On the veranda of a home in Suoi Co, a rural Vietnamese village about 45km southwest of Hanoi, two women were squatting around a plastic bucket, dipping their fingers in murky water to select strings of fibrous white pulp. Behind them, tree bark was soaking in three metal water tanks – the first step in this long process – to separate out the fibre. They expertly assessed the mushy pulp’s consistency, making sure it was ready to be pressed into giấy Dó (Dó paper), a handmade, chemical-free paper that can last up to a staggering 800 years.
One woman stood up, grabbed a ball of fresh pulp out of the bucket, and started beating it with a wooden pestle. As soon as she was happy with the consistency, her partner started layering it on a framed screen, flattening the first coating of a soon-to-be page with a bamboo mat. In this ancient papermaking process, patience is key.
I’d come here with Tran Hong Nhung , a young entrepreneur from Hanoi, who founded social enterprise Zó project in June 2013 to help modernise this dying art.
Dating back to the 13th Century, Dó was largely used in Vietnam as a canvas for folk artwork, but was dying off in the face of Vietnam's rapid industrialisation that had rendered handmade crafts almost obsolete over the last few decades. By producing notebooks, postcards, calendars and several different types of rough, robust paper that artists can use as canvases, Zó project helps support the livelihood of impoverished villagers and preserves a forgotten but invaluable art.
We’d left the concrete-lined avenues of the capital that morning, zooming along the highway past tall and narrow houses that slowly thinned out into lush green trees and rice paddies.
“[From] a papermaking perspective, [a natural environment] is a very good thing,” Nhung told me.
Produced from the bark of rhamnoneuron balansae, a highly cellulose tree found in Northern Vietnam and China’s Yunnan Province, Dó papermaking needs abundant water, space and time. Traditionally, the tree bark would soak in limewater for about three months until it was soft enough separate from the pulp – though today, papermakers have managed to shorten this phase to just 24 hours. The pulp is then pounded flat and smooth, and layered to form sheets of paper that are dried naturally in the sun for weeks. The result is beautifully soft, rustic paper that does not smudge ink, is highly resistant to humidity and acid-free, attracts fewer termites, and most surprisingly, can last for centuries.
Nhung started worrying about the state of Dó when she visited Duong O, the village where the art originated, about 40km northeast of Hanoi in the Red River Delta. There she found that just three families of papermakers remained. Challenged by the village's rapid urbanization, they were struggling to make ends meet, to the point that they were about to give everything up and look for other, more stable jobs.
I struggled to convince [the villagers] the tradition was worth saving, especially because nobody from the younger generations was interested in keeping up the hard work,” she explained. “The whole village had already transformed into a small town surrounded by factories. The space needed to produce handmade paper was no longer available, and on top of that, the water sources were completely polluted.”
Zó project started working with the remaining papermakers of Duong O, but encountered problem after problem. The solution came when Nhung discovered a local NGO project, JICA foundation, which had previously worked with the impoverished village of Suoi Co. To help create jobs, the organisation had brought in a Japanese expert to teach Suoi Co's villagers how to produce handmade paper.
“I admire the way Japan transformed their washi papermaking into a Unesco intangible cultural heritage, making it a desirable form of art in their society,” Nhung said. “But Vietnam is different. We don’t get any help from the central government here.”
She realised that with their new set of skills, Suoi Co’s villagers could be the perfect match to revive Dó. Not only did they need jobs, but they already had the natural resources – clean water and plenty of space – required to produce the ancient paper.
Today, Suoi Co is still far from becoming a tourist attraction, but its Dó workshop has huge potential. Surrounded by viridian paddies and low hills, it’s such an ideal place for an artist retreat – where travellers can study the papermaking process as well as paint or work – that Nhung plans to open as soon as funds permit. And the villagers, who previously had little means of employment, are now able to make a livelihood.
In the meantime, Nhung has travelled as far as Japan, Laos and Malaysia to promote the rebirth of Dó and learn about new handmade papermaking techniques. The ancient paper is now being distributed by art suppliers around the world, as well as made into notebooks, postcards and other paper gifts that Nhung sells from her Zó Souvenir Shop, a hole-in-the-wall boutique in Ba Đình, Hanoi’s railway district, which ploughs all profits back into the papermaking project.
Regardless of the enthusiasm, the road ahead is steep. Most of Zó project’s revenue is barely enough to support the costs of setting up this grassroots papermaking enterprise.
“At the moment, there are efforts to lobby social enterprise development in Vietnam, but I think there’s still a long way to go,” Nhung said, as she gauged the quality of different sheets of freshly dried paper. Laid out on the floor, they glistened like rough diamonds in the afternoon sun.
For the moment, the future of this precious art form rests in the hands of this woman and her small group of artisans.