, he has a thriving workshop and creates jobs for a dozen workers.
As a blend of culture, history and art for generations, Phu Lang has become an attractive destination for domestic and foreign tourists. They come not only to see and listen and take pictures of the village, the people and the surroundings, but also to learn how the ceramic is made and to do it themselves, which is a memorable experience. A Japanese tourist shared his thoughts, ‘Before coming here, all I knew about the village were photos of ceramic pots, jars, vases and bonsai beds. Now I will take home the warm impression of the smiles, the friendliness, the simplicity and spontaneity of the people I met here.’

By Thai Son