From Phap Van-Cau Gie, the highway which connects inner Hanoi to its suburbs, it took a little more than an hour and a half to drive to Trach Xa, a handicraft village known across the northern region for its long heritage of making ao dai, the Vietnamese traditional long dress.
The village, greeting outsiders with a rusty signboard that reads “Tourist site: Trach Xa Garment Trade Village” in both English and Vietnamese, is surrounded by rows of green paddies and beautiful lotus ponds currently in their full bloom.
During the harvesting season, yellow rice grains are spread out all over the small concrete path from one end of the village to another.
Despite tourism promotional efforts and the fact that nearly all villagers here are in the same trade – either as a tailor, a seamstress, an apprentice or a merchant, agriculture still remains a main source of income for the vast majority, even if this means a compromise, with time divided between sewing and farming.
“It was much harder in the past, both in rice-growing and in dress-making," said 48-year-old Le Van Duan, who owns a medium-sized ao dai business. “It’s more stable now, but we still farm to make ends meet and to send the kids to school.”
“Our forefathers used to pass the craft of ao dai making to only the men in the family, so that it only stayed within the family," said Duan. “I learned how to make ao dai from my uncle.”
During the high season, the men stay at home and sew, the women go out and farm.
For most outsiders who know bits and bobs about the Vietnamese culture, which is heavily weighted on assigned gender roles, it sounds like an odd thing. Yet in Trach Xa, the custom has been going on for years without much contention, simply because it is for an economic reason.
“Both my wife and I make ao dai. I cut the fabric, she makes the patchwork, our children help out from time to time,” Duan said.
“My wife comes from a different village actually, about half a mile away. She learnt how to make ao dai and she decided to stay here for good,” he continued, chalking on a swath of sky-blue silk while grinning at his wife from across the room.
Having been in the trade for more than 20 years, Duan's is one of a few success stories of ao dai family businesses in Trach Xa.
His shop has around 10 workers, all fellow villagers. It is a common practice for these businesses to employ their own neighbors. And as the main market for ao dai are big cities like Hanoi, it is important to have an organized, guild-like cooperative to handle the sales to both domestic and international buyers.
It's been normal for Duan to have clients coming all the way from other provinces, waiting for around five hours or so to have their bespoke ao dai made from scratch.
Yesterday, for instance, a woman from Yen Bai Province, around five-hour drive to Trach Xa, came to his shop in order to have a dress tailor-made for her Sunday mass.
“I taught all my five children how to make ao dai when they were young,” said Toan, Duan’s wife.
Duan once left the village for Hanoi, when he was 20.
Most Trach Xa men went to the big city to work as seamsters when they were younger, he said. When he returned home in 2006, Duan was among the first to start their own tailor business.
In the past, it was much harder to find those who could afford an ao dai, once considered a status symbol among the middle class. So Trach Xa villagers used to travel intensively in search of customers. It probably explains why ao dai making was more likely designated as a job for men in Trach Xa and why the craft has been passed down for generations but mainly through the male heirs of the family.
“I started making ao dai when I was 16,” recalled Nguyen Van Nhien, a highly-respected artisan in Trach Xa. Nhien, now 84, only stopped making ao dai around two years ago when his eyes started to get more blurry.
“When I was a young boy, I used to travel with my father, from the north to the south of the country, to many traditional festivals in order to find work, to make ao dai,” Nhien said.
“When people heard that we were from Trach Xa, they would invite us to stay. Many festivals such as the Bac Ninh quan ho music festival , used to last from one to two months and my father and I would stay there the whole time.”
Nguyen Van Nhien, the respected ao dai artisan in Trach Xa handicraft village.
As the Vietnamese market opened up to foreign investment and the economy started to change during the early '90s, it became necessary to establish a national identity through various tangible means. Finding a national costume that could embolden a long legacy and still embrace a sense of practicality was thus requisite.
In 1990, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, returning from a regional meeting in Malaysia, reportedly felt propelled to have a Vietnamese national costume. A year later, the culture ministry proposed a nationwide campaign to push forward the idea. Around that time, much had been done to foster the revival of ao dai and Trach Xa was encouraged to go back to its traditional craft.
“I used to work as an accountant, then an aid worker during the '60s, because it was too arduous to even find fabric to make ao dai,” said Nhien. “Later on when the authorities enforced policies to encourage traditional crafts, I also returned to the craft."
As more opportunities arrived, Trach Xa seamsters no longer had to travel far away to other provinces to find work. Many people came back and settled here.
Over the years, ao dai became trendy again, but the forms, styles, colors, fabric, patterns have also changed, which in turn requires the dressmakers of Trach Xa to hastily keep up with the current trends.
Nhien said that only a few people in the village, himself included, could still make the original ao dai completely by hand.
“Now they make ao dai with a sewing machine,” he said.
“My orders nowadays are mostly ao dai cach tan, the remodeled, stylized versions of Vietnamese ao dai,” said Duan.
Back in Duan’s house, he and his wife, Toan, were trying hard to complete the orders for the day, including a collection of ao dai for local teachers.
When the time is good, their business could produce around a hundred dresses per week. The busiest period of the year is before a new school term or International Women’s Day, March 8.
Since manual labor is still paid at a relatively low cost, around VND100,000-200,000 per day work, tailoring is not appealing to everybody.
“My daughter wants to be a singer or a policewoman, not a seamstress,” Toan smiled. “She doesn’t want to toil like her father, because he usually has to stay up late.”
“Still, I hope my children, especially my son, will preserve the trade, and learn how to make ao dai,” the father said.
Story and photos by Bao Yen