The artistry of Bat Trang is well known throughout Vietnam for its beautiful ceramics that have been created for over 700 years. Vases of the finest quality have graced the homes of aristocracy, rice bowls have held the food of the farmer, and electricity goes across the country using Bat Trang insulators. Young men, in expressing the strength of their love for a woman, promise to build a home from Bat Trang bricks.
Thanh Hoa potters founded Bat Trang sometime in the late 15th century. They came for the rich deposits of white clay (now exhausted) that was the hallmark of Bat Trang ceramics. Bat Trang is geographically well suited near the Hong River (Red River) and within a short distance of Ha Noi, the capital of Vietnam. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Bat Trang’s ceramics were of the highest quality, and vigorously sought after. Many of these pieces included the date and signature of the potter. This zest to own a piece of Bat Trang only lasted until the early 18th century when China re-established its export market overshadowing Bat Trang.
Today, Bat Trang is once again a blooming market. The narrow dirt roads buzz with activity; every nook and cranny overflows with wares for sale; every mode of transportation is laden with baskets filled with ceramics of every kind destined for Ha Noi. The dike road to the village is busy with motorbikes, bicycles, trucks and pedestrians. The drive to the village from Ha Noi is a mere 12km, but it takes a solid 30 minutes of weaving through traffic and pedestrians.
Once in the village signs of the ancient traditions of manufacturing are immediate with brick walls filled with drying fuel patties. Nearly 80 percent of the 1200 kilns that fire ceramics still use the same fuel patties that have been in use since the founding of the village. These black patties are a mixture of coal powder, wood, and water. Crafters form it into a round ball and press it onto a brick wall to dry. Hand printed fuel discs fill walls with a tapestry of design and beauty.
Although a machine mixes the clay itself, the molds are hand poured. Heat is added to the larger pieces in order for them to set in the high humidity. Craftsmen will drop a fire pot down into these larger vessels to promote quick setting. Once set, the pieces are carefully removed from the mold and the final touches begin. All the seams that appear from the mold are smoothed with the touch of a hand. When small details are added (such as a tail of a snake or the head of a dragon) they are attached carefully with slip.
Each piece is painted with quick flowing strokes of blues, greens, and reds, which are the trademark of Bat Trang. Design motifs include turtles, fish, dragons, floral scrolls, and landscapes, which bring a mundane bowl to the level of art. The artist holds the brush with a delicate hand allowing the paint to flow into the clay. The workspace is spotless reflecting the care put into the painting of each piece whether it is a simple rice bowl or an ornate incense burner. Once finished the pieces are set aside to dry before firing. After drying, ceramic boxes are filled to capacity then stacked high. Fuel patties line the sides of the boxes, plus the entire stack of ceramics as well. It can take up to three days to prepare for a firing. Once ready, the patties are set ablaze and the fires begin their 3-day burn. Because the temperatures cannot be exact, each firing produces a slight variation in color and quality from the last.
After the oven cools, each piece is carefully removed from its encasement and inspected for flaws or damage. If an item is less than ideal, but there is no obvious damage, it will go to the general marketplace for sale. If a high quality product comes from an especially successful firing, it will be set aside for the higher market.
There are a few businesses that have made the costly switch from coal to gas fired kilns. Gas kilns are not only cleaner to burn, but they also reduce firing time to less than 15 hours. The high temperatures combined with consistent heat produce only high quality pieces. These are available only for export or at exclusive shops in Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City.
The beauty and artistry of each piece is in the eyes of the creator, and it is no wonder that Bat Trang families have been dedicated to the art of ceramics for generations. Artists throughout the centuries have toiled over the clay until it is perfect, and couples have professed their love for one another over Bat Trang bricks. This dedication and love for the craft will continue to keep Bat Trang as an important part of Vietnamese history and art.
Published on 9/5/01 – “Things Asian”