Ceramics museum offers trip through local pottery history

VietNamNet Bridge – An old-style tile-roofed house appeared in the middle of a large open public ground next to the headquarters of Kim Lan Commune People's Committee. Hesitation stopped me for a while before I entered the first community museum in Viet Nam.

Ceramics museum, local pottery history, Bat Trang Village

Brick in the wall: Local researcher Nguyen Viet Hong introduces a piece of earthenware brick dating back to the 9-10th century. A small part of Hong's collection was lent to the Kim Lan Ceramic History Museum for display.

The ceramic wares inside glass cabinets quickly caught my eyes. There were too many pieces to comprehend during a short visit.

I intended to take my eight-year-old son to nearby Bat Trang Village, which is known far and wide for pottery making. However, a talk with some other passengers on bus No 47 from Ha Noi's centre convinced me to change direction.

Kim Lan, the last stop of the bus route, is actually one of the oldest pottery villages in the land of Thang Long (the old name of Ha Noi). Kim Lan Village, several kilometres across the Red River from Bat Trang Village, was where the craft originated before it spread to Bat Trang.

Previously Kim Lan commune was located on the bank extending out to the Red River at the site of the current Kim Lan community. However, annual flooding, especially the large floods between 1970 and 1971, eroded the land. This also exposed the earthenware and ceramics that prompted the subsequent archaeological excavation.

Kim Lan doesn't enjoy as vibrant a business as Bat Trang as its residents focus on farming and pottery, while those living in the latter see pottery as their main livelihood. Thus, visitors to this craft village should not expect a bustling scene.

Nevertheless, the Kim Lan Ceramic History Museum is a real treat for those interested in learning about the history of Vietnamese pottery.

The museum opened in March last year thanks to the efforts of late Japanese archaeologist Nishimura Masanari and five elderly village craftsmen. It was granted a Bui Xuan Phai – Love for Ha Noi 2013 award in the Job category.

Valuable collection

The 300 pieces of earthenware not only create a vivid picture of the village's past and present, they also provide a glimpse of the country's pottery-making history.

Ceramics museum, local pottery history, Bat Trang Village

History lesson: The Kim Lan Ceramic History Museum is a real treat for those interested in learning about the history of Vietnamese pottery.

"The artefacts displayed inside the museum make a significant contribution to the study of Viet Nam's ceramic and pottery history," said Dr Bui Minh Tri of the Viet Nam Academy of Social Sciences.

Tri said archaeological studies revealed that Kim Lan villagers were involved in the craft as early as the 9th century, although it flourished between the 13th and 14th centuries.

Pieces ranging from bowls, plates and tea sets to animal figures, tiles and bricks are numbered and described in Vietnamese, Japanese and English. The variety of techniques used, from blue and white colouring to celadon and paired white and brown glazes, offers insight into the different eras of production, which stretched from the 7th to 18th century.

Vietnamese ceramics entered the international market in the 14th century, when they were exported to the rest of Southeast Asia as well as Egypt, Iran, India and Japan.

A shipwreck off Hoi An, which retained a cargo of Vietnamese ceramics dating to the 15th century, further proves the extent of international trade at that time.

Kishimoto Kosei, a Japanese sports and culture critic, donated ceramics from the shipwreck such as underglaze-cobalt jars, bowls and boxes to the museum.

There are also goods from other Southeast Asian countries, such as a set of earthenware from Cambodia, round jars from Indonesia and vases from Malaysia.

A set of ceramic liquor bottles made in Okinawa and an intact Dutch coffee bean grinder from the 19th-20th century revealed the unique features of ceramic wares from other regions.

Ceramics museum, local pottery history, Bat Trang Village

Tourist attraction: The museum has so far attracted mostly local students as well as Thai and Japanese tourists. 

Head of the Research Group Nguyen Viet Hong lives about 500m away. Visiting his house with the help of the museum guards, I was amazed to find out that the artefacts lent to the museum only formed a small part of his actual collection. Sets of bronze coins hung on the walls; other objects were contained in glass cabinets and boxes.

"Based on the excavated artefacts and structures, we identified that there was ceramic production around the Bai Ham Rong archaeological site between the Ly and Tran dynasties," the 78-year-old researcher said.

"The large number of bronze coins that I gathered indicates that there were also bronze casting workshops at the site between the 16th and 17th centuries."

Many tour companies have taken tourists, mostly Japanese and Thais, to see the old man's collection after visiting the museum. He has even been asked to sell it, but he always refused.

"I learn about our history in order to leave it to my offspring. If I sold them, it would be like selling my ancestors' sweat and efforts," Hong said.

Ceramics museum, local pottery history, Bat Trang Village