A long time ago, Vietnamese children found their fun in the eye-catching, colourful toy figures made from rice flour called “tò he.” As the years went by, these figurines seemed to disappear as did tò he craftsmen. However, if you look you can still find them.
Tò he are used in a few different ways. Children can play with them or eat them. Also, tò he are considered a respectful offering for ritual ceremonies. Though tò he seems to have originated a long time ago, there is no known history of the toy. The name tò he came from the toy-making process. Craftsmen usually use a pipe whistle to hold them. When you blow the whistle, it sounds like “to te.” As time went by, the words “to te” were changed to “tò he.” There are also other folk names such as flour-like toys, flour-like cake, and bird figure toys. They come in many styles, but the most popular shapes are animals and characters in Vietnamese fairy tales.
The tò he making process requires skill and enthusiasm. The first and very important step is preparing the materials. Good materials help to create a strong and durable tò he. Mixing flour the wrong way results in dried and peeling figures. Tò he was made by mixing rice flour and glutinous flour. Depending on the weather, craftsmen reduce the amount of glutinous flour to make the mixture more flexible and to avoid it drying out. After mixing the flours, craftsmen cook the mixture, then let it cool and knead it quickly. In order to get eye-catching colours, craftsmen divide the dough into smaller portions and each is mixed with a different colour. In the past, traditional natural pigments were used such as the red of gac fruit, the yellow of turmeric, and the blue of indigo leaves. Today, food colouring is more convenient.
The work requires creativity. First, the craftsmen must imagine the characters of the figurines and the right colours. This makes each character unique because every craftsman has his own view. Witnessing the process of kneading, squeezing, attaching and grafting the dough to a vivid figurine is interesting not only for children but also for adults and tourists. People admire the rustic but sophisticated and refined results. Tò he is made with simple tools including a small knife, a few a bamboo sticks and a little beeswax. The tò he craftsmen come from all over the country, rural and urban.
Today, Xuan La Village, Phuong Duc ward, Phu Xuyen district, Ha Tay Province are well-known for the tò he arts. Visitors can easily find tò he craftsmen making these traditional toy figurines. The Dong Xuan night market in Hanoi is a good place to find a tò he with affordable prices, from 15 000VND to 20 000VND. Today, tò he has various shapes, including characters from foreign cartoons and movies. Tò he can be mounted on pencils or pens for children to play with while learning.
Although they do not last long since they are made from rice flour, they are unique and familiar traditional toys. Tò he shows not only the hard-work of skilled and creative craftsmen, but also the soul and spirit of Vietnamese villages.
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