Quiet Observation

Vietnam’s remarkable textiles

Following my trip to Cambodia, I could not resist to take a detour through Vietnam, specifically in the northern part of the country. In the midst of Têt, the Vietnamese New Year, I discovered some remarkable and rare textile traditions.

The Ethnography Museum of Hanoi presents in the best way all the costumes and crafts of the 54 ethnic groups living in the country from North to South. One can spend hours at the museum to learn about the funeral rites or wedding ceremonies, and everything that constitutes the distinctive ethnographic signs of these ethnic groups.

Each ethnic group has its own language, traditions, costumes and skills. Through the museum’s various exhibits, visitors can view the differences and similarities of each group. Flower Hmong women do not dress in the same manner as Red Dao, or Lo Lo or Thai women. From mother to daughter, women share their knowledge in natural dyeing, hemp or cotton spinning, embroidery stitching, weaving, patterns drawn with various symbols and motifs

In Hanoi, I met with employees of Craft Link. The organization actively supports Vietnamese artisans from ethnic groups, disabled people and even small local businesses. This organization is composed only of women committed in providing work to minorities throughout the country. They help them designing textile products in the spirit of their traditional crafts but with good quality finishings. They also place orders and sell their selected products in their own stores and internationally.

This meeting inspired me to travel to the Sapa area, near the Chinese border, to meet the talented women embroidered of the Red Dao tribe.

Red Dao women learn to embroider from their mothers at an early age. It is a second nature for them; they practice daily and embroider delicate geometric silk stitches on hand-dyed hemp or cotton, adding silver jewelry to the design. They spend a majority of their time in the rice fields or at home taking care of their children. Selling their embroidered goods such as bags, scarves, and clothes to tourists is a way for them to keep their traditions and skills alive, but also to earn the much needed extra income.

After an hour of driving through winding roads in steep mountains, I finally arrived in Muong Hum, 110km away from Sapa. There, I was probably the only foreigner around, but I was treated in a respectful indifference. In this market, all ethnic groups in the area meet every Sunday to do their grocery shopping and everyday purchases. 

My journey to North Vietnam was filled with moments of quiet observation. The diversity of typical costumes was a delight to the eyes. I tried to capture the details of each group’s outfits from the Indigo Hmong community, the Flower Hmong, the Ha Nhi, the Giay: bold and contrasting colorful mixes, bright red with apple green mixed with indigo, expressive floral prints, stripes and embroidered appliqué, precious silver charms sewn on the clothes...

The purpose of the trip was to dive into an amazing poole of textile variety from one ethnic group to another, but it also helped me understand how necessary it is for these communities to carry on their crafts not just on a cultural level, but from a social and economic point of view.

Next stop…Burkina Faso.

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