Resistance to change and creativity are major hurdles to exploiting the immense development potential that Viet Nam's handicraft sector has, but Do Quang Tuan Hoang also finds reasons to remain optimistic.
|Well placed: Ninh Binh province provides jobs for more than 25,000 people who make different items with sedge for export to Europe and the US. To make further headway in the international market, local artisans need to invest more in creating new designs, experts say. — VNA/VNS Photo Ngo Lich.
Viet Nam holds a great advantage in the form of products created in traditional craft villages that have helped created jobs for more than 11 million rural labourers.
In some localities, 60 per cent of the residents are engaged in creating handicrafts.
According to the Trade Promotion Agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the value of handicraft exports touched US$1.6 billion last year, accounting for 1.5 per cent of the global market value.
Although the handicraft sector has achieved our target, this figure is not commensurate with the potential of the industry. Its greatest weakness is a lack of creativity in product designs.
Out of the total 9.5 million hectares of forest in Viet Nam, 12.2 per cent is covered with bamboos. The country is home to nearly a third of the more than 1,000 varieties of bamboo grown across the world.
As I wanted to honour the significance of bamboo, I thought of making some boxes using bamboo, which I planned to use for storing tea.
|Painstaking work: Established in 1998 with 10 members, the Phu Ung Guild of Silversmiths in An Thi District, Hung Yen Province, has expanded its staff to 200 employees. — VNA/VNS Photo Huy Hung
I arrived at the Phu An Bamboo Village in Ben Cat District, Binh Duong Province, where locals have planted nearly 2,000 bamboo bushes of 17 species and it took me an hour to articulate my idea and offer some samples to a local entrepreneur - Diep Thi My Hanh - who meticulously documented everything I said.
However, she repeatedly asked me to get in touch after a few days.
I reiterated that my box sample was for reference only and that her workers could make it, depending on the shape of the bamboo tube and the artisan's idea. A few days later, Hanh said since this was a new product and her workers had never made it before, I had to make a deposit and sign a contract for making 1,000 boxes in one go.
|Finishing touches: The Chu Dau Company is reviving a craft that once flourished in Hai Duong Province. V— NA/VNS Hoang Hung
Since my initial negotiation, I had made it clear to her that I would place multiple orders and would ask her to make about 30 to 50 boxes each time and try to learn from their experience while they make it and thereby perfect techniques and innovate designs.
As I was unable to meet Hanh's demand for ordering 1,000 boxes, she decided to break contact.
I later discovered that Cam An Ward in the ancient town of Hoi An (Quang Nam Province) has a workshop that makes handicrafts from bamboo, so I decided to visit the place.
But I was again unable to persuade the artisan to try and create a new product. My journey to find someone to make bamboo tea boxes remained fruitless even after a year.
|Intricate design: An ornate silver box. — VNS Photo Gian Linh
Competition for designing six groups of craft products
Aimed at encouraging designers, companies and research institutes to offer solutions for sustainable and creative design, the Viet Nam Association for Handicraft Exports recently held a contest called "Designing Sustainable Products for Viet Nam 2015."
Participants had to submit proposals focused on the following six product groups, including art and craft for family decoration, indoor and outdoor furniture, household textiles and embroidery, gifts and products for ethnic people, personal accessories, and toys.
The award includes a $2,000 gold award, two silver awards worth $500 and five honourable mention prizes worth $200 each. — VNS
Bamboo tea boxes are not complicated in design, their market is reliable, and investment in machinery is insignificant, but the workers hesitate to change their habits and try making new products.
This reluctance to change among the craftsmen in many villages across the country is quite common and reflects an old, ineffective way of doing business in the contemporary scenario.
The annual export value of handicraft goods from Viet Nam to Japan has reached US$150 million. However, Japanese consumers still hold a poor opinion about the quality of the products.
Ken Arakawa, an expert with Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), complained that Viet Nam's businesses are often very frustrating.
He narrated a story where he spent more than a year acting as a bridge between a Japanese customer who wanted to import rattan chairs from Viet Nam.
"While surveying some Vietnamese businesses, we found that they lack the spirit of cooperation or are easily depressed with orders requiring high technical quality," he stated.
Due to a lack of investment in production technology and product designs, seen during the past many years, the handicraft villages and businesses still accept that they have to make poor quality products and earn a low profit.
According to Do Van Khoi, vice president of the Association of Viet Nam Handicraft Exports (Vietcraft), 90 per cent of Vietnamese handicrafts are based on specifications provided by the clients and use clients' labelling for exports.
"Therefore, compared with other countries in the region, such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, Vietnamese handicrafts are less competitive," he added.
Trinh Quoc Dat, the vice chairman of the Viet Nam Association of Craft Villages, said the biggest drawback of the crafts exporters was the slow improvement in designs, making products that do not fit the market and a lack of innovative products that meet the rapidly changing requirements of customers.
|Handiwork: Chu Prong Village in the Central Highlands has invested more than VND2 billion ($950,000) to facilitate production of rattan furniture and home decorations. — VNA/VNS Sy Huynh
"Therefore, most of the exports have low value, and with production costs constantly rising, our products find it difficult to compete globally," he added.
Art researcher Son Nam pointed out, "The country has more than 3,400 craft villages, but the design of their products is extremely poor and the industry has been hurt by a lack of investment. They often follow samples provided by dealers and so they indulge in negligible creative thinking."
For example, a bowl made of coconut shell, which craftsmen in Ben Tre Province simply shape and polish, is just sold for VND30,000. But these are decorated and lacquered by craftsmen in Binh Duong Province and the bowl can be sold at souvenir shops in HCM City for VND70,000.
|Chiselled features: Stone craft village in Ninh Van commune, Ninh Binh Province produce stone work at VND62 billion ($2.9 million) in value a year. — VNA/VNS Dinh Hue
When a dealer takes it to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, hiring local craftsmen to weave baskets or boxes made of palm leaves to place the bowl in, its price increases to $7 (nearly VND150,000).
This shows clearly the importance of creativity, pattern designing and cultural integration in handicraft products.
Handicrafts Ando company's director Vu Cam Tu said businesses must consolidate to take advantage and honour each other's strengths.
"For example, the pottery maker should associate with the makers of rattan, bamboo, leaves and straw goods to jointly create unique products," she said.
Uyen Huy, chairman of the Fine Arts Association in HCM City, said to improve the situation, the government should invest in building vocational training schools, traditional arts faculties with appropriate scale, and offer training programmes that are updated effectively.
Giang Van Binh graduated in jewellery design from the University of Industrial Arts in Ha Noi and he loves products created from Vietnamese traditional craft, especially silver craft, so he is determined to design models for the jewellery industry.
"I want to create a fresh, modern style for traditional silver products. We apply the wax technique, where we create products using wax and then mould them. We then attach silver to the product. This technique allows the creation of far more plentiful and diverse products, especially patterns with high requirements," he said.
When I saw his products, I could see the worker's creativity and quintesssence.
Handicraft products also reflect the cultural features of a community, even the nation, so the users pay much attention to cultural elements and the originality of each product that they have bought. I hope that people like Tu and Binh are able to find more success. — VNS