Vu Thi Hien has spent the last two years traveling back and forth between Hanoi and northern Vietnam’s old-growth forests, collecting fallen leaves and transforming them into handcrafted notebooks.
After graduating from the University of Science in Hanoi, 24-year-old Vu Thi Hien was lost. She applied for jobs to appease her parents, but never accepted any out of fear she’d be trapped in a career she wouldn’t like.
She eventually found herself doing research in a lab where a project she was working on inspired her to begin making notebooks decorated with dried leaves.
She now runs the handmake workshop ‘Hoa la co’ (Flowers, leaves, and grass) where she sells her notebooks and teaches others how to make their own.
The beauty of nature
“I like wandering and picking up fallen leaves", Hien shared. “I take the leaves and press them in my notebooks. It took me a while to get good at pressing leaves, but I find them so amazingly beautiful and it makes me want to use them in a way that displays their beauty.”
Hien majored in biology, so working with plants isn’t new to her. She even likens the process of pressing leaves to the process of doing laboratory research.
According to Hien, the most important factor in successfully pressing the leaves is understanding their structures so that they can be pressed at the proper stage in their life cycle.
Gaining this understanding, however, didn’t happen overnight.
“I kept trying to press leaves and kept failing. Each time I had to figure out what made me fail so that I didn’t make the same mistake again,” Hien explained. “The hardest part though isn’t pressing the leaves. It’s much more difficult to turn them into art.”
With her leaves dried and pressed, Hien is ready to turn them into beautiful handmade notebooks, bookmarks, and other craft goods.
It typically takes about a month to press the leaves. Afterward, she cuts the paper, assembles the notebooks with stitches or glue, and wraps the notebooks in cloth.
She has become such a pro at it that she has even created various collections of her handmade notebooks, each with its own meaningful message.
Among her collections, Hien’s most prized consists of a set of notebooks that comes from Vietnam’s old-growth forests.
Her others include collections featuring ‘hoa la co’ (flowers, leaves, and grass), and ‘cute’ — a set of crafts inspired by simple children’s drawings and pressed leaves of various colors.
“The most distinguished thing about these notebooks are the leaves", said Hien. “Most people are surprised when they pick it up. They always say, ‘Wow, they’re real leaves’.”
But it’s not just about showing off a beautiful collection of leaves. It’s also about quality.
“I believe that anyone can feel the delicacy and detail put into each booklet the moment they pick it,” she said.
Building a craft community
Hien had to work two jobs when she first opened Hoa la co, including tutoring children and graphic design, in order to keep her dreams of owning a workshop afloat.
But in just a year, her workshop achieved enough success that she was able to support herself without the need for a second income.
She now works out of a small, quiet neighborhood in Hanoi where she is able to freely create unique notebooks from pressed leaves.
She undertakes the entire process herself, from collecting the leaves to making the notebooks.
When trouble arises, such as scissor cuts or issues sourcing materials, it’s up to her to find a solution on her own.
“Even though it’s just for fun, making so many notebooks has left my hands looking rough, ugly, and covered in scars,” Hien said. “I’d guess there are over 70 scars on my hands.”
Hien’s workshop primarily procures notebooks priced at VND200,000 to VND300,000 (US$8.60-12.90) each.
She also sells postcards, bookmarks, and letter writing papers. Each of her procures comes with a small note which explains to customers how to preserve the craft.
In her free time, she does her best to connect with crafting communities in order to strengthen her network and spread the love for her products.