A veteran artisan from Vietnam’s Mong ethnic minority has created a thriving business over the past decade by promoting her community’s hallmark brocade and single-handedly marketing it on a global level.
Vang Thi Mai, a 55-year-old businesswoman hailing the ethnic Mong community in Lung Tam Commune, Quang Ba District in the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang, founded the Lung Tam Lanh (flax) Cooperative in 2006 as a way to promote her people’s traditional ‘lanh’ attire and decorative goods.
Lanh (flax) brocade clothing has been at the heart of the ethnic community’s daily and spiritual lives for centuries.
Whether attending festivals or getting married, a Mong person can be easily identified by their lanh outfits. Even in death, Mong are dressed in the traditional garb in order to be recognized and embraced by deceased ancestors.
After a recent business trip to Hanoi – about 300 kilometers away – Mai called a meeting with 130 of her cooperative’s members to gather feedback on new designs featuring ‘extreme’ colors and unique raised patterns.
There was a time when the cooperative faced a barrage of criticism for avant-garde renovations to traditional Mong weaving.
Over time, however, opponents to the art form’s ‘modernization’ were won over as the group began receiving larger orders and higher pay.
With stable monthly incomes averaging VND3-6 million (US$130-261), workers and artisans at the cooperative are no longer forced to rely solely on crops grown throughout the rocky fields covering their land.
The new-found wealth has allowed residents of the commune to replace their cottages with brick houses with corrugated iron roofs.
Around 60 percent of the households now report considerably improved living conditions while the number of families living below the poverty line is steadily dwindling.
Residents have also been able to interact with tourists and backpackers, particularly foreigners, as Lung Tam Cooperative is a must-see location during most tours to Ha Giang.
Vang Thi Mai masters most of the brocade production phases. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Mai boasts exceptional skills in most of the 41 phases involved in traditional lanh weaving. She has also proven quite adept at designing and marketing.
Among the techniques involved in the process, painting wax onto the fabric before dying the lanh is the key to its beauty, Mai said.
The waxed cloth areas are unable to absorb the dye and help create the brocade’s unique patterns.
“For us, wearing lanh is like staying in an air-conditioned room. It keeps us warm in winter and cool in summer and even absorbs our perspiration while we’re working,” the artisan said proudly.
Mai offers free accommodation and three meals each day to visitors keen to find out about her people’s time-honored craft.
In addition to a homestay, her house also serves as a showroom for various lanh products.
“I have no reason to charge tourists who visit Lung Tam for its landscapes and lanh items. In return they will share stories from here when they are back in their country,” Mai explained.
During their recent trip to Lung Tam, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters spotted two foreign women and their Vietnamese friend instructing a large group of local children and teenagers to sew and create designs at the Lung Tam Lanh Cooperative.
The trio included Kelly, a fashion designer from Brazil; Anouk, an architecture student from Germany; and Le Thi Nhat Duyen, a young female backpacker from Ho Chi Minh City.
After exploring several places in Vietnam, Kelly, Anouk, and Adrien – a journalist from France – decided to stay for an extra week in Lung Tam to gain first-hand experience with lanh weaving.
Realizing local students’ needs, the group began teaching them communicative English and showing them how to design simple lanh decorative items.
Artisans from Lung Tam Lanh Cooperative have participated in dozens of local and international exhibitions and traditional art festivals.
They mesmerized visitors, including the two Tuoi Tre reporters, at the 2013 Hue Traditional Crafts Festival, where they demonstrated the 41 painstaking phases of crafting lanh fabric using traditional Mong looms.
Lanh (flax) brocade souvenirs are displayed in Vang Thi Mai's living room. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Mai has been to many countries, including Japan, South Korea, Germany, the U.K., France and Belgium, exploring each country’s fashion industry and shopping for authentic fashion items for the cooperative’s artisans to study.
The enterprising woman has also put the ‘fair trade’ principles into practice at the cooperative to ensure each member is treated with equality.
“I always take meticulous notes and share eye-opening experiences and lessons in product design, advertising, and marketing with other cooperative members,” Mai said.
“I have also learned how to run the business effectively,” she added.
Their appearance at the 132nd Inter-Parliamentary Union in Hanoi in March 2015 allowed Mai a chance to network with contacts in the capital, including various embassy officials and representatives from international organizations – many of whom have visited Lung Tam and been awed by the technically-demanding phases of lanh production.
In a bid to pass the craft on to the young generation and provide them with a reliable source of livelihood, Mai organizes three classes taught by veteran artisans to 100 students each summer.
She also works with vocational training schools to issue certificates to students who complete the course.