Hanoia: Hanoi’s Temple to Traditional Crafts
Walking down Hang Dao in the centre of Hanoi’s Old Quarter both sides of the street are lined with small retail outlets, whose merchandise typically spills out onto the pavement and one could be forgiven for striding straight past Hanoia, set back from the pathway, because it looks like the entrance to a temple – which in fact it is!
Once inside though the air is cool and the atmosphere almost reverentially hushed as traditionally dressed and deferential staff, wearing cotton gloves to protect the items on display, meticulously clean the shelves and featured pieces. Spotlights beam down on specific objects. The feeling is more one of an exclusive art gallery than retail store, the hustle and bustle of street noise outside can hardly be heard and one gets the feeling that it is somewhere very special.
A Fusion of Vietnamese Craftsmanship and French Design
Hanoia products are in fact a fusion of Vietnamese craftsmanship and French design – the artwork displayed extend the traditional range of lacquerware products and add subtle engraved or eggshell motifs inspired by iconic local images such as headdresses, architecture and artefacts.
Lacquerware has been produced in a number of Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, for centuries. Traditionally, the main colours used in Vietnam were black, red and gold whilst items commonly made were tea caddies with a cylindrical ‘bird cage’ design.
Hanoia has been manufacturing lacquerware products for over 20 years, after starting in a traditional lacquerware village in Binh Duong province near Saigon in 1997, and now have two workshops in the Hanoi area.
A Historic Venue
They only decided to open their own store two years ago so they could better market their own distinctive style and branding. The company currently employs five master craftsmen and more than 200 workers to produce their quite beautiful pieces in a process that requires more than 40 steps and more than 25 layers of lacquer, which means that some pieces can take over two months to complete – they really are works of art!
Appropriately, the store is located in the Dong Lac temple which architecturally follows a traditional narrow building style, since enterprises were taxed on the width of their street frontage, and extending quite a long way back in a series of rooms and enclosed courtyards.
Built in the 17th century, restored in 1856 and refurbished in 1941 with a second storey, Dong Lac has recently been sympathetically restored again with many of the original features retained. Wooden doors and shutters with the dark patina of age contrast with the pale-coloured solid walls, high ceilings and stone flagged floors.
Modernising an Ancient Art
Hanoia has brought the traditional craft of lacquerware right up to date, expanding the range of colours used to now include all the colours of the rainbow whilst also multiplying the range of lacquered products to include contemporary stylish vases, tiles and all manner of gorgeous jewellery.
Historically, lacquerware used a wooden base but Hanoia now incorporates a variety of base materials that vary depending on the end product including wood, ceramic and metal. Their beautiful items also feature delicate engraved designs, painted motifs, gold leaf and amazingly – eggshells!
These modern variations are incorporated into the time-consuming production process that is required to make top-quality lacquerware. Some items include eggshells, which produces a sort of cracked porcelain finish. Apparently this takes even longer to make than pieces that use applied gold leaf since every tiny piece of eggshell has to be carefully put in place.
Vu Thi Tuyet Khanh from Hanoia expresses the desire to produce the absolutely best quality and authentic product. She states, “Whilst there may be many retail outlets selling lacquerware, a lot of this is of inferior quality with few layers and an imperfect finish. We only produce the best.”
This is not just talk, close inspection of the tea boxes and vases under the harsh lights of the shop demonstrate that they are flawless, a preservation of cultural know-how.
Combining Two Extremes: Lacquer Silk Clothing
Not content with just producing top-quality Vietnamese lacquerware, Hanoia is gradually introducing other traditional crafts into its retail range. On display are notebooks of coarse handmade paper and amazing examples of products that incorporate the traditional technique of paper-cutting – roosting in the shop in strategic locations are a flock of white and blue parrots that display this wonderful art form.
One has to head upstairs to go to the still operating Buddhist temple, regularly visited by local traders to pay homage to the gods to improve their fortunes, but also to see the high-quality lacquer silk clothing.
It is a strange concept to grasp since one thinks of lacquerware as essentially a product with a hard surface whereas silk is almost the opposite. This organic handmade material is called ‘Lanh My A’ and produced in the silk weaving village of Tan Chau in An Giang province. The rare, rich-looking traditional fabric was once only worn by royalty; prices are not cheap so this may still be the case!
One has a colour choice of black or black, and a choice of well-known designers Cong Tri and Phuong Nguyen; but this limitation is not as restrictive as it sounds since the shimmering lacquer silk dresses and tops are luxuriously elegant and style-wise would partner well with any other colour, such as some of the brilliant white and coloured bracelets, necklaces and pendants that Hanoia also sells.
Take Away a Piece of Vietnam
Some of the lacquerware designs are simple with clean lines and a single deep, rich colour, whilst others incorporate iconic motifs such as lotus flowers and bamboo stalks.
One of the most popular designs in this Year of the Rooster has been that with a feather, and predictably also ones that incorporate a lot of red. The product range still includes many designs of tea boxes and Hanoia has had them specifically tested by the health authorities to ensure that, in this era of concern about chemical contamination of food, there are absolutely no problems placing tea, or any other foodstuff in their lacquerware containers.
Wishing to ensure the survival of other traditional arts and crafts, Hanoia has already started marketing products other than the lacquerware they are famous for, such as paper and embroidery and are looking to feature items of bamboo and stone in the future.
As Ms Khanh says,”We are not just selling a piece of authentic lacquerware, we also want customers to take away something that embodies the story, spirit and traditional craftsmanship of Vietnam.”
The Hanoia outlet is open seven days a week, manageress Ms Nhung and her staff speak some English and French, and are always on hand to assist customers with their purchases. So, if you are in the Old Quarter and tired of the succession of small retail stores selling piles of shirts, T-shirts, paintings and other goods, why not go and look at the exquisite goods displayed by Hanoia in the Dong Lac temple?