Story: Gia Ji
Photos: Le Bich

Golden fingers aren’t adorned with jewels. They are calloused and scarred. We travel to a region long famous for its expert embroiderers

The former Ha Tay Province, now part of Hanoi, is home to hundreds of traditional craft villages. Thanks to its proximity to the Citadel of Thang Long, craftsmanship flourished in this fertile land. The man credited with introducing embroidery to Vietnam, the 17th century diplomat Le Cong Hanh, introduced this craft to the Red River Delta. He is still worshipped in Quat Dong Commune, Thuong Tin District.

Over centuries, artisans have kept embroidery alive in North Vietnam. Famous names include the late artisan Vu Duc Trong, the artisan Song Hy and the artisan Quoc Su, whose embroidered pictures were so lively that they transformed this craft to an art.

Quality embroidered pictures require a good sense of aesthetics, patience and great skill to produce. Veteran artisans have mastered each step from creating the frame to sketching the designs to selecting the threads. Anyone who has visited an embroidery workshop knows how much work is involved and how loathe artisans are to throw away even the smallest threads, fearful that they’ll never find new threads of that exact same color. This art form requires dedication and attention to detail. Nonetheless, some artisans in their nineties are still happy to work, and do so out of passion.

The late artisan Vu Duc Trong played a key role in making embroidered pictures popular. Hailing from Dai Dong Village in Phu Xuyen, he painstakingly created landscape pictures. Favorite scenes included the fountains and rivers of Viet Bac and boats sailing on the open sea. These silk paintings appeared on the market in the 1970s. In 1986, Vu Duc Trong earned national renown thanks to his magnificent embroidered portrait of President Ho Chi Minh, now on display in the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts.

Royal robes
Long ago, each village had its own specialty. Dong Cuu Village in Dung Tien Commune, Thuong Tin District specialized in producing royal robes and parasols. The artisan Vu Van Gioi is among a new generation of artisans devoted to the recreation of Vietnam’s royal costumes. For five generations, his family had embroidered ritual costumes, flags and parasols. Mr. Gioi decided to recreate the authentic royal costumes of emperors, empresses and concubines. To date he has recreated 40 costumes, the most famous of which are the extravagant royal robe of Emperor Bao Dai and the ritual costumes of Empress Nam Phuong. This painstaking work could take an entire lifetime. Mr. Gioi explains that it can take over one year to produce an elaborate costume – and that’s with the aid of eight assistants! Simpler outfits require three to five months with the help of three artisans.

The production process is difficult beyond compare. The embroiderers must begin by researching the garments’ original owners, rituals and social norms. Mr. Gioi had to travel to Hue to survey colors and decorative patterns. Materials include silk from Van Phuc (Hanoi) and Nha Xa from Ha Nam. The embroidered motifs at the hemlines must be authentic and perfectly executed. The silk yarns usually have neutral colors, which are neither lustrous nor dark. The embroiderers must apply exquisite beads, pearls, and gold and silver decorations to recreate authentic royal garments.

If time and skill are taken into account, these royal garments are priceless. They are sought after by collectors. Today, more and more craft villages are shifting to producing wares that require less work and earn higher profits. Yet some artisans remain devoted to their difficult traditional crafts. Like many artists, they feel inspired by their work. Mr. Gioi explained how he was once so dejected – and poor – that he switched to other jobs to make ends meet. But he missed embroidery. When he started to restore royal garments, he became obsessed. He felt that he’d inherited this obsession from his ancestors. It was in his blood. We are full of admiration for people with the heart and fingers to make life bloom on silk.