The 16-year-old boy lugging a wooden tub full of clay was filthy. Well, anyone would be, after tramping a wet solution of coal dust to make fuel to fire a kiln that burns at 350 degrees Celsius. But through the grime, he flashed a smile of welcome. He is one of the keepers of an artistic tradition that goes back centuries in the ceramics town of Bat Trang, on the outskirts of Hanoi. A mixture between a huge open air ceramics bazaar, an artistic and cultural centre and a hard-slogging industrial town, Bat Trang lives happily with craft traditions that go back centuries. It lives also with entranced tourists who find their way to the open-air workshops 10 kilometres along a bumpy country road from the centre of Vietnam's capital. Visiting the sprawling village and wandering through workshops, kilns and clay-mixing plants is an entertaining education into ceramics techniques and cultural development. One informative pleasure in wandering the dusty lanes of Bat Trang is being able to see how ceramics are made. This is no glitzy tourist destination, but a sweaty workplace; all the more genuine pleasure in that. Along the alleys, huge piles of hard grey clay are piled against the brick walls of some of the hundreds of kilns. All the factories seem to be family units. Some specialise in mixing the clay, with enormous machines like kitchen bakery mixers, multiplied 50 times. The thick gooey mixture oozes like rich sour cream. Other factories are self-contained, with every step of the process being done in one compound. Nobody seems to mind strangers wandering into the factories, asking stupid questions, poking about among the equipment and taking pictures. There's little sophisticated, expensive equipment. Although electricity has taken a lot of the sheer physical toil out of mixing the clay, everything else is done with techniques and equipment that could have been used centuries ago. That's not strange; people have been making ceramics in this region since before the dawn of history. Archaeologists have found turning pottery wheels in the valley of the Red River which were used 5,000 years ago. The craft reached artistic peaks during the 10 centuries that Vietnam was ruled by China. After independence, ceramics flourished as both useful crafts and national arts under Vietnamese dynasties, like the Ly between the 11th and 13th centuries. The Bat Trang potters have had a lot of experience. Strangely, Hanoi tourism officials do not seem keen to promote the town and its attractions. There's no attempt to make anything visitor friendly, apart from the commercial instincts of a dozen or so shopkeepers. A former Hong Kong restaurateur now living in Hanoi told me about the place. It cost me HK$300 to hire a car and driver for a day (never try to drive yourself in Vietnam if you value your sanity and your nerves.) The journey out through the suburbs and farms was refreshing, admiring the bizarre rural architecture that incorporates Bat Trang products. The driver took us immediately to the largest shop; it turned out he was on a commission deal. No thanks, I said. Wait here. We wandered. These amiable country folk out-smile the Thais by a considerable factor. I stop and watch a couple of teenagers undoing thick bamboo moulds and taking out ornamental balustrades for ornate Vietnamese-style verandas. A pretty girl flashes a shy grin as I sit in the dust and watch her delicately use a sharp knife to trim clay tulips. Two elderly grandmothers chuckle with delight as they squat on their doorstep and obligingly pose. A bunch of prancing six-year-olds run up and poke me in the stomach, then dash off screaming with laughter down an alley; I am told they think rubbing a 'foreign Buddha's beer belly will bring them luck'. Well, may fortune smile . . . Beer? Every few shady yards there is a tiny shop. The consumer goods on display are heartbreakingly few. But each shop has a tin trunk with a rubber hose and a tap; inside is a keg of beer and bags of ice. We have strolled into a dozen shops, and far down at the end of the village enter serious negotiations. My wife has eyed a metre-wide round plate with a big-mouthed carp emblazoned in the once-royal white and blue pattern. It's beautiful. Bargaining here is done with smiles. The lady, smartly dressed in a Western skirt, brings tea. We look at her wares. I am much taken with a metre-tall green frog with a yellow hat playing a guitar. This artist is into frogs. There are frogs with mandolins and top hats, monocles and saxophones. The price is cheap, but there is no way I could get this monstrous ceramic amphibian on to an aircraft. We settle for the carp platter for US$25 (about HK$193), and a blue and white checked salad bowl with matching plates. In a cooked food stall crowded with dust-streaked kiln workers, we chat idly with Bat Trang artisans. They point out highlights on our purchases. Neither side can understand a word the other is saying, but we part the best of chums. Bat Trang is just one of many ceramic villages scattered around Hanoi. All of them, naturally, were built close to deep clay deposits, laid down over a few million years by the Red River's flooding. Modern Bat Trang was founded by a group of itinerant potters 600 years ago, who set up kilns there to supply the growing capital city. The ceramics found ready markets in China and Southeast Asia, where they were prized. Some of the finest art works in overseas Chinese family collections were probably custom-fired centuries ago by Bat Trang kiln masters. This was also the source of tribute items made for presentation to the Dragon Throne of China. Back in Hanoi, I found there was an impressive collection of Bat Trang ceramics in the National Museum of History, everything from bowls, teacups, kettles, wine bottles, flowerpots and vases to tiles used in the construction of the imperial court in Hue. Many of the pieces are 500 years old. Some of the items you see in the museum are still made in Bat Trang today; dragons roar on plates, phoenix arise on bowls, tortoises provide bases for tables, horses rear on rice bowls and fish swim on every conceivable item of tableware. The elaborate artistry of the past still finds favour.