Philippe, meet Mai.


If you wend your way slowly north from Hanoi in central Vietnam you will eventually reach some of the most hauntingly beautiful terrain in the world, a lunar landscape of jutting limestone pinnacles and granite outcrops interspersed with steep valleys. Pockets of cultivation crop up in whatever tiny patches of land can be stolen from the hills. A craggy, mist infused, mountainous region dotted with streams, cascading waterfalls, hidden grottoes, caves and forests of wild orchids, it’s highest point is known as “Heaven’s Gate”; this is the home of Vietnam’s fabled “hill tribes”.

To the north-west is Lao Cai province and the mystical village of Sapa, a remote but popular destination for Vietnamese who want to escape the blistering heat and western tourists interested in observing the cultural richness of the hill tribes. Slightly to the east is the even more remote province of Ha Giang; 300 km north of Hanoi, bordering China, it is also one of the poorest regions of Vietnam, the final frontier where several different ethnic minorities – H’mong, Dao, Tay, Nung – live the same way they have for centuries. Many speak only their own languages, some of which do not have written scripts. Nestled in among this spectacular but inhospitable landscape is Lung Tam, a small village of H’mong people. Hazardous roads and the remote rocky environment make life difficult for the villagers, their meager incomes traditionally derived from the production of a special maize wine. Maize is grown in every small space between the rocks but hardly enough to provide a subsistence living for the village. More than half the households in the commune were living below the breadline and the population was further hindered by low levels of education.

vang-mai-640-x-480.jpgIn 2000 a diminutive, 51-year-old H’mong entrepreneur (seen at left) took matters into her own hands and came up with the notion of producing traditional linen goods as a way to boost village incomes. Vang Thi Mai has been running her own women’s co-operative ever since. “Most people in my commune make a living from the corn fields but when there’s no work to be done they are left idle. So I thought to myself, there must be some way we can use our traditions to make a bit more money. It wasn’t easy for me to persuade people to join my co-operative so I had to show them that this job could really help them be free of hunger,” she says.“At that time, my family was as poor as everyone else. We really had to tighten our belts to help out the other co-operative members. My family is big. I live with my grandparents, parents and children and I couldn’t have done this without their solidarity and determination. I think that really convinced our neighbors that we were serious about the linen business.”

Mai’s efforts to lift the commune out of poverty have made her a local celebrity. The co-operative now employs 180 workers, utilizes more than 100 weaving machines and linen products have overtaken maize as the main source of income for many families.  Lung Tam linen has been exported to the US, Canada, France and Italy. “I hope to increase revenue by three or four times next year,” says Mai. In addition, co-op members have established a fund to help the commune’s remaining poor households boost their living standards and as a result, “many households now no longer have to worry about being hungry.”

How do I know about this? In response to my post about Philippe Starck feeling useless and suggesting he look “outside the box” for ways in which “design” could help make significant contributions I received correspondence from a woman in Vietnam telling me about Mai’s co-operative.“The women involved in the production of this linen are, in my opinion, the best in their field.  It is the design, color and special touch that is needed to help them take their product to the next level. They are looking for assistance to employ a young designer who would be able to produce a line which will better showcase their work in western markets. A designer with Zen spirit would best intermarry their work.” There it is – a call from Vietnam for a designer to help a fledgling industry interpret western tastes into their designs in order to make their product more marketable in the west.  Philippe, talk to your friends!

 foto.jpgI received information from another reader Albarosa Simonetti about an interesting model for such collaboration, the North South Project launched by Canadian designer Patty Johnson. Ms. Johnson works with partners in the African nation of Botswana and Guyana in South America to design, manufacture, and market products like wooden furniture, woven baskets, light fixtures and garden furniture. The work incorporates techniques and materials that are unique to each culture and take into consideration the impact that the designs will have on the region’s community and economy.

viet7923.jpg The H’mong, along with many of the other 20 different ethnic Hill Tribes in northern Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, wear some of the most stunningly beautiful and colorful clothing of any people in the world. Elaborately embroidered and embossed garments are layered with valuable bracelets, necklaces and spectacular headdresses bedecked with silver coins and ornaments. There are several different types of H’mong and they seem to be distinguished by the variations in their clothing. The distinctions include flower H’mong, striped H’mong, White H’mong and even Black H’mong.

 WooHoo! The Khau Vai Love Market – makes a lot of sense to me! 

khau-vai-martket-1.jpgJust down the road from Lung Tam is the village of Khau Vai, a place where many Hill Tibes people make a pilgrimage once a year in search of former lovers or to find new ones. I kid you not ….. This is not a regular market where things are for sale but where a different type of business – matters of the heart – are transacted. A Lava Life for Lava land! This is a marketplace where one time lovers can rendezvous, new lovers can find each other or if you’ve had a crush for years, let it all hang out.

A local legend tells the story of 2 lovers from different tribes who were forbidden to marry. They agreed to part but only if they could be reunited annually on the 27th day of the 3rd lunar month in the Vietnamese calendar.

The Love Market has been in existence for almost 100 years, and draws romantics, new and old from all parts of the province.

It is quaintly described as a place where “Both the wife and her husband go together to the market but they look for their own partners to share emotions. If one of them has to stay at home, he or she is not jealous in love because the dating at the marketplace is really a faithful feeling exchange. It can be said that the beauty of love is the basic factor to keep the existence of Khau Vai love market for such a long time.”

I LOVE THAT – a “faithfull feeling exchange”.                             WooHoo!

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