Whenever I have the chance to go abroad, I will first make a visit to Van Phuc silk village to buy gifts for my foreign friends.
You can travel easily to the traditional craft village, which is about 15 km in a straight line from the city centre, by bus, taxi, motorbike, or even by bicycle, if you have the stamina!
The first thing I do when I arrive in the village, even before visiting the shops, is to pay my respects at the village temple. The temple, which is shaded by a huge, ancient tree, honours La Thi Nga (Lu Shi E), a Chinese woman who brought the art of silk making to Vietnam. Nga was born in Hangzhou, an area famous for silk-weaving since the Warring States Period. It is said that Nga lived and visited Vietnam during the time of the Tang Dynasty. Becoming attached to this beautiful land, she decided to stay and teach local people how to raise silkworms and weave silk. Her legacy has taken hold in Van Phuc for over 1000 years.
Previously, Vietnam did not produce enough silk to meet domestic demand, so silk was often brought from China. But Van Phuc silk may have changed this trend. According to the Complete Historical Record of the Great Viet, written by Ngo Sy Lien, in the second lunar month of the year of the dragon 1040, King Ly Thai To issued an edict requiring all Song Dynasty brocade in storage to be brought out and made into robes for the mandarins and the king, and that henceforth, only silk made in Van Phuc was to be used. The fact that the king requested that Van Phuc silk be used to make royal clothing implied that Van Phuc silk was as skilfully made and luxurious as silk imported from China.
Besides being donated to the royal court, Van Phuc silk was also sold to visitors and merchants from Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the West, via the sea ports of Van Ninh in the northern province of Quang Ninh and Hoi An in the central province of Quang Nam.
In recent times, Van Phuc became famous in December of 1946 as the village in which Uncle Ho wrote his call for nationwide resistance against the reinvasion of French colonists.
Following Vietnam’s victory in 1975, the government implemented a centralized economy and the silk trade suffered. The quality of the silk declined, and many skilled weavers left the trade altogether, because they could not make a profit.
Since the implementation of the market economy, the traditional silk making industry has bounce back, and many families in Van Phuc now make a good profit from producing high-quality silk.
Silk-making techniques have been modernized, but there are still two elders in Van Phuc who are skilled in the traditional methods: Trieu Van Mao and Le Van Bang. Both were included in the directory of famous artisans of Tonkin, compiled by the French colonists.
Mao, in particular, is a master weaver of numerous forms of traditional silk with poetically evocative names like Que Hong Diep, Trien Tho, Long Phuong (Dragon Phoenix Cloud Silk), Song Hac (Twin Cranes Cloud Silk), Mai Tho, Luong Long Song Phuong (Twin Dragon and Phoenix Cloud Silk) and Duoi Cong (Peacock Tail Cloud Silk).
He has laboured tirelessly to keep the traditional techniques alive. In his opinion, “To lose the old silk forms is not only an offence to the ancestors, but irresponsible towards future generations.”
No wonder many family in Van Phuc have prospered from their traditional silk production.