A teacher and writer, Kim Jane Saunders is a graduate of international politics and history, and holds a master's degree in education. She has lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and has traveled extensively throughout East and Southeast Asia. Currently living in Singapore, Kim acts as lecturer and consultant on issues relating to contemporary Asian culture.
Supporting the local economy anywhere while traveling creates a win-win scenario—substitute the dreaded ‘S’ word of shopping for support, and the whole dynamic takes on a very different feel. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway, and I’m sticking to it! No matter where you travel, there are invariably local crafts people who make a living, albeit meager, by producing some wonderfully unique items that often make thoughtful gifts and mementos of travels. And, in supporting local artisans, we encourage them to continue in their skills and pass them on to the next generation.
Considered to be a Vietnamese national treasure, it is not surprising that silk production is very important in Vietnam. The beautiful national costume for women, the Ao Yai (in the south) or Ao Dai (in the north), is a quintessential aspect of Vietnam’s culture. Silk was traditionally reserved for nobility yet sericulture—the production of silk and the breeding of silkworms for this purpose—has been part of Vietnam’s history for over 2,000 years. Today, there are many silk weaving villages north of Hanoi, the most ancient of which is Van Phuc. Vietnamese silk can be bought throughout the country—especially at boutiques such as Khaisilk on Dong Khoi Street, famed for silk shops, in Ho Chi Minh City. Tailors abound throughout the country, so you need not worry that your treasures will remain folded in cupboards.
Having over 1,000 years of Chinese presence in Vietnam, it will come as no surprise that embroidery and needlework are a very vibrant part of Vietnam’s artistic traditions. Exceptionally fine silk embroidered pictures can be found at the XQ Hand Embroidery Centers in Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi. Established during the mid-90s, these centers train local women in the art of silk embroidery, including double-sided embroidery which renders a different picture on both sides of the piece.
Vietnam has a population of just over 94 million, about 10 percent of which are from ethnic minorities. There are 54 ethnic groups that are recognized in Vietnam, many of whom live in the mountains around Sa Pa in the north. The not-for-profit-trade organization, Craft Link, was established in 1995 and supports ethnic minority artisans, traditional villagers, and disability groups, and works closely with Vietnam’s Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. The Flower Hmong and the Red Dao are just two of the groups renowned for exquisite embroidery, while the Black Hmong are known for making indigo to dye their clothes blue.
One of Vietnam’s most popular crafts is lacquerware; an art form dating back some 2,000 years, lacquerware comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes, often decorated with egg shell or mother-of-pearl inlay. The many markets—such as Binh Thanh in Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An Central Market, and the Old Quarter in Hanoi—are rich in lacquer plates, boxes, and miniature Vietnamese water puppets.
Beyond lacquer and silk, Vietnam is known for a vibrant local art scene, diverse pottery, and even wooden furniture and marble statues. (That latter of which may not fit into your suitcase, but you can always arrange to have items shipped.) Art galleries abound in the cultural hubs of Hanoi, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City, and the unique ceramics known as Bat Trang Porcelain can be found in—you guessed it—Bat Trang, just outside of Hanoi. And, you don’t have to travel all the way to the Marble Mountains for a unique sculpture; you’ll find hundreds of shops selling pieces throughout Vietnam.
The dynamic arts and crafts of contemporary Vietnam are as diverse and unique as the people and the culture. My parting mantra is, if you see it, you like it, and you can afford it, buy it!
For more information, visit Cultural Treasures of Northern Vietnam & Laos.