Born in the pottery village of Thanh Ha in the suburbs of Hoi An, Nguyen Van Nguyen spent his childhood playing with clay as his family earned a living from pottery.
Nguyen, 43, now works as an architect in HCM City, but his love for pottery inspired him to build a park to conserve the craft of his home and teach visitors the history of pottery.
The terracotta park was laid out in the shape of a giant brick kiln, on 7,000sq.m of land in Thanh Ha in 2012.
The first baked clay bricks were used to build the park, but it took Nguyen several years to complete. Between managing his architecture firm in HCM City and overseeing the construction of the park in Hoi An, Nguyen struggled to turn his dream into a reality.
The park included various unplastered brick buildings storing terracotta collections by local craftsmen and pottery villages nationwide.
Mini buildings: The Taj Mahal is recreated in clay. (Photo: VNS)
“The design of the place is eye catching. The park fascinates visitors with its reddish-brown baked clay bricks. I intentionally kept all of the walls unplastered so people could feel the naturally rough texture of the clay,” Nguyen explained.
“The park is for all people who love terracotta and the trade of my 500-year-old village. Kids, artists, potters and visitors can come to the park to practise skills or create their own pottery pieces,” he said, adding that the park preserves a full collection of pottery.
A series of miniature architectural works from Vietnam and all over the world have been recreated in terracotta, including the Nha Rong Wharf, the ancient town of Hoi An, President Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Colosseum, the Egyptian pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, Arc de Triomphe, Big Ben, and the Kremlin.
“I set out a special place for the wonders of the world that local potters had made. The park and Thanh Ha Village can be seen as rare locations in Vietnam preserving traditional methods,” Nguyen said.
He said most villagers still practise the ancient skills of 500 years ago.
“Local potters still use firewood to bake ceramics, creating the unique red-brown colour of Thanh Ha village.”
Wonders of the world: Miniature models of the Colosseum and Leaning Tower of Pisa are displayed at Thanh Hà Terracotta Park. (Photo: VNS)
Nguyen Thi Le Na, a female guide, said visitors to the park particularly enjoyed making ceramic souvenirs themselves.
She said visitors were very excited to take their own clay products home after a visit to the park.
“Tourists are delighted to try out their own pottery-making skills. Practising with clay helps visitors understand the real story of the ancient ceramic trade,” she said, adding that the park employed mostly local villagers.
Diep Chi, 6, who was on a trip with her parents, said she loves playing with the wet clay.
“I love squashing the clay with a roller. I used to play with clay at kindergarten, but it wasn’t as dirty as it is here,” she said.
Ken Owens, a tourist from California, said the park offers an amazing opportunity to learn the history of the pottery trade.
“Hoi An and the Thanh Ha terracotta park were our favourite stops during our tour of Viet Nam. It’s the first time we have experienced pottery at a ceramic workshop. The design of the park is fascinating,” Ken said.
Janet, Ken’s wife, had made her own clay jar and carved a pattern on the surface of the clay.
Latest works: Ceramic products displayed at Thanh Ha Terracotta Park. (Photo: VNS)
Huynh Ngoc Uyen Phi, managing director of the Thanh Ha terracotta park, said the park was built with a love of the ceramic tradition.
“It’s a real slice of the craft that has endured for the past five centuries. The pottery was the livelihood of villagers from generation to generation, and even now it makes a living for the villagers,” Phi said.
She said the park plans to offer more entertainment events, a cuisine corner and fashion shows at the weekend, in order to attract visitors from Hoi An.
Phi, who was born in Hoi An, said there needs to be more connections between destinations in Hoi An’s old town, eco-tour sites and craft villages around Hoi An to offer tourists exploring the area a diversified experience.
“The park has hosted painting workshops for artists and kids, exhibitions and collection of six famous ceramic regions in a full collection of Vietnam’s terracotta trade,” she said.
Phi said old craftsmen from the village are still invited to demonstrate and tell the history of Thanh Ha Village and the handmade pottery.
Old craftsman Nguyen Lanh, 85, and his wife Le Thi Chien, 84, in Thanh Ha pottery village have almost retired from the trade due to old age, but they still preserve the stories and long existence of the ceramic trade in the village.
They are actually the last pottery history preservers of Thanh Ha Village.
“I’ve practised the job since I was a child of the oldest craft family in the village from the late 15th century. I was told by my great grandparents that the trade formed in the development of Hoi An City – which was a busy trading port a few hundred years ago,” Lanh said.
Lanh said villagers had struggled in the late 1990s, when metal kitchenware was preferred over baked clay pots and jars.
Tricky work: Janet Owens from California tries out her skills with clay in Hoi An. (Photo: VNS)
He remembered that potters had to produce construction material – clay brick and tiles – to earn a living, and that was the worst time for the trade.
However, a booming tourist trade in Hoi An gave the surrounding villages a new lease of life, turning them into tour destinations, and allowing the craftsmen and women to sell their ceramic products once more.
Nguyen, the owner and designer of the park, was rewarded for his years of effort when his Thanh Ha Terracotta Park was awarded Building of the Year by the Vietnam Urban Planning and Development Association at the 2016 Architect Awards.
Thanh Ha Village and the park, 4 kilometres from Hoi An, can be easily reached by bicycle, on peaceful roads along the river bank of Thu Bon.
Clay bricks and roof tiles from the village were mostly used by old houses in Hoi An between the 15th and 16th century, when the town was a busy trading port.
Now the ceramic kilns of the villages are kept hot to produce terracotta souvenirs for tourists.
A green oasis: Thanh Ha Terracotta Park is hidden by green bamboo and trees. (Photo: VNS)
Delicate touch: A potter teaches a visitor how to shape wet clay with a roller. (Photo: VNS)