Story: Moc Mien
Photos: Giang Le, Hachi
The night bus from Hanoi to Ha Giang took almost eight hours – a hair-raising journey along steep roads with perilous bends. I arrived in Quan Ba and marveled at the magnificent view of Bosom Mountain surrounded by boundless greenery. After making my way to the Hop Tien Linen Weaving Coop I was charmed by the coarsely woven ethnic fabric. The local H’Mong people’s flax plantations and linen weaving techniques were recently recognized as a “national intangible heritage”.
Ethnic H’Mong people observe strict rules about their clothing. A young H’Mong woman must make her own wedding gown and, further still, her traditional clothes which must be donned when she leaves this world so that the ancestors will recognize her. This belief has helped to keep the craft of linen-weaving alive in H’Mong households.
Visiting the Hop Tien Co-op, one realizes how much work it takes to make a H’Mong skirt. This was a factor in the state’s recognition of Lung Tam linen weaving techniques as a “national intangible heritage”. After the harvest, it takes 21 manual steps to finish a piece of traditional fabric. The step of chopping flax requires great skill and a lot of time to produce flax threads of equal size with no cracks. Bunches of flax are pounded to leave only elastic threads, which the women braid into big bunches. After being boiled with ashes and washed repeatedly, the flax threads turn white. To bleach and soften them further, the threads are boiled overnight with beeswax extract. When the threads are white and soft enough they are stretched onto a loom. Even after the weaving is finished, the fabric pieces must be washed many times to make them whiter.
A young H’Mong woman explained that H’Mong fabrics are coarser, rougher and less shiny than the hand-woven fabrics of other ethnic minority groups. H’Mong people can create a smooth and shimmering surface by rubbing their cloth with beeswax. This step requires great perseverance.
The fabric is dyed dark blue with indigo, which is extracted from malaleuca trees. Other colors such as yellow, pink and brown are created using dyes made from local plants and herbs.
Founded in 2001, the Hop Tien Flax Co-op is now 15 years old. There are 130 members and nine different production departments. Lung Tam linen is sold in Vietnam and exported to France, the US, Italy, Switzerland and, most recently, Japan. I met Ms. Mai, a woman in her fifties who was very agile and passionate about her work. She told me how top designers such as Minh Hanh sought out the co-op’s fabrics. She recalled the early years when overseas visitors took delight in the H’Mong cloth, and the times she traveled to Hanoi to participate in cultural festivals and promote her craft. These unique linen fabrics are turned into designer clothes and souvenirs such as bags, dolls, scarves and other ornaments.
As I left the village, Ms. Mai was busy greeting some foreign visitors and H’Mong children sat practicing their embroidery.
Watching the hardworking craftswomen and their busy looms, I admired their determination to improve life in their community and preserve their H’Mong culture. The vitality of life in the highlands reminded me of a chant that the women sing whilst weaving flax threads:
“Flax threads and yarns
I draw flax, I chop the bark
I stretch up to the lane
I peel off the bark of the tree
Flax threads follow yarns
Yarns follow flax threads
I peel off the bark of the tree
Like the calves of my legs.’