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The Truth about Traditional Craft Villages


If you search for Tan Chau silk village on the web and find articles saying it is thriving or reviving, don't be quick to believe. I learned it the hard way. 

In December 2016, I left Los Angeles and went back to Vietnam full of excitement. I was thrilled about going to the craft villages to find the best artisans to make eco-friendly handmade products using my contemporary designs. For almost a year, I was led to so many announced "thriving craft villages" ( làng nghề in Vietnamese) only to find either no-one left doing the craft or families including children hand-making products using non-traditional chemicals and toxins.

The biggest disappointment was Van Phuc/Ha Dong, a village right outside of Hanoi, "renowned for its traditional weaving and premium quality silk products." It has appeared in countless songs, poems, movies and publications as the silk pride of Vietnam. Today, the village is definitely thriving as a tourist destination. While there doing my research, even worse than finding out that the silk made here was dyed with chemicals, I realized that many of the products sold were either made in China or from synthetic silk imported from China.

Ha Dong silk in perfect vibrant colors and various textures, which tourists love. 

I visited a few villages that make products out of bamboo and other weavable natural materials. I found toxins in everything, from soaking solution, glue to dyes. The saddest part was some of these artisans had no idea how bad their working conditions actually were. One artisan, the sweetest man, told me his family (in the photo below) provided labor and bamboo while his buyer (a Chinese exporter) provided all other ingredients, which they promised to be "natural." I asked to see them and not surprisingly they were not anywhere close to safe. Lesson learned: most bamboo and other natural-looking handmade items are not as eco-friendly as you think

My mom and me in Phu Vinh village, known as THE bamboo weaving village in Vietnam. Here we saw many big bamboo factories with high walls and no windows and found ONE family making everything by hand (while using chemicals)

I attempted another silk village, Nam Cao. This time with much less enthusiasm. After asking pretty much every person I saw in the small village and a lot of "what are you talking about?" answers, I found a total of two families making silk. One told me they were ordered by someone else to weave the silk and had no idea where the silk threads came from or what happened to it next. The other could not give me a straight answer on whether or not their products are "natural." 

Right when I was about to give up, I decided to tough it out and make my final trip with very little hope. I had read of Mekong Delta's Tan Chau, a silk village famous for the mysterious black silk, while doing my research but decided to put it last on the list because it was hard to get to and because I thought the other village visits would work out. From Hanoi, it ended up being a trip that involved a plane ride, a taxi ride, a 7-hour bus ride, a very sweaty walk, a rented moped and many wrong turns.

Life in the Mekong Delta

There was an initial disappointment that had become familiar as I once again discovered that the "silk village" no longer existed. What was even more disappointing was finding a few businesses making fake or compromised products using the "Tan Chau silk" stamp of excellence. I recently came across an article by a few foreign tourists about how they hunted and found Tan Chau's "mysterious black silk" but the details and photos showed that they had come to one of the bad ones. If only they knew. 

But in the end, it was here where I found my business and my mission. I finally found the family I had been looking for. To read more on this, click HERE.

The dyeing plant at my artisan's farm

The dyeing plant at my artisan's farm

The purpose of the above story is to share what I learned from almost a year in Vietnam actively going to and experimenting with craft villages. It does not mean I have been to every single one and disapprove of them all. 

 

Los Angeles, January 20, 2018.       

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