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Just 15km to the west of Ha Noi is a place renowned over centuries for its silk-making and silk products – Van Phuc village in Ha Dong of Ha Tay Province.

In recent years, the village has enjoyed the revival of its craft due to a surging demand for silk in both the domestic and foreign markets.

It has long been a universal byword of luxury, often worn by the world’s richest, most powerful citizens, nowadays, the fine and lustrous cloth that originally comes from the cocoon of the silkworm is much more affordable for "ordinary" folk.

Silk is currently enjoying a fashion renaissance, particularly as its many varieties can be made into a wide range of designs suitable for all facets of modern life.

It is not uncommon to see young Vietnamese people teaming a silk top with a pair of jeans, or wearing silk suits to work.

Silk  transforms a small village

Recently I revisited the village I last saw in 1993, and Van Phuc had certainly changed: the road leading to the inner village is now sealed with cement and concrete enforcements that allow big vehicles to trundle in and out with ease.

A large number of stores display their wares from modern shopfronts, some having installed air-conditioning to serve their customers in greater comfort.

The hum of looms and sewing machines whirs onto the streets, 10 years ago there were hundreds of machines, now they number in their thousands.

From dawn to dusk, clientele bump into each other constantly in this small strip, striking up conversations as they run into each other time and time again, swapping information about the best silk traders, and the best tailors back in the cities.

Responding to this wave of modern customers, many Van Phuc silk producers have embraced new retail approaches when plying their trade.

Many retailers have cottoned-on to the power of marketing, using business cards and the internet to advertise their products beyond the village.

With their newly acquired skills in customer care, the silk vendors can see the importance of building relationships between themselves and the buyers.

Shop assistants now instruct their customers on how to use and care for silk products, with most giving patrons’ free consultations on their goods prior to purchase.

Addiction to Van Phuc silk

In Van Phuc, one is confronted with an initially bewildering array of silk products, from the raw materials, to ready-to-wear garments, to a myriad of silk accessories.

The local silk is known for its smooth and lightweight appearance, qualities that enable it to be dyed more colours to suit a variety of skin tones.

To cater for the changing demands and tastes of customers, Van Phuc silk producers are expanding their silk and garment repertoire: traditional glossy, embroidered silks, double layers, wrinkled, and of course, more colours, hues and weights for which they have invented new techniques in dying and thermo-processing the threads.

It is not unusual to see the same customers wandering up and down for the entire day looking for his or her favourite pieces of silk – some end up becoming so enamoured of the material they spend many weekends here browsing the silk shops.

Many fashion designers from Ha Noi and other major cities around the country are now regular patrons of the village, ordering large quantities of silk  specially produced for them, and customers from fashion centres in France and Italy also arrive to place large orders.

A few bumps in the silk road?

The day I was there I came across a group of students from the Ha Noi College of Fine Arts, here to choose their favourite silks in order to design their own clothes.

The SARS outbreak earlier this year affected Van Phuc’s silk production and retail businesses when people ceased to travel to the village, and orders only came via phone or fax – although now the customers are returning in droves.

There is a downside to Van Phuc’s success, as the influx of non-fashion industry customers results in increased production of cheaper, lower grade materials – rapidly changing fashion trends also reduce the number of people demanding quality – so I urge the local Craft Guild to make sure that the traditional high-standards of Van Phuc silk are preserved for coming generations. — VNS