People from Quang Ninh, Hai Phong, and Hanoi came to Cao Lan to buy the poonah paper.
The Cao Lan used to live a nomadic life in the forest. They made their own paper instead of buying it. The paper was used for writing and drawing decorative and religious images for ceremonies and festivals.
Nguyen Thi Mai Thanh, who works at the Bac Giang provincial museum, said: “In the past, they drew pictures on poonah paper for rituals such as funeral ceremonies. Then they started making notebooks to write on.”
Poonah paper is used to record family member’s events from birth until death. The family annals remind the living of their roots and their deceased relatives.
Duong Van Quang of Khe Nghe hamlet, said it’s not difficult to make poonah paper. One can learn the craft in a day, from preparing the material to making the finished products. But to produce high-quality poonah paper, which is durable, absorbent, and unblurred, is a different story, Quang said. It takes at least 2 days to prepare the materials, which include tree bark to make pulp and a kind of creeper to make glue.
“The creeper plant should be neither too old nor too young. Old creeper will produce brown paper. You must expose the creeper to the sun. The dryer the creeper, the whiter the paper will be. If the creeper gets mouldy, the paper will be dark. Young creeper will produce greenish paper.”
The bark is cleaned and soaked in a solution of lime and wood ash. After steaming the mixture, they pound the bark into a pulp and mix it with glue.
They prepare bamboo frames with thin fabric stretched on them. Pouring the pulp solution onto the frames requires experience and skill to make paper of the proper thickness.
“We mix pulp and glue by experience, not measurement. I learned to make poonah paper a long time ago. At first I tried different formulas but failed. All depends on the old or young creeper that we mix with the pulp. I feel the mixture density by hand and pour it onto the frame evenly. Otherwise the paper will be rough.”
The paper frames are exposed to the sun and wind. When the paper is dry, they peel it from the frame. In good condition, poonah paper of the Cao Lan lasts dozens of years. The craft is less popular now, but some families continue to make poonah paper to preserve the tradition and the culture.