There are two things you will find in Nha Xa in Ha Nam Province that you won’t find in neighbouring villages in the Red River Delta. The first is obvious as you enter the village. It’s the repetitive sound of old table looms working away in almost all the houses of the village. Sometimes this heartbeat-like noise feels very close; sometimes it feels far away. Altogether it creates a swirling, captivating effect that once you leave the village, you won’t hear elsewhere. Locals say that this is the only village in the area where people weave silk to earn a living. For well over two centuries, this has been the main income source in Nha Xa.
The second thing Nha Xa has to offer is something you will need to take time to discover. Hidden in the middle of the now many modern and tall concrete houses are old, beautiful, colonial era houses. These hundred-year-old structures were built by descendants of the villagers who live in Nha Xa today.
Despite being covered with black moss and sporting a balcony in disrepair, Tiep’s house, built in 1930 by his grandfather, a silk merchant, has defied not only time but war and the harshness of the climate. The two-storey house has a flat roof with a swan-neck pediment on the top, a balustrade, rusticated pilasters and symmetrical architecture decorated with low relief garlands. It looks similar to many houses built in 1930s Hanoi, except that it’s in the countryside — surrounding the house are banana plants, a big longan tree in the front yard and a pond.
A Wealthy Past
Taking out the original architectural plans of the house, Tiep explains how the building came to shape.
“First, my grandfather went to an architectural workshop in Nam Dinh [a major city nearby the village]. There, he was shown many drawings of houses, all with French colonial designs — this was the choice of the time. Then he picked the style that he liked. Someone copied the drawing using a transparent piece of tracing paper. After that he brought workers home and had them build the house as in the design.”
The aged piece of tracing paper has a drawing of the house’s front façade, the ratios and a cross section. In the bottom are written some words in French — Nam Dinh City, Jan. 7, 1930.
According to Tiep, his grandfather was a diligent merchant who travelled everywhere selling silk products — most of them made by his grandmother and other relatives at home. When asked if his house was among the wealthiest in the village, the 67-year-old shakes his head — many other families in the village became wealthy from trading silk.
As we walk around the village and spot many beautiful old French-style houses, we know that he isn’t just being modest.
Village legend goes that during the Tran dynasty, a very talented general — Tran Khanh Du — discovered a piece of prosperous land on the banks of the Red River. This is now Nha Xa Village. He thought it would be a great place to grow mulberry and so taught the native residents there to raise silkworms and feed them with mulberry leaves to eventually make silk. Later the villagers learned to weave. Some of the smart people picked up the technique quickly and started travelling from north to south to sell silk. This enabled them to both earn and save money, and enjoy a good quality of life.
Today’s owner of another French colonial house — 78-year-old Oa — tells us that her grandfather also went to Saigon to sell silk goods. He only came home once a year.
“He worked very hard and didn’t come home often. Only during Tet,” she recalls. “Silk was as precious as gold and he was able to save money to send home.”
According to Oa, her house was built by a French architect hired by her grandfather in 1939.
Keeping the Legacy
Each colonial house in the village comes with a story, not of just how it was built, but how it survived through both the French and American wars.
According to Oa, during the French War, many houses were burnt down by foreign troops. It is a mystery that her house wasn’t one of them.
“All of my family evacuated before they came to the village,” she recalls. “When I came back in 1954 it was still there — although all the furniture had been taken away and the house was completely empty.”
In Tiep’s case, the family didn’t evacuate but stayed the whole time in the village. But in order to keep the house from being burnt or destroyed by military troops, his grandparents had an idea. They took apart all the doors in the house and threw them into the pond in the front yard. “As the doors were all made from wood, they sunk quickly in the water,” says Tiep. “When the soldiers came, they saw a house with no doors. This meant we were not hiding anything inside. So they just left.”
Today both Oa and Tiep’s children and grandchildren weave silk and trade silk products. Many have now built their own houses — new, modern houses nearby the old ones. Some have even travelled to Thailand, Laos or Cambodia to look for new markets. Despite all the years that have gone by, the sound of the weaving looms in Nha Xa has never stopped.