Thousand of years ago, silk was accidentally created by a Chinese Empress, and then became an object of national pride in China. It is also the main reason for the birth of Silk Road. Silk production passed from China to many other countries, including Vietnam- my home country. Even though silk did not originate from Vietnam, the country was known for its excellent Van Phuc silk.
While planning my trip back to Vietnam in October, the Van Phuc Silk Village was at the top of my list. After studying aboard for the last six years, I learned to appreciate the traditional values and how they symbolize our national essence. It goes without saying how thrilled I was to visit Van Phuc.
Contrary to my expectations, Van Phuc appeared to be much more like a marketplace selling ready-to-wear silk clothing and scarves, rather than a bustling and vibrant city. Most of the stores sell “Made in China” products that are subtly concealed by cutting off the tags. It’s rather ironic how a village that supposed to be the home of one of the highest quality silk products now resorts to importing its silk from China.
Despite the initial disappointment, I still believed that somewhere in Van Phuc there were still looms busy weaving silk. Since the villagers were unwilling to give out directions due to the fear of losing potential customers, it was a challenge to find a true master of the craft. However, my efforts paid off when I met Mr. Hung Quang Do. Mr. Do is a famed artisan, and the last person in Van Phuc who still carries on the tradition of hand weaving silk. He excitedly showed us the complete silk production process and admitted the limitations on variety, as hand weaving is significantly more time consuming than weaving silk with a machine. He also taught us how to differentiate between real silk and synthetic silk. With a hint of sadness in his voice, he acknowledged that Van Phuc has lost its traditional charm. Silk production has become more commercialized, and the village no longer considers silk production an art.
The story of Van Phuc Silk Village is not an exception as more and more artisanal villages gear toward commercialization and place more value on production efficiency than artistic essence. Artisan villages like Van Phuc face the same dilemma as many other developing countries right now, and though the scope is significantly different, the question remains unchanged: Change or die out? There is no right or wrong answer to the question. Most families in Van Phuc choose the obvious path- improving productivity through the use of mass production with machines to take advantage of economies of scale and/or importing low cost merchandise from China.
I left Van Phuc with a heavy heart. The sound of the looms lingered. As the car pulled away, I felt like a part of our tradition has gone with it.
Photos belong to author.