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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

 | 
Sylvie Fanchette
, 
Nicholas Stedman

Itineraries of craft villages and of cultural heritage

Itinerary 4. Textile villages around Hà Ðông (Hà Tây)

Texte intégral

The craftvillages
Vạn Phúc, La Khê and La Phù.
Cultural and architectural heritage
Vạn Phúc: residence of Hồ Chí Minh, pagoda and đình, festival and village architecture; La Khê: Bia Bà Pagoda and đình.

THE CONTEXT

1For more than a millennium, perhaps even two, the inhabitants of the Red River Delta have made cloth and fashioned garments from it. They have managed to weave the fibres of many plants that grow in these latitudes, such as cotton, hemp, bamboo and even the banana tree, and Hà Tây Province, long famous for its textile tradition, maintains this activity in a certain number of villages. However, once the secret of making it was discovered around the 7th or 8th century, it is silk that became the most famous cloth from this part of the country. The fertile soil of areas in the Delta outside the dyke, consisting of constantly renewed Red River alluvia, just happens to be the habitat favoured by mulberry trees. Silkworms, tireless little spinners of silk yarn, love to eat the leaves of these shrubs, to the exclusion of any other sustenance. Naturally enough, producers of silkworms (sericulturists or sericiculturists) and weavers specialised in this cloth go hand in (silken) glove together.

2The founders of the silk craft in the region were women. Such an initiative was rare, or even without precedent at a time when Confucian and Buddhist ideologies dominated Vietnamese society. Two famous craftswomen, natives of the province, were the two Trýng sisters (Hai Bà Trýng), Trýng Trắc and Trýng Nhị, warriors and martyrs hanging tough against the Chinese invaders in the 1st century, today worshipped by town planners up and down the country (try to find a Vietnamese conurbation that does not have a Hai Bà Trýng Street). Better still, the terms trýng trắc and trýng nhị signify “first hatching” and “second hatching” in sericulturist jargon.

3During the long periods of Chinese domination, the invaders did not fail to notice local prowess and silk was a logical choice when this colonial power demanded tributes. A side effect of this demand among weavers of the vassal nation was that silk-making techniques became very elaborate and items produced very diversified and sophisticated: motivation with an enemy sword in your back is a remarkable thing.

4In the 11th and 12th centuries, the feudal Đại Việt regime took hold in the north of Vietnam; the country experienced a degree of economic development and reconstruction after 1,000 years of Chinese domination. Under the Lý Dynasty, traditional crafts were ‘restored’. King Lý Thái Tông (for a more precise dynastic chronology, see Itinerary no1 p. 67) decided to use only Vietnamese brocade (or brocaded silk). This exclusion of imported products stimulated the development of quality weaving, particularly in Hà Tây Province.

5The former province of Hà Ðông, later Hà Tây (recently integrated into Hà Nội), is thus a traditional centre of sericulture and silk weaving (mention is still made of Hà Ðông silk). Very close to Vạn Phúc, the first village on this itinerary, is the canton of La (La means silk in Chinese), made up of seven villages (La Phù, La Khê, La Nội, La Dýõng, La Cả, Ðông La, Ý La), all of them once – but only one of them today – specialised in silk weaving.

Sericulture for starters

bobbins of coloured silk thread, vạn phúc

6The necessary conditions for raising silkworms are as follows:

7• Lots and lots (and lots) of mulberry trees (these worms couldn’t care less about a balanced diet, but they do eat like horses. Well… locusts, anyway).

8• An optimal temperature: not less than 25–28 °C.

9• A good stock of antibiotics: these worms get sick easily, like all youngsters that stay cooped up at home all day.

10• Patience and an assiduous presence. About 10 days after the female moth lays 300 to 700 eggs, the clutch of little greedy-guts will hatch. Having consumed their own shells, the worms must eat mulberry leaves every four or five hours, night and day, and this for about 35 days. Thus swollen to 10,000 times their weight at birth, the gluttons then spend two or three days weaving their silk cocoons, each secreting one continuous thread up to 1.5 kilometres long, and begin to turn into a chrysalis inside.

11This is the moment to intervene, before it is too late: if you wait until metamorphosis, the new moth pierces a hole in this protective silk shell with a chemical weapon, cutting the beautiful thread up into lots of little weakened bits. Having previously put some lucky ones to one side, spared to engender the next generation, the rest of the worms/chrysalises must be nipped in the cocoon. The usual method is to scald them, which also melts the sericin, the glue that maintains the thread in the shape of a cocoon, while producing a dainty boiled morsel inside. The precooked chrysalises, with optional spices as added flavouring, are sold at Vietnamese markets (ask for nhộng), as they are elsewhere in Asia. The chrysalis is an important by-product, rich in proteins, easy to digest and delicious (well, less disgusting than one might be led to believe), but if you are suspicious of GM foodstuffs, perhaps you had better give it a miss (read on)…

12The moth of which the silkworm is the caterpillar is called the Bombyx mori, or silkmoth. It is perhaps the most highly domesticated animal on the planet: none of the variants of this productive species exist in the wild, it being a pure production of selective breeding (genetic manipulation, in short) by sericulturists (beginning with the Chinese and going back as far as 5,000 years, according to some sources). Of course, there are still moths in the wild that are distant cousins, which produce silk cocoons, but nothing like these yarn factories on legs: the Bombyx cannot fly, the female cannot even walk any more, her abdomen is so voluminous, and the silkmoth eats no food during its short adult life. There are modern cocoons that are so thick and tough that the silkmoths that made them would remain prisoners inside without help to escape: this moth is maybe the battery chicken of the insect world.

13Back to the larvae. Once the chrysalises have been boiled alive, the silken thread is spun off the cocoon, a preparatory stage that requires a lot of work and keeps entire specialised villages busy within this silk-producing area. It is done by hand, or with a machine (a reel). Villages that spin silk off cocoons buy them from sericulturists and resell the half-finished product to spinning villages, who in turn pass this on to a fourth group, the weavers. An important detail should be mentioned here: since the beginning of the 20th century, each weaving village has begun to specialise in one or two kinds of silk (and there are lots of them). Yet another example therefore of a very fragmented activity with a high level of specialisation and interdependence of villages in this cluster of silk-producing communities.

14Let us now take a look at the landmark weaving village in the area:

VẠN PHÚC

GETTING THERE

15Situated at the edge of the urban area of Hà Ðông, itself an extension of Hà Nội, Vạn Phúc is a very accessible periurban village, 11 kilometres south-west of the capital’s city centre. You must leave Hà Nội by the road to Hà Ðông, capital of Hà Tây Province (or at least until it was absorbed by Hà Nội). Cross the town and continue straight on towards Hòa Bình, on National Highway no6. After the bridge over the Nhụê River, turn immediately right. After a kilometre, you will see the entrance to the village on the right: its gate to welcome visitors, its pagoda and its pond.

A STITCH IN TIME

16At the entrance to this very ancient village, these words appear on parallel sentences:

At the break of dawn, when the cocks crow and the dogs bark, the looms whirr.

17This is as true today as it was yesterday – save that the whirring has become a more strident sound that carries further, since manual and foot-operated looms have given way to electric ones, firstly to old French machines, now to modern Behemoths with 2,000 needles each and an output of industrial proportions.

18Legend has it that Vạn Phúc was the birthplace of Vietnamese sericulture and silk weaving (9th century). Legend also has it that there was a founder of the craft, called Mrs. Lã Thị Nga. Artisans still worship this patron saint as the village’s guardian spirit. In the đình, the village’s communal house where this worship takes place, a tailor’s instruments are on display: a lacquered basket, lacquered measures, scissors, etc.

19Many villages in Hà Ðông specialised in weaving silk, but Vạn Phúc is where this industry really flourished. The village was one kilometre from the Residence (the seat of power during the French colonial era) and close to the Hà Ðông – Sõn Tây road, thus long since accessible in all seasons to rickshaws, carriages and cars. Hà Nội’s rapid expansion has brought Vạn Phúc much closer to the city, and it finds itself today only a few kilometres from the capital’s first suburbs.

20The inhabitants of this famous and still prosperous village have for many hundreds of years been weaving transparent silk, or the, for traditional Annamite dress, as well as, much more sporadically (see box entitled “Weaving: a story”, p. 175), brocades or brocaded silk: gấm for the ceremonial attire worn by Vietnamese kings and mandarins. Vạn Phúc silk is particularly prized for being woven with very fine yarn (tõ non), producing a delicate cloth that is also remarkably robust.

21In its heyday (the early 20th century), more than 200 looms were constantly at work in Vạn Phúc. But production slowed significantly before the end of the 1920s, following the arrival in Vietnam of fine cotton fabrics from Europe and sadly (doubtless in reaction to these fabrics), the early advent of artificial silk (see p. 176). During the 1930s, there were only 100 looms or so still active in Vạn Phúc (Hoàng Trọng Phú, 1932).

22Then came the period of political and social turbulence and tumult already described in other itineraries of this guide, followed by the collectivist era. Unfortunately, Vạn Phúc struggled to adapt to centralised control of the means of production and distribution, since its pre-established business model was one of an activity highly specialised from village to village and even from weaver to weaver, with quite substantial individual investments in machinery.

23Vạn Phúc is in this respect unusual among most Delta craft villages, with production systems that are essentially capitalist in nature rather than family and village industries. At the beginning of the 20th century, artisans from Vạn Phúc, sensing an opportunity, had even set up a trade school. Attempts are currently being made to repeat this experience.

24Three other factors had some bearing on the specificity of commercial organisation during this first golden age of Vạn Phúc, compared to traditional rural conservatism and conservative Confucian traditions.

25The first factor was the use of a salaried workforce: hiring employees with specialised skills contrasts sharply with family operations or with hiring temporary, unqualified workers for specific and highly repetitive tasks.

26The second factor was the acquisition of Jacquard silk looms by several artisan entrepreneurs. Joseph Marie Jacquard initially designed these extremely efficient and futuristic French looms for the silk industry in Lyon, France’s second largest city (in the Lyonnais dialect, this loom is called a bistanclaque (pan), an onomatopoeia for the noises it makes). His initial intention was to curb the use of child labour in the city’s workshops. Alas, these machines actually ended up generating unemployment (in France, at least) and Mr. Jacquard regretted the social consequences of his invention for the rest of his life. Later though, some people even saw a precursor of the computer in this loom, which was easily ‘programmable’ with perforated cards to produce several different weaving patterns, and the production of silk in Vạn Phúc doubtless survived in large part thanks to the introduction of these sophisticated machines.

27A third factor was the control from Vạn Phúc of highly developed commodity chains, spreading well beyond domestic markets, however noble these might be. The artisans of Vạn Phúc had already been selling their cloth in Asia (China and Japan mostly) for a long time. Then French colonisation gave access to new, very important markets: some weavers even managed to show examples of their work at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris.

28However, a contributing factor to Vạn Phúc’s success at home and abroad in this period has been somewhat overshadowed, as Michael DiGregorio (2001), researcher and expert in village industries, points out. Following a viral epizootic that spread like the plague through silkworm farms in France at the end of the 19th century, the French silk industry, which was already booming (particularly in Lyon), was desperately seeking other sources of raw materials. Vietnam clearly fitted the bill. Be that as it may, few Delta craft villages have such a history of global contacts and dealings as Vạn Phúc.

29The collectivist era, by integrating craft activity into the agricultural co-operatives, contributed to the decline in silkmaking. The first signs of a craft renaissance did not appear until the 1980s, after the end of the American War. Since Đổi Mới (1986), there are only a few villages in Hà Tây Province (there were once also some in Bắc Ninh Province) where the craft has been restored. In Vạn Phúc, this began with the electrification of the looms: after Reunification, artisans from the village travelled south to Hồ Chí Minh City to buy up French electric machines in order to modernise their workshops and increase production. Their old looms had about 100 needles; these new ones had 900; the machines that you will see in Vạn Phúc today have 2,000.

30However, as the price of silk is high and this cloth is beyond the means of the average Vietnamese consumer, it is mainly medium-or even poor-quality mixed silks that are produced today. In Vạn Phúc, you can buy so-called ‘silk’ for less than 100,000 VNĐ per m2 (see p. 176). In fact, in most weaving villages today, artisans use yarn imported from China and Japan. Large quantities of this cloth are made for export.

Weaving: a story

chiện thọ silk re-used by mr mão of vạn phúc

31The origins of weaving brocaded silk date from the reign of Tự Đức (19th century). In Vạn Phúc at that time, there lived a worker called Đỗ Văn Sứu, who wove transparent silk (the) and other silken sundries. This craftsman, who was a talented one, had the idea on the king’s 50th birthday of presenting the monarch with a panel of a new kind of silk, of his own devising. He also wove beautiful palanquin tops. However, the brocaded silk industry (gấm), barely born, wasted away after its inventor’s death.

32In 1912, at a time when great efforts were being directed towards development of family industries in the province, one of Đỗ Văn Sứu’s descendants was found living in Vạn Phúc. A simple labourer without craft or fortune, his only inheritance was a small bundle of tools left by his ancestor at the bottom of a rotten old trunk, tools for weaving brocaded silk. He received encouragement and sponsorship to help him revive this industry. After much trial and error, he managed to weave a few scraps of brocaded silk and the craft was reborn, since then going on from strength to strength.

MILKING SILK AND ITS ILK

33There are very few artisans who make cloth from 100% silk in Vạn Phúc: only one or two. Vạn Phúc is now specialised in vân and the. No more gấm: the market for high-grade silk has almost disappeared in Vietnam and the market for pure silk is very small.

34Synthetic silks have been around for more than a century: the first were successfully developed before 1890, made with plant fibres (cellulose) and known as viscose, art silk (artificial silk) or, from the 1920s, rayon. (The very first commercially viable synthetic silk, created in 1884 by Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, was later patented as Chardonnet silk and nicknamed, owing to its highly flammable nature, “mother-in-law silk”…). The commercial use of the terms “synthetic silk” or “imitation silk” are not permitted in Europe: textiles must be labelled as “viscose”, “rayon” (essentially the American trade name for viscose), “nylon”, etc.

35As indicated a little earlier, at least some Vạn Phúc artisans started using synthetic silks as early as the 1920s. Since this period, silks have also been successfully imitated with polyesters and mercerised cotton (treated chemically in order to make it stronger and shinier). Over time, the mixtures with real silk and even the ‘pure’ imitations have become more successful, harder to distinguish from genuine silk.

36In the 1990s, Vietnam at last emerged from a succession of wars and a period of commercial ostracism. With China opening up considerably to the Vietnamese, trade became much easier. Artisans from Vạn Phúc and other weaving villages began to buy and use synthetic yarn, especially viscose, in large quantities. In fact, nearly all the silk made in Hà Tây craft villages today is a mixture of natural and synthetic silk. – Why is this?

37• Viscose yarn costs 60,000 VNĐ a kilo and 30 metres of cloth can be produced per day. One person can look after three electric machines at a time.

38• Natural white silk yarn costs 600,000 VNĐ a kilo and three metres of cloth can be produced per day/artisan.

39• Natural silk yarn with added colour costs 800,000 VNĐ a kilo and three metres of cloth can be produced per day / artisan / machine.

40• Natural silk yarn with added colour and sophisticated designs is already expensive; and an artisan can only produce two metres of cloth per day.

41All this is therefore a question of cost and profitability. And why not, if consumers in turn benefit from a wider choice of products? There is a market for pure viscose, sold at 13,000 VNĐ a metre by the producer, 25,000 VNĐ by the shopkeeper: a budget option for those who nonetheless crave the sensation of silky cloth against the skin. In theory, a customer who is more particular, prefers ‘natural’ fibres or simply likes to spend money can opt for a mixture in the proportions of her or his choice, with pure silk being the ultimate category.

42The problem is that since making pure silk is not profitable and that there is no institution capable of controlling quality, many artisans (including the ones in Vạn Phúc) produce mixed silk, claiming that it is 100% pure silk. Other artisans condemn this deception: particularly in Vạn Phúc, some denounce this practice as one likely to inflict untold damage on the reputation of the village and permanently injure the good name of “Vạn Phúc silk”.

43The same disquiet is expressed in other villages, but the example of Vạn Phúc gives a good illustration of the problem. Such a reputation is as precious as it is fragile and if there is neither control nor guarantee of quality, it can melt like dragon fruit sorbet on a hot Hà Nội afternoon, with dramatic consequences for a community where 85% of the population still practise this craft in their residential workshops. The local market for luxury products should grow significantly with the ongoing increase in disposable income. Meanwhile, Thai silk has a good international reputation and its producers are well established with solid financial backing; the Japanese market is lucrative, but demanding and fickle…

44One of the strengths of Vietnamese society, very apparent in craft villages but discernable everywhere around you, is its highly developed capacity to react and adapt. In the village workshops, it has been understood that there is a potential problem with the commercial wellbeing of the craft, even if mixed silks in their current forms continue to sell quite well – for the moment.

45– What is the solution, then? In 2001, the silken brethren of Vạn Phúc founded a craft village association to encourage producers to be honest and provide information about their produce. The snag is that no punishments can yet be applied, or else producers simply won’t join the association… In 2004, the village co-operative officially requested a trademark for “Vạn Phúc Silk” from the National Office of Intellectual Property. This was duly granted. Rules and regulations must now be drawn up so that individual producers who wish to use the trademark can be inspected for the quality of their work.

46Four quality criteria need to be addressed:

  • weight/m2;
  • weaving errors/m2: a figure must be fixed beyond which a cloth cannot receive the trademark;
  • colour: to see whether the die holds fast at up to 70° C with various types of soap (a burning issue, in the personal opinion of the authors, owners of numerous pink, once-white items of clothing);
  • the percentage of natural silk (an essential declaration of integrity, given the differences in price mentioned above).

47For the moment then, the village has the trademark, but doesn’t use it, as it doesn’t yet have a quality control service with teeth. Better this temporary hitch than the opposite scenario, illustrated by the Indian model, where anything of value is already accompanied upon purchase by a handsome certificate of authenticity, a document that often needs its own certificate of authenticity – and indeed sometimes even has one.

48An association for self-regulation exists, but cannot administer punishments yet. Sooner or later, the next steps will certainly be taken and Vạn Phúc will once again adapt to the conditions of the new millennium – and in one form or another, this silk village will survive. That said, and while we’re waiting for that day to come, what you want to know is whether this pretty little dress you’re holding (bit pricey, though, isn’t it?) is really made of silk, and nothing but the silk…

49So here are three simple tips to help you check whether a piece of material that someone wants you to buy is actually genuine or not – and to give you some valuable thinking time.

501) Rub it! If you rub real silk vigorously, you should feel some heat generated: synthetic silk will remain cool to the touch. Ideally, always wear (or better still, ask a companion to wear) 100% silk underwear, in order to have a point of comparison close to hand.

512) Burn it! Cut off a small piece from the dress (if you are forcibly prevented from doing this, then they were clearly scared of what the test results would show…) or ask for a sample of the same cloth (compare them closely). When you set light to it, be careful not to smell the smoke from the match (better still, use a lighter). Real silk burns rapidly, makes tiny globules, smells like scorched hair (it’s a similar protein) and leaves black, gritty ashes; if it’s rayon or a similar substance, it will smell like burnt paper (most papers – and all matches – are made of cellulose) and the ashes will be powdery and chalky. This test has the advantage of putting on a good show and making people believe that you are a connoisseur; all the same, avoid setting fire to the whole shop – unless of course you really know what you’re doing…

523) Dissolve it! This test requires a modicum of preparation, organisation and scientific rigour, but you can handle it. Prepare a solution of 16g of copper sulphate (CuSO4) in 150cc of water. Add 10g of glycerine, then caustic soda (NaOH) until the solution clarifies. This mixture will dissolve a small sample of pure silk. If it happens to be mostly mercerised cotton, rayon or nylon, the sample will sit sullenly at the bottom of this cocktail, in silent – but eloquent – reproach to the silken-tongued trader who would pass it off as something else.

THINGS TO SEE

53It is easy to visit Vạn Phúc from Hà Nội and you will find one of the most developed craft villages in this guide, in tourist terms. This takes absolutely nothing away from the interest of the trip, however. It’s a unique little community, which has long been highly specialised and prosperous: an alpha Delta village… Don’t miss the chance to browse through the craft textile products in the village’s numerous retail boutiques. You can find fine silks in plain colours, or with patterns such as butterflies, phoenixes, cranes, roses, daisies, peach blossom, etc. on backgrounds such as banana-green, red with a yellow sheen, mauve or bronze. There are also a limited number of master craftsmen, who continue to make high-quality silks, and whom it is possible to visit. Naturally, you can also buy their wares. Otherwise, as usual, we invite you simply to stroll around the village, with your eyes open, looking for workshops and seeing what’s going on inside, following our map.

54The Vạn Phúc co-operative gives onto the square at the entrance to the village. Its boutique is at the corner of the square and the shopping street. You can find a wide variety of silk items here: 100% silk, taffeta, silk blended with viscose, đũi or raw silk of lesser quality. It’s the only shop where the prices and the percentage of natural silk are marked. No need to get your lighter out here.

55Mr. Ðỗ Quang Hùng is one of the rare makers of real silks (100% silkworm yarn). He is the scion of a long line of master craftsmen. His grandfather took part in trade fares in France during the colonial era. His company “Hùng Loan” is set up in his house behind the đình. It is possible to visit his workshop and see the various production stages (winding coloured yarn onto bobbins and weaving). The yarn is dyed in another workshop. He sells several kinds of very colourful cloth with various designs at relatively high prices compared to his neighbours (about 340,000 VNĐ in 2008 for a metre of multicoloured cloth). Silk yarn is very expensive (see p. 176); dyeing yarn is more expensive than dyeing cloth (mixed cloths are dyed once they have been woven). Weaving high-quality yarn (he mixes up to seven bobbins of different-coloured yarns) needs more care and requires one artisan per machine (the width of the cloth needs to be checked systematically with bamboo rods, and knots and other defects must be avoided), in contrast with synthetic and mixed yarn (one person for three machines). He has some clothes for sale off the peg and also makes silk ties.

56In addition to weavers, you will see some dyers at work: the dyed yarn or cloth (people dye one or the other, according to the kind of silk or other textile) gives a splash of colour to otherwise rather drab interiors. You can visit the workshop of Mr. Minh (he lives behind Mr. Hùng’s place, see map p. 179). Not so long ago, you could admire long strips of multicoloured silk drying in the sun in his garden. Now, due to lack of space, all the dyers get this done mechanically in two workshops located on the edge of the village. An environmental caveat: dyeing requires a lot of water, and the wastewater greatly pollutes the village’s waterways and indeed those of all textile-producing villages. As for the steam dryers, they are fired by coal, with an extremely negative impact on air quality.

57Once you have gone through the superb gate that marks the entrance to the hamlet that houses Mr. Minh’s workshop, keep straight on and turn left at the end of the alley. This neighbourhood, perfused with the staccato beat of looms, is specialised in the production of synthetic silk. If you go into a workshop, usually small but chock-a-block with machines, you will see female workers hard at it around the machines beneath neon lamps and swamped with a deafening noise. Carry on a bit further, and on the right-hand side of the alley, you will find one of the two workshops specialised in drying freshly dyed cloth. You will also see dyers working less manually than at Mr. Minh’s place.

Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department

CULTURAL AND ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE IN VẠN PHÚC

58But it’s not all silk undies and window-shopping in Vạn Phúc: there was also a time when this was the village that Uncle Hồ (the future President Hồ Chí Minh) called home. It was here that he wrote “The call to national resistance”, on the 19th of December 1946, at a time of high tension between the French colonial power and the nationalist movement. It is an historic text that underlines the Vietnamese leader’s desire for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Alas, to say that his wish was not granted would be an understatement: at his passing, 23 years later, his country was still being put to fire and the sword. The house he inhabited during his noted stay of just a few months in Vạn Phúc has been restored. It combines the characteristics of French and village architecture and is a pleasant place to visit.

Other things to see

59A pagoda erected at the entrance to the village (to the left) contains numerous stelae and statues dating from the Lê Dynasty (17th century).

60The village architecture bears clear traces of the presence of craft activity and includes a large number of prestigious residences (see map p. 179). The approaches to the village are decorated with gates where parallel sentences sing the praises of silk weaving.

61The craft ancestor, Lã Thị Nga, is worshipped every year in the communal house (on the 13th day of the 1st lunar month). Legend has it that she was a young woman of great rectitude and almost depressing virtue who advised her village to divide its work: the men in the fields, the women with the silkworms and by the looms. Her counsel was heeded (silk is women’s business) and supplications have often been offered up to her during periods of war, famine and foreign invasion.

A workshop to visit: a helmsman among weavers

hooks supporting warp threads on a loom, vạn phúc

62The company of Mr. Triệu Văn Mão (in his seventies) is at the entrance to the village, opposite the co-operative. Mr. Mão’s ancestors have been making silk for several generations. During colonial times, his family members worked with four or five manual looms and they sold their silk to the French.

63He has undertaken the revival of old kinds of material, made of 100% silk (chiện thọ) and of hemp. He has asked elderly people with old smocks to lend them to him and he makes copies. He sells his products to affluent city-dwellers and in his shop. For several years now, he has been weaving hemp for a Japanese company that makes shoes. Pieces of hemp cloth have been discovered in ancient tombs and he has attempted to copy them.

64He rents premises from the co-operative, with which he was formerly involved, as its manager. He would like to upgrade and renovate these premises to create a silk museum, restore old looms and install new machines, but he has not yet obtained permission to do so. He has bought looms in Nam Định, which he then converted for use in weaving silk.

dyeing mixed silk fabric, vạn phúc

the painstaking work of quality silk weaving, vạn phúc

LA KHÊ

Even if you’re a millionaire, don’t choose a wife from La!
If you do, you will eat putrid soy sauce and mouldy aubergines.

65This cheerful old ditty alludes to the social prestige acquired by the women of La (the cluster of silk weaving villages all around Vạn Phúc). As traditionally they alone wove silk and brought home the bánh trung, they left to the men the task of preparing the soy sauce and pickling the aubergines (staple ingredients of rural fare), with predictably disastrous results.

66Today however, almost nobody weaves silk in La Khê and the aubergines are impeccably pickled. So what happened to this close neighbour of Vạn Phúc? Inquiry, explanations, secrets, rumours and lies…

GETTING THERE

67Leaving Vạn Phúc, go as far as the big Quang Trung Avenue along which you came and turn right. When you get to no412, turn right into Ðýờng Lê Trọng Tấn. After about a kilometre, a red sign (hidden in a tree!) indicates to the right the way to Chùa Bia Bà, the village’s famous pagoda. La Khê is integrated into the urban area of Hà Ðông. The remaining 200 hectares of agricultural land have been taken from the farmers to build a residential development, a little further on, either side of Lê Trọng Tấn Street.

A CRAFT HISTORY

68According to legend, 10 Patron Spirits (tiên sý) of silk, also geomancers in their spare time, passing one day in front of the village of La Khê, they noticed a piece of land in the shape of a shuttle (not from space, but from a loom). Accordingly, they settled down awhile and taught the local populace to weave. They are still honoured today at the communal house as the village’s guardian spirits. According to another version, these 10 were Chinese master weavers who trained La Khê artisans to make more complex and better-quality kinds of silks. This is why they are considered a little like craft ancestors or rather, post-ancestors.

69La Khê was once specialised in making the silk, a very light cloth, flowery and transparent. These materials were made for the Imperial Court. Artisans worked on pedals looms 80 or 90 cm wide.

70During the colonial era, in the “Catalogue of Tonkinese Artisans” of 1942 (with a preface by Marshal Pétain exhorting colonial subjects to work hard…), 18 artisans are counted in the village of La Khê, compared with a mere 17 in Vạn Phúc, which demonstrates the importance of the former within the silk cluster at that time.

71The decline in silk weaving began, as in Vạn Phúc, during the collectivist period. The merging of the craft co-operative with the agricultural co-operative ‘killed’ the craft: the villagers no longer put their hearts into the craft industry, since they only received meagre rations as payment in kind. In addition, the state dictated production, wilting the blooms of village initiative. Artisans slowly began to leave the craft. Multiple activities limited the possibilities for development of a craft that required heavy investment in machines, technical improvements and training.

72So in short, the villagers lost their craft. They also lost their agricultural land: La Khê didn’t have much to start with, like most villages in Hà Tây (a very densely populated province), but La Khê has been gradually integrated into the urban area of Hà Ðông, with the local authorities expropriating farmers of what land they had left. It is now a much-urbanised village, tightly packed around the complex that contains its famous pagoda, Chùa Bia Bà, đình and a đền (temple).

73What way then have the inhabitants of La Khê found to stave off hunger these days, tangled as they are in the tentacles of the urban octopus?

74They have traded weaving the silk and transplanting rice for trading in pagoda tea and a living a life of (relative) leisure. Many villagers have some activity linked to the religious sites. The temple bazaar always does good business. Many others though, if they had any land left, have sold it and, for the time being at least, live off the fruits of these transactions. Will they find a way to adapt in a sustainable manner, they and their descendants, to the new order? Only the future can answer that.

75There is however some small hope of a craft revival: to get it started again, a craft co-operative was founded in 2005 by the People’s Committee, the agricultural co-operative and with the help of village artisans, in particular Mr. Nguyễn Công Toàn. He is technical advisor to the new co-operative. He intends to reproduce old types of material that once clothed La Khê in glory. He invents weaving designs with the help of big sheets of graph paper, which he then converts into perforated strips of card that are placed on the looms.

THINGS TO SEE

76In the vicinity of the đình and the pagoda, there are many ‘miracle’ merchants. Here, you can buy anything that can be used as an offering to the guardian spirit, the Holy Mother or the Buddha: expensive seasonal fruit (mangosteens, lychees, or sugar-apples), plates of rice cakes and boiled chicken with their legs in the air, fake dollars and real small đồng bills, all this wreathed in incense smoke. There is also a legion of scribes for hire (ngýời viết sớ), who will write messages and requests for Buddha in a language known only to themselves. This religious complex of 8,000 m2 is very colourful, peaceful and pleasant to look at, with a lake in the middle, “symbol of the village’s dragon eye”.

77The pagoda is on the left, behind the merchants. Once you’re through the gateway, opposite you is the đình, which houses the two guardian spirits and on the left, the temple.

78The đình was built under the Lý Dynasty, in the 11th century. The kings came here regularly to organise rituals and seek some support from the spirits to avoid being slain in battle (or an even worse fate). Imprecations were also made to the gods here to bring rain. All this must have worked in its day, because the đình has a good reputation and receives a steady stream of visitors. Early in the morning, there are already people aplenty here, while the impassive temple guard watches Manchester United strut their stuff on TV. Nõi hoá vàng (ovens for burning votive paper) are placed in the corners of the compound, and smoulder away constantly, proof of the tireless votive activity of pilgrims who come respectfully to request assistance from the spirit masters of the house before they sign a contract, buy a piece of land, sit an exam or go into business.

79The annual festival at La Khê’s communal house is organised on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month. Long ago, an interesting ritual took place during the closing night of this spring festival at the đình: all sources of light were extinguished for a few minutes, during which boys and girls were permitted to indulge freely in any joint activity they chose to. This practice was closely associated with ancient fertility rites (and not with blind man’s buff) and was supposed to stimulate crops and weaving over the course of the new year ahead.

synthetic silk manufacture, vạn phúc

checking the width of quality silk fabric, vạn phúc

LA PHÙ

GETTING THERE

80You might think that connections between villages of the same cluster would be made easier by their numerous exchanges, but no. At the time when the said exchanges existed, roads were rare; dealings took place by way of rivers, canals and other waterways. To get from La Khê to La Phù, only three kilometres apart as the crow flies, you have to make a big detour via Vạn Phúc. There is no road suitable for motor vehicles between La Khê and La Phù.

81You must therefore go back down the road to Vạn Phúc. Continue straight on, but be aware that the road gets worse. Go through the villages of Ðại Mỗ and La Dýõng. When you cross a railway line, you know that 500 metres further on, you have to turn left. You can check the names of the places you’re driving through by reading the signs on shop fronts.

LA STORY

82La Phù is an ancient silk village from the imperial era, in the big old bunch of villages around Vạn Phúc. Today, it is specialised in knitted textiles and to a lesser extent, confectionery. A large market is also held here.

83La Phù is a big, densely populated village (more than 11,000 inhabitants), which in addition attracts a multitude of workers and artisans from the surrounding countryside to work in its knitting workshops. Almost every morning and afternoon, the lanes of La Phù are saturated with cars, motorbikes and bicycles. People converge on La Phù to deliver raw materials, to receive finished products or to work.

84The village’s surface area is limited and the villagers lack the room to build workshops. There are no expanses of water left, because all the ponds have been filled in to gain more production space, but the houses are even too narrow to install knitting machines. Residential space is invaded by piles of unassembled knitwear.

From silk to knitting, cheap sweets and market forces

85La Phù is one of the villages around Vạn Phúc where, as in La Khê, the silk craft did not survive the collectivist era. In 1959, a craft co-operative was created. Towels, woollen clothing, socks and carpets were made there. To begin with, workers worked in the co-operative. Then the state handed over the production plans and allowed artisans to take the machines home to work and obtain help from other members of the family.

86Aside from weaving activities, the households of La Phù made noodles, vermicelli, malt, sweets, alcohol, starch and did a little trade. The artisans of Cát Quế Commune (see Itinerary no9 p. 292) sold the cassava flour with which La Phù artisans made maltose to produce biscuits. Since Đổi Mới, knitting synthetic woollen yarn has developed rapidly in La Phù and artisans have abandoned the production of maltose (they only make sweets and biscuits now; it’s in Dýõng Liễu and Cát Quế that people produce the maltose).

87In the 1990s, La Phù artisans started to buy machines from the south of the country and set up business on their own. They had to find buyers for themselves: in 1992-1993, exports began to Russia, East Germany and Ukraine. These markets stem from the old commercial contacts that the co-operatives had with Eastern European countries at the collectivist era. They also managed to break into new markets. For some time now, they have exported to the United States. In winter, the La Phù workshops make woollen clothes of very average quality for the domestic market in the north of Vietnam, where cold snaps in winter can be quite severe.

88The most dynamic entrepreneurs who also had the means to invest in machines (in general old soldiers or family members of management at the former co-operative) have stopped making foodstuffs to devote themselves entirely to textiles, which are more lucrative. Many entrepreneurs traded in cloth with the south of the country before starting to produce it themselves. This is how they forged links to textile makers and have been able to buy machines.

89In a context where state enterprises were still omnipresent, it was not easy to break into this market. Entrepreneurs diversify their textile production to avoid very strong competition for certain products. They combine trade in yarn or finished goods with mechanised production of textiles. The difficulty lies in the fact that whenever they change products, they have to change machines, at a very high cost. Those who have contacts with intermediaries from the south can innovate more easily and launch into production of less common textiles, such as T-shirts (only three companies currently make them in the village).

knitting: synthetic wool ready for use at la phù

machine-knitted jersey cotton, la phù

Frenzied activity: the fevered effervescence of La Phù

90La Phù is a typical example of a village that has become industrialised with market liberalisation. With annual receipts of 221 billion VNÐ in 2001, of which 140 billion from exports, La Phù is one of the villages with the highest export volumes in Hà Tây Province. It has received a Medal for Most Efficient Industrial Work, from the Secretary General of the Communist Party.

91There is enough electrical power in the commune to operate all the machines. This is not the case in other heavily industrialised craft villages (see Itinerary no3 p. 156). Here, households clubbed together to build a electricity substation.

92Basic knitting and weaving involve 1,000 households. The final stage of completing clothes requires technique and know-how; these specialised skills are the prerogative of a select handful of companies. A few workshops for dyeing yarn remain in the village, but many others have already been driven out, due to emissions that are extremely unpleasant and doubtless harmful to public health.

9370% of the workforce from elsewhere emanate from other villages in Hà Tây Province. 7-8,000 people from outside the commune work for companies in La Phù; all these people must find a place to sleep in or around the village, but unsurprisingly, such places are hard to find. A building belonging to the army serves as a shelter for many workers. Others find beds in neighbouring communes.

94There is a clear division of labour in this commune and in those around it. Some households concentrate on woollen garments, others on socks, still others weave cloth for making T-shirts. Somebody has counted 600 machines for making socks. However, sock production currently appears to be in decline. But the next time the world has cold feet, La Phù will be ready! The main activity has generated other marginal ones, also carried out by specialised households:

  • producing and selling wrapping paper;
  • selling woollen yarn: big companies on the roadside import yarn directly from China;
  • printing flowers onto textiles;
  • dyeing yarn;
  • sewing;
  • making plastic bags.

95The nerve centre of La Phù is its big market, right next to the đình. We invite you to follow our suggested route to see some architectural features (not really presented to their advantage, unfortunately) while soaking up the inimitable atmosphere of this action-packed village.

A stroll from soft clothing to hard candy

96Don’t be put off by the rather forbidding air of the village entrance: the new industrial park serves mostly for the moment as warehouses and shops for confectionery and biscuits of all kinds, until the textile companies get around to setting themselves up here properly. This is not really La Phù. You can try to visit the two biggest knitting companies, to your right, which employ several hundred workers.

97Once you’ve crossed the railway line near the village, textiles begin to come into focus. Observe the ballet of motorbikes overladen with pullover sleeves, socks and limbless woollen garments. Everything is made separately here: each artisan has only one machine and makes a single part of a garment, often pullovers: you have to choose between doing raglan sleeves or straight pullover torsos. The motorbikes provide the link between the subcontracting and the ‘ordering’ companies.

98A main street runs through La Phù from north to south. Once you have negotiated the antitruck gate placed in the middle of the street, to the left there is a small temple, miếu, in the shade of a banyan tree, as a reminder that the sacred is always present, despite the manifest domination of the profane: trade, industry and the incessant shuttling back and forth of the motorbikes. Turn left towards the pagoda, chùa, set in the middle of a garden.

99Next, we suggest that you accept the challenge of getting lost (a tall order) in the maze of streets, but keep heading south, in order to end up back at the đình and the market, the centre of the village. Amid these narrow streets and the jumble of workshops set up in houses and courtyards: sweets, biscuits, socks, plastic film, evil-smelling dye workshops, woollen sleeves… and a few small gardens with bonsais in them, hidden among ancient houses, at the ends of alleyways. Piles of woollens await their motorbikes to be returned to sender.

100It is a shame that this village is rather unkempt, but it is easy to forget this as you explore an alleyway, where the sweet smell of biscuits, sweets or caramel fills the air not far from the chatter of knitting machines and the fumes from some dye workshops that haven’t yet been forced out of the village. There are rare mixtures of sound, light and smell here for a Delta village that simply revels in being a real melting pot of rural and urban, old and new.

101When visiting the ‘ordering’ companies that put work out to contract, you will notice piles of brightly coloured woollen garments. Not too difficult to guess that pink must be the new black in Eastern Europe these days… If you don’t want to get completely lost, take one of the last east-west streets to the right to get back to the main street. An important reminder: don’t forget to watch out for motorbikes here!

102You will find the đình in the south of the village, opposite a pond: the building is moderately sized and it is surrounded closely on all sides by the market and the village itself. This point of architectural interest would benefit from better presentation. One of the gates from the đình’s courtyard leads directly into the covered market. The smell of biscuits and cakes leads you by the nose: yet another neighbourhood of confectionary makers!

103Continue through the south of the village: by nose, you will find several artisans who make confectionery, in sometimes questionable conditions of hygiene. By ear, in the side alleys, you can locate a profusion of knitting workshops. Here and there, by eye, you will also notice some very beautiful houses.

loose components awaiting assembly in a la phù factory

the motorcyle: the workhorse of la phù

THE ANNUAL VILLAGE FESTIVAL

104We couldn’t leave La Phù without mentioning its annual festival, which takes place on the 13th day of the 1st lunar month. If La Khê once had its bestial goings-on with the lights out (at its annual festival two days after this one), La Phù refuses to be outdone: it still has its candlelit procession with a pig.

105That evening, some village elders, as well as 32 young people (or 16 slim maidens and as many sturdy boys, as they put it so elegantly in the tourist brochures) march to the miếu, the temple, behind a pig (already bloodless and scalded, with his snout outrageously decorated with make-up). The reason for this unusual procession? Apparently, La Phù was protected several times from the northern invader by a general and his troops. Praise of the general, sung by royal proclamations in the 17th century, can be admired, since they are displayed in the temple that was later built in his honour. When the enemy was rampaging round the region, the villagers prepared a feast of pork and sticky rice for this general and his men in order to give them some heart for battle. If they returned victorious, they were invited to reseat themselves for a second helping.

106These days, invaders have got all picky and refuse to be fobbed off with a tub of lard and a bucket of offal, but the tradition of the pig paraded through the village endures, a fine beast fattened with care for a year or more, up to 120-200 kilos. If you are lucky enough observe these celebrations, you can return to the city content in the knowledge that today, you have made it all the way from a silk purse to a sow’s ear…

Table des illustrations

URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-1.jpg
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Légende bobbins of coloured silk thread, vạn phúc
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 882k
Légende chiện thọ silk re-used by mr mão of vạn phúc
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Légende Source: Google Earth 2008, IRD Cartography Department
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 256k
Légende hooks supporting warp threads on a loom, vạn phúc
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,6M
Légende dyeing mixed silk fabric, vạn phúc
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 460k
Légende the painstaking work of quality silk weaving, vạn phúc
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 440k
Légende synthetic silk manufacture, vạn phúc
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 539k
Légende checking the width of quality silk fabric, vạn phúc
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 578k
Légende knitting: synthetic wool ready for use at la phù
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 615k
Légende machine-knitted jersey cotton, la phù
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 566k
Légende loose components awaiting assembly in a la phù factory
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 646k
Légende the motorcyle: the workhorse of la phù
URL http://books.openedition.org/irdeditions/docannexe/image/26100/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 639k

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