Tran Hong Nhung is a young and determined woman with a mission: to save Giấy Dó (Dó paper), a handmade, chemical-free and rough paper that can last up to a staggering 800 years.
Dó has been produced since the 13th century in the Red River basin area surrounding today's Hanoi, and is one of Vietnam's fast disappearing traditional crafts. Today, it's mostly used to print Đông Hồ woodcut paintings — the allegoric art displayed during Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, to transmit cultural values and social commentary. Dó's manufacturing started to decline in the 1980s with the beginning of Vietnam's rapid industrialization and the arrival of the first paper factories.
Nhung, an NGO social worker trained in France, encountered Dó for the first time when visiting the village of Dong Ho in Bac Ninh province, 40 kilometers northwest of Hanoi. There, three resilient families of papermakers were still trying to squeeze a living making Dó's in the traditional manner.
But the industrialisation of their village and surrounding areas threatened the future of this cottage industry. The clean water supplies and natural spaces needed to cultivate the rhamnoneuron balansae shrub, whose bark produces Dó, were disappearing.
Nhung felt it was time to stop the slow death of Vietnam's most durable paper. "It was extremely hard to convince the villagers of Dó's importance, especially because the young generations were not interested in keeping up the hard work," explains Nhung.
Dó, indeed, has a long and laborious production process: traditionally, the plant's bark is first soaked and cooked in lime water for about three months, then the black outer bark is ground and mixed in a slurry before being manually pounded flat, and finally layered into sheets of paper, which must be dried naturally in the sun, without the use of chemical pressure.
Technology has reduced the soaking phase from three months to a day or two now, but production is still labour-intensive.
Challenged by the hardships of keeping Dó alive in Bac Ninh province, Nhung eventually found a NGO project that had taught papermaking techniques to the impoverished villagers of Suoi Co in Hoa Binh province, 40 kilometers southwest of Hanoi.
It was a match made in heaven: "Suoi Co has the natural resources we need to produce Dó," says Nhung. She's been working hard to develop manufacturing in the village and keep local people employed, but despite finding a new home for Dó, the challenges remain big – and it's been hard to raise investment capital.
"The central government doesn't understand the importance of maintaining this tradition alive, but we can't afford to wait," says Nhung.
“The central government doesn't understand the importance of maintaining this tradition alive, but we can't afford to wait”
In 2013, she launched the social enterprise Zó Project. By using Dó in modern ways to produce notebooks, postcards, canvases and books, the organisation reinvest profits in Suoi Co's villagers. In May 2016, Zó Project opened a small shop in Hanoi's railway district, and since then, interest has expanded, as artists beyond Vietnam discover the appeal of the beautiful handmade paper.
Australian-born artist Mai Nguyen Long was an early adopter of the medium, first using Dó paper in 1994 when she was living in Hanoi and studying Vietnamese art history at the Hanoi University of Fine Arts.
“That was the year I discovered my Vietnamese identity, hence the medium is very linked with my Vietnam self, although being half Australian (my mum is fourth generation) and having lived my teens in The Philippines, I am conscious of the fractured nature of this my “idea” of my Vietnamese-ness,” she says.
Mai points out that the paper is also spelled as Dzó, giving non-Vietnamese-speakers a helpful indicator that the 'd' in the word is pronounced differently from the English language 'd'.
After her initial work with Dó in Hanoi, Mai returned to Australia to work with oil on canvas. Twenty years later, returning to Vietnam, she encountered Dó again.
“I discovered many more things about the paper that I had not known before. Contemporary arts curator and cultural researcher Nguyễn Anh Tuấn explained to me its resilience and fabric-like qualities. A favourite artist of mine in Hanoi, Vũ Kim Thu makes magical giấy dó lamps.”
Using the paper brought back many feeling and memories for Mai. “In my Beyogmos solo show at Wollongong Art Gallery on a shelf of more than 100 Specimen jars housing a range of materials and objects, giấy dó was just one of them, and a few more appeared my Spirit Map series,” she says.
“In my Neat Severances exhibition in Sydney I showed a 3 piece work using a type of giấy dó (giấy điệp) that had be brushed with cockle shells and I layered it with raw silk that had been burned and sewn, combined with collage of parts of internal organs, painting and drawing.”
Mai says she wants to explore more possibilities with Dó paper in her future work - adding that it has qualities quite distinct from other handmade papers.
“The Vietnamese giấy dó can be comparatively gritty and earthy. This matches the unique aesthetic sensibility I've begun to recognize across various other art forms in Vietnam,” she says.
For Tran Nhung, although the technique has been revived and future markets established as paper exports as far away as Australia start picking up, there's still a long way to go.
"Besides these positive results, I can't say this is a real success story as of yet. We are still fighting daily to collect the funds required to preserve our heritage and help the villagers of Suoi Co make a living," says Nhung.
Artist Mai Ngyen Long is far more positive. “I'm sure that once more artists outside of Vietnam begin to appreciate the innate qualities of this paper, both sculptural and two dimensional, it may become increasingly well known, especially to those interested in ideas of art and ecology,” she says.
“Perhaps the time has come when the deeper implications for using giấy dó can eclipse cultural tourism and, in my case, stifling anxieties of the past."
Writer: Marco Ferrarese
Photography: Kit Yeng Chan and Mai Nguyen Long (supplied)