As we head towards the factory, Alex decides to take a detour. Bac Giang and the neighbouring provinces of Bac Ninh and Hai Duong are dotted with churches, built during the French occupation of Vietnam. In places they are surrounded by small towns or villages, elsewhere they seem to sprout out of the paddy fields, like grey concrete trees with spires for branches and clay roof tiles for leaves. Some of the architecture is stunning.
The one that Alex is taking us to see has just been partly restored — courtesy, he believes, of a French benefactor. But the deep mud track leading from the dyke road running between the fields is submerged under water.
“This car won’t do it,” he says, as the rotating tyres strain to haul the vehicle out of the mud. “I’m coming back on Friday in an army jeep. I’ll check it out then.”
We head on to the factory, where Alex guides us through the process. First in our line of vision is the QA, the quality assurance. If we want to go from start to finish, we’ve gone the wrong way round — we’re at the end of the production line. But it’s fascinating nonetheless.
With slick, skillful hands the QA team is checking the production of S. Oliver winter jackets destined for Europe. The trims come first — the zippers, buttons, pockets and hoods. Then the pockets, the stitching, the labels and the logos. Nothing is left unchecked, and as we look on, not one item is rejected.
“The problem,” says Alex, as he leads us round the warehouse area to inspect the fabrics, “is financing. In Vietnam many companies just don’t have it. The biggest costs are the fabric and trims. It all has to be bought before the cutting and making.”
He adds: “A lot of the trim comes from China, and most Vietnamese companies don’t have direct links with the manufacturers there. So it’s all done through agents. They take the financial risk. The people taking the financial risks are the ones with the relationships overseas. They sell the finished garments.”
It is for this reason that such a small value of the retail price of the garment comes back to Vietnam. Vert, though, is both the agent and the manufacturer for about 40 percent of its production. They also have a design and sampling room, and can package up the garments ready to go directly on the shelves. As a result, they keep a greater percentage.
Now we move from the cutting area, where the materials are chopped into their various pieces, to the assembly line. Here the pieces of material and trim are stitched together — we follow the work of a light blue Celio jacket. The lines are U-shaped, the machines modern, the conditions good. There is ventilation, good lighting and space. Where necessary, the workers wear chainmail like gloves to protect their hands and face masks to prevent the inhalation of chemicals. Safety and working environment are important here — indeed, the fasctory has just achieved SA8000 certification. So is the local community. By opening a factory in the middle of nowhere, Vert has a responsibility not just to the people they employ, but to the community at large. They are putting money back into a range of community projects. They are also helping change the local economy.
“Villages and countryside communities in Vietnam usually don’t have cash,” explains Alex. “Everything is done on barter. So opening up here vitalises the local economy.”
Leaving the factory Alex takes us in the opposite direction from Bac Giang City to see if we can find another route to the church. We head through brick-walled villages, on a road between the paddy fields, and see one building in the distance. Beyond lie mountains. It’s a scene you can imagine being depicted in traditional lacquerware art. But it’s not the right church.
Gradually we enter the hamlet of Thiet Nham. In its centre is a huge banyan tree with five roads splitting off. But it’s lunchtime and the streets are empty. The one shop we see is closed.
We take one of the roads, edge round tight bends not made for cars and end up in paddy fields again with mountains in the distance. From here we can spy the church, but the road veers off in a different direction.
“How do we get there?” we ask the one man we find not taking a siesta. He directs us back into the village and along another road. We follow his directions, but still can’t find the church. We head back to the banyan tree and take another road.
Eventually another road takes us close to the church but once again leads away from it. So we get out and walk, but we are on someone’s land.
Dogs bark, a woman comes out. “You can get there through the paddy fields,” she says, pointing at the ridge of mud separating one waterlogged field from the next. “Or you can go back into the village and drive.”
Photographer Thiep and I decide to walk. The mud-ridge is treacherous, and we’re worried about the camera slipping into the waterlogged fields. We wind and turn under the heat of the midday sun, eventually finding ourselves against the backside of a wall. It’s too high and too sheer to climb, but behind it lies the church. We have to turn back on ourselves, take another ridge and follow the wall to its end before finally having to make our way through someone’s property to get to the church. Even then we are blocked off and have to walk round through three village roads before finally getting to the entrance. The two of us are soaked in sweat and muddy. But Alex is already there. “It was down the original road we took,” he laughs.
The Meeting Room
As we walk through the church grounds, woman after woman passes us on a bicycle. They’re older, from their 40s up, all are wearing headscarves and they smile. Around the back of the church is a statue where the women are parking their bikes. Seeing how hot we are, they usher us to come into a room out of the sun. “It’s much cooler inside,” they say.
We oblige, happy to cool off, and find ourselves sat under a fan at a long table. In front of us sit 40 or 50 women, staring. We stare back and then start to laugh. It is surreal, incongruous. We are on show. It’s like a circus, and yet it’s innocent. As we laugh, so do the women. It is as strange for them as it is for us. Embarrassing. All we do is stare. Us at them, them at us.
A man comes in and ushers us out of the room and into the rectory. The rectory is being rebuilt but the front room has been completed, with a table at its centre. Once again we are asked to sit — this time around an ornate meeting table on chairs inlaid with mother of pearl. On the room’s walls are photos of previous priests and dates. Here lies the history of the church, a building constructed in the 1930s. The priest is away in another parish, we are told, but his photo and name is pointed out.
“After 1954 there were only nine families left in Thiet Nham,” explains the priest’s wife. “Now we have a congregation of 1,000.”
They ask where we are from, we duly reply. “Are you Anglican?” they ask me. “No,” I smile. I don’t want to say too much. “I don’t really have a faith.”
Alex says little but our photographer is Catholic, his father originally from Bac Giang. His mother is Irish.
“Could this be where your father’s from?” we ask as we leave.
“I think I need to find out,” Thiep says, framing the church steeple inside his viewfinder. “I don’t know too much about him before he came to America.”