Dana Sachs visits Bat Trang with one of Vietnam's contemporary writers.
Nguyen Huy Thiep is a man of many professions. He may be one of his country's most acclaimed contemporary writers, but he's also got to make a living. These days, he carries a business card that reads "Nguyen Huy Thiep-writer and owner." The "owner" refers to his new restaurant, the Hoa Ban, which sits near the eastern bank of the Red River, just across the Chuong Duong Bridge from Hanoi.
The Hoa Ban is in a large nha san, a wooden stilt house that is traditional among the Black Thai minority people of Vietnam. Two-storied and covered with thatch, the nha san walls are open to the world, drawing in the river breezes. Restaurant guests can either eat upstairs, looking out over the surrounding neighborhood, or sit in the quiet dining area below. In keeping with the particular culture of the mountain regions, the restaurant menu includes such foods of the forest as skunk, venison, and snake (as well as free-range chicken, although one would be hard pressed to find a chicken that wasn't "free-range" in Vietnam.) The fact that Thiep's restaurant has a forest theme is no accident. For many years, the writer taught history in a minority village in the northwestern region of the country, near the border with Laos. He's famous in Vietnam for 10 interconnected short stories, "Nhung Ngon Gio Hua Tat" ("The Breezes of Hua Tat"), which are folktale-like, almost mythological accounts of life in a remote Black Thai village.
My friend Cam and I have been working on translating some of Thiep's work into English and so one day we went to the Hoa Ban for lunch. It was a quiet afternoon and only one other table was occupied, also with people who had come to the restaurant as much in order to see the writer as to try his food. Although Thiep is a rather reserved man, he seemed to have learned the skills of restaurateur very quickly, gracefully moving back and forth between the tables.
Cam and I decided against the skunk and venison, opting instead for less exotic spicy chicken salad and roasted prawns. By the time we'd finished our meal and ordered coffee, the other customers had headed back toward Hanoi, and Thiep settled down at our table with a glass of lemonade and a pack of cigarettes. We talked for a while about his work. "One critic called me Vietnam's J.D. Salinger," he said, not without a hint of pride. "It's true that I have been influenced by Salinger's work."
Only one of Thiep's books has been translated into English, the Oxford University Press collection of short stories entitled "The General Retires." These stories would not contradict the comparison to J.D. Salinger. Thiep's style does have a simplicity of language, dry wit, and emotional power reminiscent of the American writer's work.
But comparing Nguyen Huy Thiep to J.D. Salinger does Thiep a disservice. Rather than offering the uninitiated any sense of Thiep's own writing style, the reference to Salinger is a too-simplistic attempt to make an unfamiliar writer familiar in terms that are easily comprehensible to Western readers. Such comparisons under-acknowledge Thiep's own vast talent as a writer, as well as the social and cultural influences that make his work so very particularly Vietnamese.
On the day of our visit to the restaurant, though, Thiep was more interested in tourism than literature. "Where have you gone in Vietnam?" he asked me. "The city is awful. You've got to see the countryside."
We decided to go to Bat Trang, the small pottery village where Thiep had lived for several years after returning to the Hanoi area. Saying good-bye to Cam, I got on the motorcycle behind Thiep and we started down the road that led south along the river away from Hanoi. Following along the ridge of a thousand-year old dike built for flood control during the Ly Dynasty, the road offers wonderful views of the flat green countryside, the rice fields, stone villages, brick kilns, and ancient pagodas of the Red River Delta.
After about 20 minutes, we took a right turn down a road that descended off the dike and into the village. From the very first house, the front doors and sidewalks of Bat Trang were covered with pottery: flowery vases, hand-painted urns, pedestals for potted plants, even ceramic columns to be used as slats on the balconies of new houses. The whole town was a factory, its roads full of trucks and cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and even horse carts, all engaged in the business of the pottery trade.
Our motorbike snaked through all this busy commercial activity, making turn after turn through the mazy streets of the village. Within the stone courtyards of each house, I could glimpse pottery in various stages of production. The sides of buildings were covered with the black patties used for kiln fuel. A mixture of coal and dirt, they were stuck on the walls to dry in the sun.
Deep within the village, we pulled up and stopped in the large courtyard of the Lo Gom Toan-Khanh, the ceramic kilns of a couple named Toan and Khanh. Through one doorway, I could make out the wooden furniture and wall decorations of a private house, but everything else in the compound was devoted to the manufacture of pottery. A pretty, middle-aged woman walked out to greet us, wiping ceramic dust off her hands. "This is Khanh," Thiep explained, introducing me to one of the owners of the factory. "She and her husband Toan are good friends of mine and I come here often."
We walked inside and sat down. When Thiep picked up a teapot on the table in front of us, Khanh rushed around the room in a fruitless search for tea. "You don't have tea?" Thiep asked, laughing.
Khanh shrugged, looking flustered. "I guess we're out." The expression on her face reminded me of a busy career person in the West, someone wealthy enough to have a beautiful kitchen, but without the leisure time to use it.
Thiep and I went to tour the factory. To one side of the main courtyard, three large stone basins held the clay in its liquid form. Next to the basins, a young woman was filling molds for small flower vases. In a room behind her, another woman was organizing vases which had just come out of the molds. We walked through a doorway and Thiep pointed out the base of a two-story, chimney-like kiln, then led me up a narrow flight of stairs to the top of the kiln, where three more workers were busily packing it with pottery to be fired. They filled round canisters with the small flower vases and tightly closed them, packing them solidly, one on top of the other, and stuffing fuel patties around them. When the whole kiln was full, the workers would light it from the bottom and let it burn for three days. Then they would empty the kiln and start over again.
Because Bat Trang pottery is fired at the extremely high temperature of 1200 degrees Centigrade, Khanh's husband Toan later explained to me, it becomes very strong and difficult to break. After the tour of the compound, we sat talking in one of the workrooms, which was filled with large vases and urns in the midst of production. Toan, wearing work clothes covered with fine ceramic dust, inadvertently proved his point about the strength of his product when, searching for a stool, he took a finished three-foot-high wide-mouthed urn and sat on it. Besides being a writer, history teacher, and restaurant owner, Thiep is something of an amateur painter. Before we'd gone to his restaurant earlier in the day, Cam had shown me a gift she'd once received from Thiep. It was a white ceramic bowl on which Thiep had painted Cam's portrait in the deep blue color for which the village of Bat Trang is famous. Now Thiep wanted to paint me. I sat down on a stool and he began to paint, dipping his thin brush into a dish of sludgy gray liquid he assured me would later turn the rich Bat Trang blue.
"Is it okay if I talk?" I asked.
"Of course," he said. I could tell by the intense concentration on his face that he wasn't really looking at me anymore. He was looking at the shape of my face, at the relationship between my eyes and my mouth, at the height of my nose. "Talk all you want," he said.
Toan and several of his dozen or so employees had gathered around to converse with the foreigner. I asked them about the history of the village and Toan told me that it is over 900 years old. "The other villages in the area also produce pottery, but the roots of the trade are in Bat Trang," he told me.
"How long has your family been here?" I asked.
He looked confused by the question, and I realized it was a very American question. Americans always move. An American born in Chicago might have a Minnesota German mother and a New Jersey Italian father. The farther back you go in American family trees, the farther the branches spread. Sometimes that's true in Vietnam, but mostly it isn't. When Toan told me his family came from Bat Trang, he was essentially saying his family had always come from Bat Trang. Nearly 1,000 families make up the village, and almost all of them practice the pottery trade. Many have their own particular ceramic specialties. Toan showed me one vase on which streams of color seemed to flow like water down a waterfall. On another, various shades of blue and brown melted into each other like lava. On a third, brown jagged lines crisscrossed the body of the vase in such a way that the surface seemed covered with a forest of trees.
While Bat Trang has never ceased to be a center of pottery production, the trade has blossomed since the Vietnamese government instituted doi moi, its policy of economic renovation, in 1986. These days, comparatively speaking, Bat Trang is a very wealthy village.
Toan explained that "in the period between 1954 and 1986, when we were all working for government- run pottery factories, the work was really hard and we couldn't earn enough to live on. Now things are much better economically and people have the freedom to do the kinds of things they want." Bat Trang's pottery is now being exported all over the world. Taiwan is the biggest buyer, but France, Holland, Denmark and Russia are among the many other countries purchasing its ceramics. Buyers from the United States are beginning to import the product as well.
Thiep had finished his plate. "It's not very successful," he said, shaking his head. He held the plate up so I could see it. The eyes looked rather familiar, but the mouth was mysteriously skunk like. I wondered if he'd spent too much time in the forest.
"Let's try one more time," he suggested, adding, "This time don't talk."
I nodded. For the next 20 minutes, I silently sat in profile. Deprived of conversation with a foreigner, Toan and most of the other workers drifted away. Next to me, a young artist was painting a series of geometric designs on an urn. He'd told me he could finish 15 such urns in a day, and now I watched as his quick fingers painted a ring of interlocking circles around the neck of the pot. I wondered what would happen if he arrived back at his starting point without enough room left to make another identically shaped circle. It didn't happen. Years of practice had given him a sense of space that never wavered.
"Okay," Thiep said finally. "It's still not very successful, but I guess it's finished." He held the plate up to me. It was better.
"It's good!" I said, as enthusiastically as possible.
Nguyen Huy Thiep shrugged and stood up. "I'm a writer," he explained, "not a painter."
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Published on 6/1/95