Bronze casting is one of the traditional longstanding and famous craft in Vietnam. Long ago the best bronze casters of Vietnam were grouped together into the city ward of Phuong Duc. Commonly referred to as the Cast Ward, Phuong Duc consist of five hamlets: Giang Dinh, Giang Tien, Kinh Nhon, Bon Bo and Truong Dong. It can be said that traditional bronze casting in Hue appeared since Nguyen Hoang Lords came to the South again (1600). Planning of setting himself up in business for a long time, Nguyen Lords gathered excellent North artisans to the South with him in order to produce weapons and daily utensils.
Nguyen Van Dao-an ancestor and his father endowed down their detailed knowledge of this historically important craft to their descendants and local people. Passing through twelfth generations, The Nguyen has been nominated a lot of important positions in court affairs. They have historically contributed to the Imperial city’s bronze masterpieces like the Dai Hong Mon at the Thien Mu Pagoda, and the famous Nine Cannons of hue in front of the Hue City Royal Citadel. These products is not only famous in Hue but also in neighbouring province such as Quang Tri, Quang Nam-Da Nang, Binh Dinh, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Sai Gon…even the North. Lots of products have been exported to Lao, Hong Kong, Dai Loan and American, Canada, France…

After ancestor-Nguyen Van Dao died in 1680, his grave was buried at Vinh An hamlet and his wife was buried with him. To express gratefulness to this founder, his descendants built a temple to mark a period of four hundreds when bronze casting has been resided and developed there.

Bronze Casting, Flourishing In The Imperial City Of Hue

0n their first visit to the imperial city of Hue, visitors are often surprised at seeing huge ancient bronze casting items. They include the cauldron in the front yard of Can Chanh Palace, a set of nine urns at Hien Lâm Palace, the arc girders on Trung Dao bridge that links Thai Hoa Palace’s yard to Ngo Mon gate, the nine statues of Genies standing inside Quang Duc and The Nhan gates,

the half-length portrait of the patriotic Phan Boi Chau located on the top of Ben Ngu hill, just to name a few. Except for the bust of Phan Boi Chau all other tems were cast from the early 18th to the early 19th centuries.

Those who understand the history of Vietnamese handicrafts wonder how the local craftsmen in the old time, with rudimentary techniques, could cast such huge items in bronze weighing thousands of kilograms, and how those items could withstand the harsh weather over several centuries, without showing any cracks.

Meanwhile, others who specialize in fine arts pay more attention to the designs of leaves, flowers, birds, ani- and round points engraved on the cauldrons or bas-relieves on the nine urns. The designs remind them of similar ones on the ancient bronze pots as well as the similarity between Vietnamese and Western fine arts. They are similar to designs of climb flowers and other stylized flowers and fruits on the bronze guns made in Holland and Portugal, which are now preserved at Hue Antiques Museum. It can be said that the 162 bas-relieves carved on the nine urns; are consid- the first showpieces describing the beautiful land of Vietnam in the early 19th century.

Experts on sound research have said that its’ difficult to cast caul-drons, guns and urns with engraved bas-relieves, but it’s more difficult to make these items produce nice sounds. At night, amid the tranquil atmosphere, listening to the bell ring- from Thien Mu Tower, everyone is impressed and admires the talent of the bronze casting artisans of Hue, who produced such wonderful works. Their handicraft expertise has raised a lot of discussion and study from the French time (1882-1945) to the year of 1975 (when southern Vietnam was completely liberated). Since Hue was recognized as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1993, the Toyota Foundation of Japan and UNESCO have paid great attention to the bronze casting in Hue

After building his headquarters in Kim Long in 1635, Lord Nguyen Phuc Lan (or Lord Thuong) ordered the establishment of barracks on the southern bank of the Huong (Perfume) River, opposite to his headquarters, to cast weapons and royal utensils, such as lamps, incense joss stick holders, bells, statues, urns and plaques. Later, the craft of bronze casting was handed down to the children of the craftsmen, who built up villages and worked togeth- until the present day. The most reputed villages are Giang Dinh, Giang Tien, Kinh Nhon Ban Bo and Truong Dong- The villagers of Kinh Nhon are members of the Nguyên family and are natives of Bao Ninh Province in northern Vietnam, and the Tong family (of Thanh Hoa Province in Central Vietnam). Members of their 10th generation arestill practicing bronze casting in Hue. some bronze casting craftsmen from northern Vietnam went to settle in Phuoc Kieu village in Dien Ban District, Quang Nam Province (southern Vietnam), and later they moved to Hue and have practiced bronze casting since the time of Canh Thinh (1792-1801).

An Hoi Keeps The Fires Burning For Bronze Censers
(No.9, Vol.2, Sep 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

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‘One of the most famous traditional craft villages in Saigon – it has survived over 100 years – is going to die. Did you know?’
This question by my journalist friend led me in July of this year to An Hoi village, which specializes in casting bronze censers (lư đồng) in Ward 12, Go Vap District, the only surviving bronze-casting village.

A bronze censer and two candlesticks on the altar of Mr Thang

Bronze censers are used to burn aloe wood on the altar, but most people cannot afford aloe wood, so the burners are decorative. They are often sold with two candlesticks.
When I arrived at the place where the craft village was supposed to be, I saw only a street of houses like any other. Asking for directions, I was directed to the house of the most famous craftsman in the village, Mr Tran Van Thang, at 50 Nguyen Duy Street.
‘Around 20 years ago,’ Mr Thang, 64, said, ‘there were only people casting bronze and growing crops in this area, and trees were everywhere. But gradually it has been urbanized to the point of being besieged.’
Mr Thang said that at the end of the 19th century, two bronze-casting artisans from Hue had set up the Phu Lam bronze-casting village about 10 km from An Hoi. Mr Thang’s grandfather had gone there as an apprentice and returned to teach his children. At the age of 21, the grandfather had set up his own furnace and taught many people.
Mr Thang took me out behind his three-story house to visit his foundry. ‘Most of the owners here have their own foundry behind their house,’ he said.
In the 300-square-meter workshop were clay molds, metal-grinders, firewood and charcoal. At least ten workers, men and women, were engaged in different processes: kneading clay by hand, carving patterns on molds with sharp knives and steel rods, hammering or carving tiny details on newly cast products.
Mr Huynh Van Ut, over 50 and in the trade around 20 years, told me that first they had to choose the best clay then dry it, grind it and mix it with ground rice husk and ashes constitute the material from which to make a mold. The next step was to mix beeswax with candle wax then lay the mixture half-a-centimeter deep over the entire mold. The wax is engraved and layer of clay put over it. It takes the mold around seven to 10 days to dry in the sun. After that, they put it in a furnace and bake until it turns red. Then they pour molten copper into the wax layer, effectively burning the wax and leave it there for a few days until it cools down. Then they break the clay mold to get the bronze censer. Finally, they grind, carve the patterns and polish it.
Mr Thang told us from 1961, when he opened his own furnace, to 1975, An Hoi craft village had bustled, with over 33 furnace-owners and over 500 laborers and artisans. The products had been sold over the South of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Only five furnace-owners are now left.
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Mr Thang is putting the final touches on a censer at his workshop

After 1975, as the economy went down, there had been little bronze, so the work of the craft villages was dwindling.
By 2000, it had started to grow back.
‘Those months around the Lunar New year [between 2000 and 2005], merchants all around the country went to An Hoi to order, so we were very happy,’ Mr Thang recalled. Normally many Vietnamese people would buy a new censer putting in the altar to celebrate the New Year. Then the village attracted many tourists from Britain, France, America and Netherlands.
Since 2006, the number of the furnaces has decreased continuously. According to Mr Thang, the artisans are closing the furnaces due to many reasons; a higher price of bronze, higher tax and faster urbanization, leading to land increasing in value, and as a result, a few furnace owners sold their land and quit their job.
The words of Mr Thang urged me to visit the remaining four furnace-owners; Nam Toan, Ba Co, Sau Banh and Quoc Kien, who live within a few hundred meters of Mr Thang’s workshop.
While the three furnace owners Ba Co, Sau Banh and Nam Toan all agreed with Mr Thang on the reasons, Mr Quoc Kien thought the main reason was that in the recent years, manufactured incense burners from big factories have appeared in the market. ‘They just need to press one button to have a censer. While I have to work manually the entire process. How can we compete with them?’
Mr Kien complained: ‘Before there were 30 or 40 workers and artisans in my workshop and each month we made almost 300 censers. And now I only have 10 people and we only make 100 to 120 incense burners per month.’
One villager living near Kien’s workshop, asking to remain anonymous, told me some artisans quit their job because their neighbors protested that their wood-burning furnaces polluted the environment.
Ms Huynh Thi Thanh Lan, the vice-president of Ward 12, told me the Government was determined to preserve this craft village but was torn between two sides: local people who asked for the relocation or disbanding of the craft village because it caused pollution, and people from the culture department asking for preservation of the village. Ms Lan told me first the government explained to the local people in the area so they could understand the cultural value of the village so that they can co-operate with the government to preserve it. ‘At the same time, the government encourages the artisans to continue their job but use better chimneys to reduce the smoke,’ says Ms Lan.
She told me the city had already had a project to preserve the village but it hasn’t been carried out yet.
Despite many difficulties Mr Thang told us he would determine to upkeep the craft. Mr Thang said: ‘Because I realize the censer has its place in the national culture and in the spiritual belief of the people so when making it, I am always happy.’
‘The other four (furnace owners) are determined to keep their trade too. They have all confirmed with me,’ Mr Thang said.

Text and photos by Dang Khoa