BackHeritage » Vietnam » Mang Thít, Vĩnh Long's 'Kingdom of Brick Kilns,' Is on Its Last Legs

Mang Thít, Vĩnh Long's 'Kingdom of Brick Kilns,' Is on Its Last Legs

Along the rivers and canals of Mang Thít, clouds of smoke from the Mekong Delta’s last brick kilns languidly stream into the air.

For the longest time, clay brick-making was very common tradecraft in southwestern provinces. It thrived the most in Đồng Tháp, Vĩnh Long, and An Giang. Rich clay deposits, combined with a dense network of waterways, helped create a robust hub ideal for brick production and distribution.

Through specialized craft villages, these brick kilns offered abundant work and a good way to earn a living for locals. Rivers and canals were filled with vessels transporting these building blocks, and with them, the region’s culture and way of life to locations across the country.

Among these communes was the district of Mang Thít, Vĩnh Long, once heralded as the south’s “Kingdom of Bricks.” In its heyday in the 1990s, the village fired up over 1,500 kilns to create roof tiles which were highly sought-after for their mineral content and baking technique.

But Vietnam’s pottery pinnacle faces obscurity in light of engineering advances and environmental concerns. Some abandoned brickyards are reclaimed by moss, vines and time, crumbling in obsolescence like long-forgotten ruins.

The gift of brick-making was "bestowed" upon the people of Mang Thít by the Mekong River. The nine river distributaries pick up silt from far upstream, course it through basins across the land, and deposit it at its final stop to terraform the Mekong Delta into a massive flatland. And from the river sediments, humans shaped and constructed materials to assemble shelters of their own.

At clay pits, miners dig through meters of soil to reach the dense layer of clay. In the past, a good number of men became người cạp đất (lit: dirt scraper) — meaning to scrape clay and sell it to brickyards. Miners were supervised and clocked in and out by pit owners and received their pay at the end of the day based on the number of barrels they quarried. Once so commonplace it entered the local lexicon, the term has faded into obscurity as fewer and fewer Mang Thít natives are getting into the business of “eating dirt” when excavators can do a more efficient job.

The clay’s transformation begins when it gets mixed with sand using a ratio determined by the brick mason. The mixture is poured into molds to be shaped into bricks, tiles, pots, and other products. The kneading and molding of clay used to be completed manually, but machines have also taken over these processes, minimizing the time and effort needed.

Once the bricks have dried into a russet color, they are placed in a kiln to be tempered. Well-honed craftsmen arrange the slabs in such a way that heat is distributed evenly, giving them a uniform color and texture. Rice husks have traditionally been used to fuel kilns, but some yards are also experimenting with electric furnaces. The mason watches and keeps the chamber ablaze for about a week. On the seventh day, when the temperature reaches 900°C, the fire is put out, and the peephole is sealed shut with clay so that the bricks can cool down until the kiln is reopened. Baked bricks shed their earthy brownish tint and don a new coat the color of sunrise, emboldened by their fervent gestation.

In front of each kiln is a small altar, or as explained by the craftsmen, a shrine for the “god of the kiln.” Workers believe that everything is protected by the divine, thus the worship of such divinity can mitigate the turbulence of their profession, and fill the sleepless nights spent next to the burning kiln. The perpetual cycle of opening and closing the kiln mirrors the life of these brick masons. They establish a sacred bond with their kiln and its fiery life stages, trusting that the kiln, a spiritual entity, will protect those who keep its fire burning.

But the flame that keeps these brickyards going is slowly being extinguished. Craft villages such as Mang Thít are under immense pressure to adapt as better alternatives begin to compete with traditional bricks, while criticism regarding the environmental impact of emissions from masonry activities is also curbing ongoing production. At the crossroads of a society in transition, what remains of a prosperous kingdom is the debris of its former glory, and soon to be the remnants of a distant past.

But not all hope is lost. Around the world, decommissioned industrial structures are sometimes preserved and rehabilitated to serve new functions, gaining new lives as galleries, cultural attractions, and art studios. The architectural treasure of Mang Thít, too, awaits its chance at a metamorphosis into a recognized modern architectural heritage.

Until official acknowledgment comes, the village remains faithful to what it has been doing for the past decades: baking bricks to build the country while serving as a witness to how the people of Vĩnh Long innovate, live, and love through the eras.

If you ever have the chance to travel on the waters connecting Cái Bè, Vĩnh Long, and Cần Thơ, be on the lookout for the banks of Mang Thít where the village’s chimneys still hum a century-old work song, binding soil into homes, and bidding river-farers luck on their voyage into the heart of the Mekong.

This article was published as part of a content collaboration between Saigoneer and Architecture Excursions (Tản Mạn Kiến Trúc), an independent collective focused on Vietnam’s urban heritage, especially of southern Vietnam. To find out more about Tản Mạn Kiến Trúc’s work, visit their Facebook page here.

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