Nation's craft villages in need of renewal
According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, there are about 3,500 craft villages across the country providing employment to about 12 million people, which account for 30 per cent of the rural population.
However, despite the big numbers the country's craft villages are suffering from a lack of management and planning, a shortage of human resources and difficulties in building brand recognition in comparison with neighbouring countries in the region.
Recent conferences have put the spotlight on the issue, with experts calling for the need to diversify Vietnamese handicraft designs and fine art products in order to stay competitive in tough times and contribute more to tourism development.
Viet Nam News spoke to some of them.
Luu Duy Dan, chairman of the Viet Nam Craft Villages' Association
Viet Nam currently has about 3,355 traditional craft and trade villages, half of which have been recognised officially by municipal or provincial authorities nationwide. The craft villages, many of which are centuries old, play important roles in forming and preserving local cultural values and boosting the economy.
When Viet Nam began integrating into the international economy a few decades ago, production in craft villages developed strongly, meeting demand for domestic decoration, construction and restoration of historic religious sites, cultural events and export.
However, since 2009, craft villages have experienced difficult times due to the domestic and global economic slowdown. High inventories and a decline in sales of 30-40 per cent, together with long-lasting problems in the sector, made survival hard for many craft villages.
The Government has turned its attention to the sector by introducing a number of policies. For example, in 2006, a policy was issued encouraging the development of industries – including craft in rural areas – implementing a job training programme in rural areas.
Last year, the Government also approved new conservation and development measures. However, they have not worked as effectively as expected.
Villages are facing a mountain of problems, including financial shortages, outdated technology, untrained labourers and environmental pollution.
About 80 per cent of craft enterprises have difficulties accessing preferential loans despite Governmental support policies introduced in 2007 designed to make this possible.
Capital is the most important factor in reviving production, updating technology, solving environmental problems and attracting employees.
Many young people in craft villages are no longer interested in inheriting businesses and continuing the craft making tradition because of the low income. They have taken on other work or moved to urban areas to seek jobs.
However, I believe that they will start to return if the craft sector is given some proper investment. Relevant parties including producers, policymakers, trade promoters and trainers have yet to co-operate closely to solve the problems.
If a village loses it traditional craft, the link among its members can be lost, making the community weaker and more vulnerable to outside risks. This can be seen in many cases when farmers who lost their land had to leave home in search of new work and the connection between family members became less secure.
The craft sector should be able to offer a good livelihood and preserve the culture of local people. However, combined efforts are needed to improve infrastructure, the environment and public awareness of the issues.
Bui Van Vuong, Director of the Centre for Handicraft Design in Ha Noi, and an expert on traditional culture and handicraft villages
Currently, we have many traditional craft villages operating at a major-scale level, including Dong Ky Wood Carving village, Bat Trang Ceramic village and many others in the south. However, in general, most of our traditional villages are operating at the household level. They are widely dispersed and some rely on outdated technology.
For those that operate under the household-model, the heads often do not have the knowledge required to find output markets, as they have not been trained in management.
We have studied Viet Nam's handicraft villages and estimate that there are at least 40 major categories of craft trades nationwide, and each category has from two to hundreds of crafts. However, is it true that we do not have many handicraft products that are well-known abroad and can be recognised as a trademark unique to Vietnamese culture and tradition.
Our craft villages currently have some top-notch craftsmen, many of whom are still quite young. There is a lot of potential to make handicraft products more appealing and diverse in design.
Currently, the focus has been on craftsmen making products to compete in competitions. I feel that this is akin to training cockerels to fight – it requires a lot of effort for such a short-term task. Many do not focus enough on varying their designs with long-term ambitions.
For example, we can have hundreds of different designs for a simple rattan tray. What we are seeing now is that households have a rattan (wicker or bamboo) tray that is identical to the ones in neighbouring households.
I've been talking about the need to have designers specifically for trade villages. We need to have people on-the-ground who know and are trained properly on design. All of these factors are needed to create a brand for handicraft products.
Dong Ky is just a name. It's not recognised as a brand automatically. As we all know, it takes a long process to create this but residents and craftsmen in each village have to understand the essence of a brand and how their handicraft products can differentiate.
For a craft village, a brand has to be built up from the tradition.
We need relevant policies to gather and encourage those who come up with new ideas. These are called creative design centres. Otherwise, our craft villages will continue to suffer from a shortage of designers, managers and marketing people.
Truong Minh Tien, deputy head of the Ha Noi Department of Sports, Culture and Tourism
From a tourism perspective, the city has nearly 1,300 trade villages and many are quite well-known, and have enough potential to take advantage of this. A few has succeeded in doing so, such as Bat Trang ceramic village, Van Phuc silk village and the bamboo weaving businesses in Chuong My.
We believe the process of developing craft village tourism in a sustainable way has to meet certain requirements.
The trade village has to have unique characteristics and a proper development plan. it must have transportation links, an effective infrastructure, a showroom and places to introduce products and trade to the tourists, among other criteria.
The trade village must also meet environmental and production targets. Residents should be encouraged to take part in introducing the traditional elements of the village to visitors. We already have sufficient policies in place to support trade villages, and many local authorities have good ideas of how to develop tourism there.
It goes without saying that artisans want to develop tourism so that they have the capacity to maintain the values of traditional villages. We need to improve in areas such as transportation systems, even things such as parking spaces and reception areas. When tourists visit the households they need to have proper information. — VNS