There’s certainly no shortage of souvenirs to be bought in Ho Chi Minh City. Stainless steel miniature cyclos, plastic-wrapped non la and paper fans all have an invasive presence in the city centre. These knick-knacks line sidewalks and fill local markets to bursting — endless reproductions of a crystallised image of what tourists imagine Vietnam to be, a homage to a country that is becoming more and more difficult to grasp.
Viet Artisans offers an alternative for those wishing to take something home that is well-crafted, and in the gift-buying process helps them to enrich their experience of Vietnam. Even more importantly, the social enterprise redirects all profits made from their handmade crafts back to members of Vietnamese society that are in great need of aid — economically disadvantaged women in rural Vietnam.
Teach a Man to Fish
The project was launched one year ago by Lily Phan and her aunt Lan as a way to create jobs for women in Vinh Long Province in the Mekong Delta. A Vinh Long native who grew up in the US, Lily wanted to put the money she earned in the private sector abroad towards job creation in rural areas in her home country.
“My early childhood in the 1980s [before Vietnam opened up] left a very deep impression on me,” she says. “I was lucky enough to grow up in the US. When I got back I saw that people were very hard working but didn’t have the opportunity to break the poverty cycle.”
Lily’s aunt Lan was likewise eager to get involved in job creation. Being disabled, Lan is no stranger to struggle. “I already know what it’s like to have it hard, but when I do charity work I see that other people’s lives are harder than mine,” she explains. “I see women with no jobs, whose husbands have no jobs, and I want to give them some sort of help, to give them a skill that they can take with them.”
With their ‘teach a man to fish’ initiative, Lily and Lan began work building a workshop on Lily’s grandmother’s land, located on the beautiful little island of An Binh. The open air structure, built largely by volunteer labour, is beautiful and simple — a tile floor, a thatched roof, bamboo screens to protect from the rain, and rustic benches and tables hand-carved from upcycled wood. Unfortunately, it is vastly more comfortable and secure than the homes many of the workers live in.
According to Lan, a few of the women live in worn-down thatch-roofed huts in grave need of repair — they also have to deal with major flooding during rainy season. Others, like expectant mother Ty, are forced to squat in public buildings. Ty currently resides at a local church with her husband and 13-year-old son. Her dream is to one day earn enough to buy her own land and build a house for her family.
Before coming to Viet Artisans, these women, aged 18 to 40, mainly did odd jobs as fruit pickers, vendors, factory workers or even construction workers. Their work was physically taxing and financially unreliable. While many still struggle to support their families, Viet Artisans provides a living wage, a safe and comfortable working environment, scholarships for their children to keep them enrolled in school, and most importantly, the stability needed to plan for the future.
It was difficult to generate interest in the programme at first, even when Lan and Lily went door to door reaching out to those living in the worst conditions. A lack of trust, as well as pressure from jealous or possessive husbands, made many women hesitant to join. Today, now the effectiveness of the programme has been proven, and many women are eager to participate. Unfortunately, Viet Artisans now has more applicants than it is able to support.
Beneficiaries are chosen based solely on financial need. Because most of the women come with no craft skills, and often with hands that are gnarled and swollen from manual labour, production is not always fast. However, each product is made with care and attention, and is made to reflect the workers’ heritage. The pieces often showcase images representing an important aspect of Vietnamese culture or history, for example a bronze drum (an ancient part of Vietnamese spiritual life, representing wealth and power) or a lotus flower (the national flower of Vietnam, signifying beauty, purity and transcendence).
Each piece comes with a card explaining its meaning, giving some background information on the history of Vietnam, or explaining the country’s current condition.
“We think there is a lot of richness in Vietnamese culture,” Lily explains. “However, Vietnamese society is globalising too fast. Every year tourists come looking for something a little more vintage, but instead they see more and more of these concrete jungles — they don’t get to let the culture really sink in.” Accompanying a handbag made from upcycled rice sacks, for example, is a traditional Vietnamese poem about the importance of rice — “When you hold a bowl of rice / Every single white grain / contains the farmer’s sweat.” A reusable tote bag comes with a card explaining Vietnam’s fragile ecological condition. A notebook comes with the wish that the owner will travel through the country, see all that Vietnam has to offer, and document the journey.
Viet Artisans relies not only on the time and energy of its volunteers, but also on their creativity. Many of the contributing designers are volunteers in their early 20s. Current resident designer Tony Dang is a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades — an artisan, bike mechanic and tattoo artist, among other things. The California native will be staying in Vinh Long for the next few months to contribute ideas and to help the ladies hone their craft and develop their aesthetics. Tony’s modern and edgy sensibilities combine with Lan’s elegant style, resulting in products that are multi-functional, environmentally friendly, and extremely attractive.
Lily hopes for Viet Artisans to one day evolve into its own brand. She also hopes to expand in order to have schools all around the country, using materials indigenous to each region and creating products that reflect the unique culture of each locality. Schools and workshops will not only provide a space for beneficiaries to learn and create, but will also serve as a fun getaway for visitors and city dwellers who wish to relax as well as learn about crafting and traditional Vietnamese designs. During my visit I had a chance to learn how to screen print a bronze drum onto my own tote bag under Tony and Lan’s guidance.
Right now a large part of their market is hotels and corporate gifts in major cities in Vietnam. “We sell [these products] to people staying in five-star hotels,” Lily explains. “In doing so, we are creating gifts for some of the richest people in the world that are made by some of the poorest people in the world. We’re providing meaningful crafts, something that people can bring home to share their experiences with their families, closing the gap between those two groups.”
Since many of the workers have never had the opportunity to leave Vinh Long Province, it’s nice to think that some of their creations may find homes all across the world.
You can find Viet Artisans’ products in Ho Chi Minh City at L’usine Café (70B Le Loi, Q1). They are also sold at Six Senses Con Dao, Banyan Tree Lang Co, La Residence and Fusion Maia.
To contact Viet Artisans to arrange for a craft workshop, visit their website at vietartisans.org