They weave, mould, etch, stitch, carve and glaze in the same styles and locations as their ancestors did for centuries. Vietnam’s most traditional big city, Hanoi has more than 800 craft villages that are home to artisans. Each community specialises in a specific craft. Some have perfected lacquerware, others ceramics , stonework, embroidery, folk painting, paper making, silk production , hat weaving, grass-mat twining or religious-idol carving. Some villages, such as Van Phuc (silks) and Bat Trang (ceramics), are established on the tourist trail and advertised by travel agencies and in hotels across the city. Most, though, are like Chuong, the last village in the city where conical hats are made and which has never courted tourists. Craft villages began flourishing 1,000 years ago, when the imperial court of Vietnam’s Ly dynasty was moved to Thang Long, which is now Hanoi. These creative hubs were quietened in 2020 and 2021 by Vietnam’s strict pandemic rules, which barred international tourists and restricted human movement and association within the country. Now, as Vietnam is again welcoming foreign visitors, the villages are being revitalised. Not only are they again free to operate at full capacity, but they have become key elements of a new strategy by the Hanoi Department of Tourism. Like so many other nations, Vietnam reconsidered its approach to tourism during the pandemic lull. In 2019, it received a record 18 million foreign travellers . To rebuild this decimated tourism industry, the national capital plans to use its artistic heritage to attract visitors, according to department spokesman Nguyen Xuan Thach. “Each craft village has its own identity, creating unique and sophisticated products imbued with national identity,” Thach says. “Visitors to Hanoi’s craft villages can not only admire the landscape of a typical village in the Northern Delta, with banyan trees , water wells, communal gardens [which in some cases have existed for hundreds of years]. “They can also visit the production site and come into direct contact with the locals and participate in trying some stages of making products.” He says the department’s new strategy involves organising more craft events, featuring traditional artisans in global advertising campaigns, harnessing the reach of social media and teaching craft villages how to better appeal to tourists. The craft villages in Hanoi are one of its unique attractions and have a lot of potential to attract tourists. Kim Anh Ngo, Capella Hanoi tour guide In late May, to coincide with the city hosting the delayed 2021 Southeast Asian Games, the first Hanoi Cuisine and Craft Village Tourism Festival was held. Thach says the event featured booths where tourists could admire local handicrafts and hear about the processes involved in the making of silk, lacquer, ceramics and bamboo products. This could become an annual festival. Meanwhile, he says, the department is working with craft villages to improve how they present their history to visitors, and to increase the range of hands-on activities tailored to tourists. It is also encouraging the villages to diversify their products in terms of designs and colour. This would make them more attractive shopping destinations for foreigners. Hanoi’s craft villages set it apart from other Vietnamese cities, according to Kim Anh Ngo, who leads visits to Bat Trang for the Capella Hanoi. The city’s newest five-star property, having opened in April last year, the Capella Hanoi is a Bill Bensley-designed hotel that provides guests with local experiences via its Capella Culturists programme. Guests make Vietnamese gin , learn about Hanoi lacquerware and visit a Bat Trang ceramics studio to decorate their own plate, which is then fired in a kiln and delivered to the hotel. “Hanoi has traditionally been the country’s largest cultural centre, having visible and intangible cultural monuments,” says Ngo. “The craft villages in Hanoi are one of its unique attractions and have a lot of potential to attract tourists.” That sentiment is shared by Andy Ng, of HVG Travel. He says the appeal of villages such as the Van Phuc silk community, 30 minutes’ drive southwest of downtown Hanoi, and Bat Trang is that tourists do not just witness ancient lifestyles and buy unique products, but also learn skills from the artisans. I discovered this for myself on a pre-pandemic visit to Bat Trang, where, for at least 700 years, fine ceramic vases, dishes, cups and bowls embellished with dragons and phoenixes, flowers and geometric patterns, have been produced. It’s equipped to accommodate tourists; English-language signage is widespread and many artisans encourage visitors to explore their studios or take pottery lessons. “I feel proud to be a resident of the commune, I’m happy to meet the foreign tourists,” said potter Vuong Thi Tam. “They are really interested in ceramicware made by us and how to make it.” Compared with Bat Trang, many other craft communities are anonymous. As a Westerner, I was a curiosity to the residents on a pre-pandemic visit to Chuong, 25km (16 miles) south of the city centre. The type of bamboo and palm-leaf hats produced in Chuong are perhaps the most recognisable symbol of Vietnam. Called non la , they are plastered across tourism materials, just as junk boats are used to represent Hong Kong . Most of these hats are now produced in factories, but a few dozen non la artisans remain in Chuong. They include 69-year-old Nguyen Thi Binh, who invited me into her tiny workshop, a short walk from the spiritual hub of this community, the sprawling Lang Chuong Buddhist temple. While swiftly weaving, Binh told me non la had been made in Chuong for more than three centuries. These hats date back at least 1,000 years, having originated as all-weather protection for farmers. Over time, the conical hat also became a fashionable item, especially graceful when paired with an ao dai , the country’s iconic tunic . As I watched Binh, I discovered that it is the ultra-tight weaving of dried palm leaves around a sturdy frame made from 16 curved pieces of bamboo that makes non la so durable. Binh told me Chuong village had never attracted nor courted tourists. She feared that, in years to come, there could be nothing there for visitors to see because non la artisans were becoming fewer by the month, unable to compete with the cheaper, mass-produced hats. She said it was barely worth the four hours it took to craft a non la , only to sell them for between 60,000 dong (US$2.50) and 100,000 dong each. Most of the non la bought as souvenirs in the tourist shops of Hanoi’s Old Quarter are the factory-made versions. However, the area is the original centre of the city’s craft scene. It was renowned for its 36 streets, each of which was once linked to a distinct trade. The Old Quarter is increasingly populated by hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops targeting tourists, but traditional artisans can still be found here. Pham Van Quang is reputedly the city’s last handmade mooncake mould maker. Before the pandemic, the 67-year-old welcomed me into his small workshop on Hang Quat Street, just north of the attractive Hoan Kiem Lake, around which Hanoi’s tourist district wraps. Dressed in shorts and a singlet, he chiselled a small lump of xa cu wood. As shavings fell to the ground, and a new product took shape, Quang explained how the rise of factory-made plastic moulds had caused his contemporaries to vanish. A man of modest needs, he had survived by selling dozens of moulds in the months before Vietnam’s 3,000-year-old Moon Festival, celebrated in September or early October each year. Quang said tourists regularly wandered into his store, intrigued by his old-school methods, and he would love to receive more, to teach them the tricks of his fading trade. The new tourism strategy should be a boon for artisans such as Quang, says tour guide Tracy Nguyen, whose company, Hanoi Street Food Tours, offers tours by motorbike to several craft villages. “Tourism to those craft villages encourages the continuity and development of traditional craft businesses, which are essential for local labour and culture diversity,” she says. So while the pandemic froze Hanoi’s travel industry, it may now have the knock-on effect of helping safeguard the future of the city’s hundreds of craft villages. These communities are challenged by industrialisation, but could yet thrive thanks to tourism.