In August 2023, 44-year-old French architect Arnaud Zein El Din arrived in Hanoi alone to explore the Vietnamese capital's hidden charms. He quickly assimilated into the city's goings-on, attending a trance ceremony, tasting thuoc lao (rustic tobacco), and bathing nude in the Red River.
Items from Bat Trang Pottery Village on display at the Hanoi Gifts Festival 2023 on November 3-5. Photo: Hoai Nam/The Hanoi Times
But the highlight of his trip was a votive horse he bought from a local craftsman while traveling through Dong Anh District.
Arnaud told local media that the votive horse reminded him of a piñata, a decorated figure of an animal filled with toys and candy that is hung and broken by blindfolded children in celebration.
His story went viral when airport security refused to let him take his votive horse on the plane. He had to leave the handmade item behind in Vietnam.
A few weeks later, he received a new, smaller one with many wishes and thanks from the Vietnamese people.
Such a story shows that local handicrafts are still attractive to foreigners, especially when Hanoi is known as the home of more than 1,300 craft villages with thousands of years of tradition.
However, Hanoi has struggled to draw the attention of foreign visitors to its local handmade products.
In Hanoi's Old Quarter, many foreign tourists peer into local shops without buying anything.
Despite mass production, these items are not iconic enough to represent the capital's culture.
Charles Win, an American who has lived in Hanoi for years, said that each of Hanoi's handicrafts implies a story.
The city can tell different stories and tales about its history and traditions, he said, adding that storytelling will touch each visitor's heart and encourage them to buy more.
He also suggested that craft villages should recreate the old school time and place where tourists can experience the handicraft process on their own.
Dilemma for craft villages
Craft villages have struggled with integrating traditional values into their production and finding a proper way to market their items to customers.
|Souvenirs that Arnaud Zein El Din buys during his three-week stay in Hanoi. Photo: Arnaud Zein El Din
Artist Tran Duc Tan of the Bat Trang Pottery Village said artisans are still unable to make handicrafts that tell the stories of Vietnam and the places where they are made.
"It is difficult to integrate Vietnamese traditions into the products and tell the stories around them, besides the fact that their products are not always useful enough for travelers," he said at a workshop on Hanoi's handicraft gifts on Sunday (November 5).
Household workshops are only familiar with making handicrafts, said artist Nguyen Van Tinh from Phu Vinh Rattan Village.
"We have not been able to find a way to promote our brands and develop our village into a tourism site, although we all want to. There is no place for visitors to experience the handicraft process," he said.
The village is exploring other creative products such as jewelry, which requires a small workshop and is easier for travelers to experience, Tinh said.
Nguyen Duong Thao, head of the management committee of Duong Lam Ancient Village, said that although many visitors come to the place, they have little interest in locally made products.
To spark visitors' interest, the artisans came up with the idea of letting them into the workshops to make their souvenirs and take them home, he said.
"Guests have responded positively to this model," Thao said.
Artisan Nguyen Duy Linh can make light boxes using the Japanese paper art kirigami. He tries to tell a story in each box.
"We have more than a thousand craft villages in the city. Each of them has its own traits. So it is hard to decide which one should represent Hanoi and be worth buying for visitors," Linh said.
"But in the end, adding a story to each product is the right way to market local handicrafts," he said.
Dang Huong Giang, director of the Hanoi Tourism Department, recommended that travel agencies, craft villages and production facilities strengthen their cooperation.
"The department will continue to support local handicraft villages to integrate stories into their products, ensure their highest quality, and guarantee their mass production, ecofriendliness, and usefulness," she said.
More than 20,000 people visit the Hanoi Gifts Festival 2023
The Hanoi Gifts Festival 2023 attracted more than 20,000 visitors to come and purchase locally-made items after three days, according to the organizers.
The festival, running from November 3 to November 5, aimed to introduce local souvenirs, existing items, and new ones that recreate the values of Hanoi to the people and tourists.
The annual event featured many local artisans, producers, craft villages, and travel companies in Hanoi, offering visitors a chance to experience their products and services.
The festival also featured an exhibition, street performances, cultural and art shows, a workshop on traditional craft village development, and folk shows.
According to Tran Trung Hieu, Deputy Director of the Hanoi Tourism Department, the festival facilitates craft villages and artisans to meet each other, honor and promote local craft products, and connect those working in the craft-making industry together.
The festival is also an opportunity for related parties to study and improve the quality of products and services, explore new product designs, and enhance the creativity and competitiveness for local artisans.