Vietnam boasts an amazing tradition of handicraft that is quickly being traded in for cheap, mass-produced western copies. There are examples, though, that merge local ingenuity with new ideas.

By Thomas Pleeging

The success of Vietnamese guerrillas during the Vietnam War (or American War, depending on your perspective) depended in no small measure on their ability to convert unexploded American bombs into grenades to throw back. Anyone who spends some time in the Vietnamese countryside will be amazed by the clever designs that farmers, street vendors and craftsmen have been making for years.

One of the finest examples is a simple, functional design made of a sustainable and local material with a natural skin that preserves it for longer than any artificial coating would: a bamboo ladder.

Bamboo ladders can be seen all over South-East Asia. Typically, you might encounter one in the middle of the road with a repairman on top, fixing the countless electricity lines overhead while a constant stream of motorbikes dodge the ladder left and right.

While walking around Ho Chi Minh City with a group of Vietnamese and western designers, I expressed my admiration for the bamboo ladders. The Vietnamese designers were surprised, explaining that they associated such an ordinary object more with their grandparent’s time rather than with good design.

It made me realize that the perception of materials is different: for westerners, used to decades of mass production, ‘handmade’ signals high quality and luxury. In Vietnam, where labour is cheap and, until a generation ago, most products where handmade, it means old-fashioned and low class.

As Vietnam is rapidly developing, people’s tastes move away from natural materials and craftsmanship. The rising middle and upper classes are looking for ways to shake off the past and embrace development, favouring low quality mass production, knock-offs and western luxury brands.

However, if Vietnam really wants to develop, instead of copying the west, it might be valuable to look at that bamboo ladder and try to find a way to adapt its principles to today’s challenges. That is what’s happening in a workshop in a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City, where an American-Vietnamese company called Boo Bicycles combines great Vietnamese bamboo with carbon fibre to build high-quality racing bikes that compete at professional levels.

Dutch designer Thomas Pleeging, a graduate from Design Academy Eindhoven, worked for two years as a program manager of the Graphic Design department at ADS International Design & Art Center in Ho Chi Minh City.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published.