Hanoi is brimming with little family businesses, where subsequent generations inherit a new set of skills along with a shop to peddle them in. Two of the finest shops on Hang Gai, the famous Silk Street, Tan My (66 Hang Gai, Hoan Kiem) and its newer sister shop Tan My Design (61 Hang Gai, Hoan Kiem) epitomise the spirit of family business.
I pulled up a chair to hear the stories of the three women who have overseen the enduring success of the business, since its humble beginnings as a seller of embroidered handkerchiefs and pillow cases, to an haute designer of clothing, jewellery, home décor, and assorted linens.
Grandma Knows Best
The story begins a long time ago when tradition and strife were the only things everyone possessed in equal measure. The war was in full swing, and business opportunities were few and far between. Bach Thi Ngai, now 92 years old, recognised that some things don’t stop just because there’s a war to be getting on with.
“People still needed to get married,” she says. “That meant they needed pillow cases.” In one of the oldest Vietnamese marriage traditions, newlyweds would go to bed on their wedding night using pillowcases embroidered with their initials.
Young men, including two of Ngai’s own brothers, left to serve in the army. Sweethearts would share a final moment together before the girl slipped an embroidered handkerchief into the young soldier’s hand, a symbol of her love, loyalty and commitment.
“The handkerchiefs had messages embroidered onto them, such as chung thuy or doi cho,” continues Ngai, which roughly translate as “I’ll be faithful” and “I’ll wait for you”. When Ngai started her business in 1969, the traditional pillowcases and sentimental handkerchiefs were the two pillars upon which she would build her success.
In the earliest days, Ngai did all the embroidery herself. Once things started to take off in a bigger way, her daughter, Do Thanh Huong, would come home from school and have to finish stitching two pillow cases every day.
“It was really hard work,” Huong recalls. “We still had to use food stamps to survive; we only got 300 grams of meat every month.”
Like Mother Like Daughter
These days, however, Ngai spends most of her time either relaxing around Hoan Kiem Lake, or relaxing at home. About 20 years ago, Huong took over the reins and started to modernise the company, moving it away from relying solely on embroidery.
“It’s the only thing we ever fought about,” Huong says, smiling at her mum. “She wanted to keep things traditional, but I was trying to think about the future.”
It’s clear to see the similarities as they sit together, looking resplendent in their ao dai.
“I’m not as beautiful as her,” laments Huong. “But she taught me to be hard-working and tidy.”
The first little shop they owned was just up the road from the current embroidery shop, Tan My. Huong’s son helps out with managing it, when he’s not busy running his own restaurant.
“Tan My means ‘New Beauty’, so that’s where we keep the products we’re most proud of — the embroidery,” says Huong.
The newer shop, Tan My Design, opened opposite the old one around seven years ago. This was the culmination of Huong’s plan to modernise the business.
“Customers kept coming in and asking if we did clothes and other things, so we needed a bigger space.”
But two shops is enough, Huong believes.
“We want Tan My to be an exclusive brand,” she says. “So we will continue to export, but we won’t open any more shops, or expand into southern Vietnam.”
This exclusivity is what gives their business an edge over their rivals, many of whom are neighbours in Hang Gai.
Huong’s family, unusually for Vietnam, is a working matriarchy.
“My mum is the head of the family, so other family members will only travel far if it’s to pay respect to her,” Huong says, before laughing and confessing: “She always tried to make sure I had an advantage over the boys in the family.”
The penultimate link in the chain is Nguyen Thi Linh, Huong’s daughter and the current general director of Tan My Design. However, I’m more inclined to believe that Linh’s five-year-old daughter, Kitty, is the real boss around here, as I watch her confidently striding around the store to explain products to foreign customers.
“She’s exactly the same as me when I was that age,” Linh says proudly. “Except I also used to stand in the doorway and shout at people to come inside.”
Linh used to have the same dream as her mum, when she was very young — they both wanted to be teachers.
“Getting a job in Hanoi as a teacher was too difficult, so it was better to work for the family business,” she remembers.
I ask Linh if she would bother with the family business if she won US$10 million in a lottery tomorrow.
“I would never sell the business, I love it too much,” she says firmly. Huong jokes that if they won the lottery, they’d just buy a bigger shop for Tan My.
Linh says that designing products, managing the business and being with customers are the things she loves the most, and can’t imagine not working for Tan My in the future.
“I’d never force my daughter to continue the business if she didn’t want to,” just as her own mum didn’t force her. “You can see how happy she is to be here, she loves the customers, too.”
Huong believes that any family business, not only theirs, is far more special than a huge, faceless corporation.
“We work here because we love it, we built it. It has our personal touch, and the customers appreciate the character of our products,” she says.
Linh nods her head in agreement, adding: “In a family business, if you fail, you’ve let your family down; there’s more responsibility for everyone involved. We depend on each other.”
The Next Generation
While Huong is preparing how best to retire, or at least take a step back from direct involvement, Linh is waiting with her hand outstretched, ready to take the baton and run.
“I want to introduce Tan My, and Vietnamese embroidery to as much of the world as possible,” Linh says. “It’s such a beautiful form of art, and we hope more people can know about it.”
Linh is even considering expanding Tan My Design to include more artwork, because she thinks that there are many talented Vietnamese artists who lack the opportunity to share their creations.
With Ngai’s desire to build her own business, Huong’s vision to modernise and Linh’s passion for sharing their products, it’s easy to see how Tan My is such a successful and enduring family business. With Kitty waiting in the wings, it’s clear that this is one family whose legacy is going to continue growing for quite some time yet.