Story: Truong Quy
Photos: Huu Thanh, Amachau, Dinh Chinh

Learn about the ancient craft villages that contributed to Hanoi’s rich culture

The, lĩnh, sồi and nhiễu are all types of fabrics derived from silk. No longer in use today, these traditional fabrics were praised in an ancient verse:

“The from La, lĩnh from Buoi, sồi from Phung
Silk cloth from Van Phuc, nhiễu from Mo Ben.”

Silk from Nha Xa Village (Ha Nam)

All of these fabrics have one thing in common: they were produced in trade villages along the To Lich, Nhue, and Day rivers – all tributaries of the Red River surrounding Thang Long – Hanoi. Long ago, the capital, known as Ke Cho, was home to a belt of silk villages. Rich in traditions, these villages contributed to the ancient capital’s soul.

“Exemplary Customs”
Ke Cho was the largest commercial center in Vietnam for many centuries. The soul of the Old Quarter – “the 36 streets” – was formed by trade guilds that represented villages in Ke Cho.

Not only did trade villages along the To Lich River, Nhue River, Day River, and Chau Giang River serve as a protective barrier, or an “everlasting, durable armor” for the city, as praised in a song, but they also supplied sophisticated and high-quality products to the capital.

These villages became known for making handicrafts, jewelry, silk, hats, and food for Ke Cho. In the past, many pages in books of maps were devoted to the names of these vibrant villages, which were busy from dawn to dusk making various products for the capital. In turn, the guilds in Ke Cho housed artisans and served as gathering places for them.

Conical hats from Tri Le (Hanoi)

The trade villages nearest the ancient capital formed close ties with the city, catering to the needs and wants of the royal dynasties and urban people. Therefore, in ancient times, the oldest trade villages were situated along the To Lich River and West Lake. These included net-weaving and tailoring villages located on the fertile land between the To River and the Nhue River.

In locations near and even within trade villages devoted to making humble products for ordinary folk, peasant artisans also crafted sophisticated goods for the upper classes. For example, dragon-inscribed paper used for royal decrees was made beside West Lake, where ornamental flowers and plants were also grown. Meanwhile, the renowned tailoring villages along the Nhue River produced delicate silk tapestries.

Back in the old days, these villages were the wealthiest in the Northern region. Cu Da village (once part of Thanh Oai – Ha Tay, and now within Hanoi’s city limits) was the first village in Bac Ky with electric lights. It got its own small power plant in 1926. Many wealthy families who opened textile shops in Hanoi had their roots in this village. Upon opening businesses in Hanoi they kept the “Cu” prefix as a trademark to highlight their prestigious roots, such as Cu Doanh, Cu Chat, Cu Nguyen, etc.

The villages of Cu Da and Cuu (once in Van Tu, Phu Xuyen – Ha Tay, and now within Greater Hanoi) and Tay Mo (South Tu Liem – Hanoi) are not only famous for crafts like weaving, vermicelli-making, and tailoring but also thanks to their beautiful old architecture. The village of Uoc Le (Thanh Oai) is known for its chả lụa (a type of soft sausage) and bánh chưng (savory sticky rice cakes), as well as for its iconic Northern architecture. The village’s entrance gate, designed as a citadel gate, bears a signboard with the words: “Mỹ tục khả phong”, or “exemplary customs”. This sign, which lauded the village as a good example, was granted during the reign of King Tu Duc in 1851.

“Keep wearing the color of Ha Dong silk…”
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Vietnam was exposed to modern Western values, the vibrant trade villages continued to thrive, supplying cities  where Eastern and Western cultural elements intertwined. For example, faced with new fashion trends inspired by Western styles, artisans in Trach Xa village (Ung Hoa District – in former Ha Tay, now part of Hanoi), and artisans from Cuu village in Phu Xuyen District (in former Ha Tay, now Hanoi), established many famous dressmaking guilds in Hanoi.

Silkworms in Van Phuc Village (Hanoi)

Located on Hang Trong, Hang Bong, and Luong Van Can streets, their shops tailored suits and ao dai tunics. While people from Cuu village always placed the word “Phuc” or “Phu” in their brand name, those from Trach Xa chose brand names with the word “Trach”. Their designs appealed to sophisticated men and women in Hanoi at that time. This reputation has lasted to this day. Even though these villages were formed later than some others, their tailors soon achieved fame for meeting Hanoians’ new needs in the modern age.

Old Hanoi was bordered by trade villages of all kinds, showing the diversity of a prosperous culture. The trades all flourished thanks to the major trading center of Ke Cho. This exchange created the habits and culture of consumption, aiding the region’s socioeconomic development. Hanoi’s prosperity came from the diversity of crafts produced in and around the city: cutlery from Da Sy; wood-turning in Nhi Khe; conical hats from Tri Le and Chuong; embroidery from Quat Dong; pearl inlay from Chuon Ngo; lacquerwares from Ha Thai; moon cakes from  Xuan Dinh; sausages from Uoc Le; tofu from Mo village… The list goes on.

The products of Tonkin’s trade villages were taken to world exhibitions in Paris and Marseille in France, and San Francisco in the USA. There, they were praised for their sophistication and diversity.

Some items have disappeared, leaving only memories, such as “chân chỉ hạt bột” (tassels with decorative beaded threads, often attached to one end of embroidered curtains) or “nón quai thao” – bamboo frames from Trieu Khuc village and many other trade villages in old Thanh Oai.

While Ha Dong and Ha Tay provinces were merged into Greater Hanoi, we still speak of a “Ha Dong silk shirt” or “Ha Tay, the land of silk”. These regions and the products of their trade villages have become part of our common cultural memory.

Silk is woven outdoors

These places gained their reputation for contributing to our affluence and civilization, creating artistic products with enduring value.

“Suddenly the blazing sun of Saigon turns cool, for I see you dressed in Ha Dong silk… Wherever you are, my dear short-haired Autumn, keep wearing the color of Ha Dong silk, For it is the color I still love…”

(From the song “Ha Dong Silk Shirt” –  lyrics by Nguyen Sa, music by Ngo Thuy Mien).

Today, many traditional crafts are continuing thanks to families, clans and communities who pass on their traditions, but also thanks to consumers’ demands. People wish to return to the refined beauty of handicrafts and the delicate flavors of traditional dishes in an age of artless and flavorless industrial mass production.

A tò he sticky rice flour figurine from Phuong Duc village in Phu Xuyen, a piece of silk from Nha Xa in Duy Tien, Ha Nam, or a bamboo and rattan basket from Chuc Son in the former Chuong My – Ha Tay, now Hanoi… While these products might seem outdated, they are key to revitalizing our craft villages and still bring joy to Vietnamese people.