Sampling Vietnam's culture and wares on artisanal excursions

Email|Print| Text size + By Vicki Sanders
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2005

HANOI -- The day trip to Tam Coc (Three Caves) was our first excursion outside Hanoi since our arrival in Vietnam two days before. For 2 1/2 hours, our rowboats wound through whispering rice fields guarded by sentinel-like limestone outcrops. The air was humid and temperate, the sky overcast. Our captain, a gap-toothed grandmother, sat in the stern of the tiny vessel, the arch of each foot cupping the end of an oar, rowing with her feet. Her daughter helped steer with a small paddle at the boat's side.

We were part of a small parade of rowboats, each carrying a few tourists. Every bend of the river revealed a new panorama: vast expanses of young green rice stalks; mountain goats (miniscule at this distance) clambering up the steep, craggy sides of the towering rock formations; caves formed by the river-straddling outcrops, dripping and glistening in the dim light as we passed through.

Our round-trip journey was nearing its end, when the rowboat slowed midstream, then stopped. I turned around to see what was happening and was met with the disarming grins of daughter and grandmother. They had somehow conjured from the tight confines of the boat a large metal box filled with assorted hand-embroidered linens. They pulled crisply ironed tablecloths from the tin and flapped them open for me to see. Out tumbled starched white napkins and table runners and sachet bags in pretty pastels.

Suddenly, the boat had become the women's floating boutique and I, their captive customer.

That single moment said almost everything there is to say about today's Vietnam. It is a country just emerging from poverty, and its people (especially those in the less-developed north) are embracing capitalism with alacrity and ingenuity. Vietnam is about things hidden (like the metal box) and things revealed (most life and commerce is conducted in the open air, in the bustling streets and markets, or, as in Tam Coc, on the waterways). Being a developing nation where machinery is scarce but human hands are plentiful, crafts are abundant and cheap.

Indeed, crafts -- or more precisely, a purveyor of crafts -- were what had brought me and my two sisters to Vietnam. Trai Duong, 63, a friend who owns Truc Orient Express, a restaurant, and Out of Vietnam, a crafts and clothing boutique, in West Stockbridge, had been urging me to come to her country when she was there on a buying trip. One day in the store, as I was admiring the embroidered silk dresses and jackets, she said, ''Those are my designs. Come to Vietnam and I'll show you where I make them."

As gracious as the offer was, it was really code for something else, something that ultimately would compel me to accept her invitation. Along with her husband, Luy Nguyen, 69, a South Vietnamese navy officer, Duong and three of their children were forced to flee Vietnam during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Worse, in the chaos, they had had to leave behind their 6-year-old son, Lam, who was visiting his grandmother in a distant part of the city. Duong succeeded in getting Lam out of Vietnam and bringing him to Massachusetts in 1981, but the pain of those six lost years still brings tears to her eyes.

So did the poverty she encountered when she returned nearly a decade later to visit her native Nha Trang, a beachside community about 200 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

''When I traveled to Vietnam, I saw how beautiful it is, but how the people work so hard, and they are so poor," Duong recalled. ''The first thing I think is, how can I help them to have a job and food?"

The shop in West Stockbridge, opened in 1995, is Duong's answer to that question. Today, her retail and wholesale business helps support scores of artisans throughout Vietnam.

Duong's invitation, then, was a kind of offering. She wanted to share her history, her country, her people. She wanted me to know firsthand how magnificent her nation is with its 2,000 miles of coastline, fertile Red and Mekong river deltas, and mountainous terrain. She wanted me to experience Vietnam at an important juncture in its evolution.

So far, the old ways haven't fully yielded to the modernization that is paving over rice paddies for industrial parks and replacing bicycles with motorbikes. Merchandising is still about making an honest buck (or ''dong," in this case) but also about generosity: Buy a woven purse from the hard-bargaining Red Zao tribeswomen of the north, for instance, and you get a bracelet, too, in thanks.

With a population of 83 million and an economic growth rate of 7 percent a year, Vietnam is speeding toward the future. (Some Vietnamese wryly observe that while the politics now are communist, the economics are capitalist.)

Everywhere we went, from the Alpine-like Sapa and the island-strewn waters of Ha Long Bay in the north, to the ancient town of Hoi An and the Imperial City of Hue (with its provocatively named Perfume River and lore of concubines and impotent kings) in central Vietnam, to the resort town of Nha Trang and the prosperous Ho Chi Minh City farther south, we were struck by how little we knew of the country's cultural heritage. Denied to us by nearly a century of war and political differences, Vietnam now seemed a virtual university, its doors flung open wide.

Part of that heritage is the handiwork still being done in small garages, wooden shacks, front yards, and workrooms all over the country. Some villages are known for particular crafts. Visitors to Hanoi, for example, can take day trips to a half-dozen or more such towns: Dong Ho for etched woodblock prints, Chuyen My for inlaid lacquer furniture, Ninh Van for stone carvings, the likes of which adorn pagodas, cathedrals, even Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi. Private excursions to the villages are arranged easily through concierges at Hanoi's better hotels.

The Hong Ngoc Humanity Center in Sao Do, a kind of one-stop crafts emporium, is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from Hanoi. The center is both residence and workplace for some 200 second- and third-generation victims of the chemical weapon Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War. Their disabilities range from physical deformities, such as missing limbs or digits, to muteness and deafness, but the variety of crafts produced at the center means they have found skills that suit them. While visitors watch, the artisans make elaborately embroidered silk paintings, lacquerware, pottery, and jewelry.

One popular activity in Vietnam is having clothes made. Our first stop in Nha Trang, where Duong meets us in the second week of our trip, is Vietnam Pure Silk, a dress shop run by Cao Si Nghi and Doan Trang. To the whump-whump accompaniment of an overhead paddle fan, we select fine silks and stand for fittings as Trang measures and pins. An ankle-length Chinese dress with side slits and covered buttons costs $22, a reversible jacket is $35. Everything is ready in a day or two.

Another day, Duong takes us on an excursion deep into Nha Trang's neighborhoods. We observe a family sweating in the afternoon heat in a backyard shed as they bend over steaming pots of rice starch, squeezing it through sieves to make noodles for the next day's market. We visit a home where family members are preparing so-called rice paper -- thin, round, sesame-flecked sheets used to make spring rolls or crisped into crackers.

Lacquerware, which traces its Vietnamese roots to the village of Vinh Long in the 14th century, is produced widely nowadays. When we reach Ho Chi Minh City on the final leg of our three-week trip, Duong has arranged for a friend, Tran Cong Thang, to take us to a workshop where many of the lacquer trays, boxes, bowls, and placemats Duong sells in her store are produced.

We are greeted by owner Tran Quang Kim Quy, who leads us into the cramped, two-story garage past stacks of cartons awaiting export. In the back room, three women sit on the floor laboring over palm-sized rocks. With silver leaf, they are making fish shapes on the rocks, fanning out the tails with deft rubs of their thumbs. This is the first step in turning the rocks into lacquered paperweights. As chemicals and layers of resin from the son tree are applied (good lacquerware will have as many as 11 coats applied over many days), the fish will turn golden beneath the shiny applications.

Though my sisters and I aren't normally big shoppers on vacation, we wound up shopping everywhere we went in Vietnam, intentionally or not. It got to the point that we developed a euphemism, based on that early experience in Tam Coc, to warn each other of an impending retail encounter: ''The boat stops here," we would whisper.

It happened on a junk in Ha Long Bay, where the cook surprised us with a tray of native pearls for sale, and on a boat ride along the Perfume River, when the captain's daughter started arranging hand-painted note cards and bronze figurines on the floor.

It happened, too, near Lai Chau, in a tribal village. When our sightseeing tour ended, the women who had accompanied us began pulling clothes and necklaces from the baskets on their backs. Before I knew it, they had dressed me in a traditional striped head scarf and beaded jacket. When I purchased the jacket, it only fueled the competition.

''Buy one from me," each in turn beseeched with a sweet smile. ''Buy one from me."

They -- like their country -- were impossible to resist.

Vicki Sanders is a freelance writer in Boston.

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