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Hanoi's Ancient Papermaking Tradition


A shop in the heart of Hanoi is reviving Vietnam's ancient art of crafting durable handmade paper. By MARCO FERRARESE.

Published on Nov 21, 2016

 

I FLIPPED THROUGH soft peachy sheets of paper that will outlive even my great-great-great-grandchildren. The Vietnamese art of manufacturing Dó (pronounced "zo") paper dates back to the 13th-century Red River Delta, and the resulting sheets can last up to a staggering 800 years. Because of its longevity, Dó is the preferred canvas for Dong Ho prints, allegoric vignettes produced to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. And yet the craft was largely lost to the past and practically begging for a modern makeover. Enter Zó Paper (notebooks from VND160,000), a hip boutique that opened in Hanoi's railway district of Ba Dinh in May 2016. The shop sells Dó paper notebooks, postcards and calendars on thick smudge-proof pages that look truly fit to last for centuries, while Zó's assortment of origami lamps, paper fans and cardboard matchboxes redefine Hanoi's cool by mixing vintage textures and minimalist designs.

Zo Paper
Zó Paper, a hip boutique in Hanoi’s railway district of Ba Dinh. Courtesy of Zó Project.

"Dó started declining in the 1980s because rapid industrialization made traditional handmade papermaking almost obsolete in Vietnam," says Tran Hong Nhung, the young woman behind the revival. Nhung's vision for Zó Paper took shape in 2012 when she visited the village of Duong Ho, an hour drive northeast of Hanoi, and met three remaining Dó artisan families. She envisioned creating more jobs in Duong Ho while reinvigorating the art of Dó by introducing it to a wider audience. Sadly, Duong Ho's development had wiped out the green spaces required to plant and nurture Dó's native trees. The few papermakers left in business had turned to other occupations to earn a living, and Nhung scrambled to find an alternative.

Zo Paper
Paper sheets in various textures. Courtesy of Zó Project.

At the start of 2016, she moved the operation to Suoi Co village, an hour southwest of the capital. "Some of Suoi Co's villagers were already familiar with papermaking techniques, and the environment is more suited to producing Dó," Nhung says. In addition to job creation, she gives back to Suoi Co through donations from Zó Paper's profits, and she has plans to start an artist retreat that will bring even more attention and opportunities to the village.

Zó Paper already featured in Malaysia as the paper of choice for the prints of George Town Festival's "Reading Art" exhibition, and has garnered an online customer base overseas in Australia, Japan and Malaysia. The international success inspired Nhung to open the charming little shop in her own backyard. "This is just another step to raise awareness to preserve this forlorn national heritage," she says. With the new brick-andmortar storefront, a growing audience, and an expanding capacity to give back to villages across Vietnam, this brand is more than just a paper tiger.

Zo Paper
Hand-crafted stationary. Kit Yeng Chan.

 

 

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Store owner Tran Hong Nhung (right) thumbs through Dó paper. Kit Yeng Chan.
  • Zó Paper shop. Courtesy of Zó Project.
  • Hand-crafted stationary. Kit Yeng Chan.
  • Paper sheets in various textures. Kit Yeng Chan.
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