Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Vietnamese Fabrics

I will confess to loving textiles. Wherever I go, I tend to bring back examples of local weaving. This can be a curse, because traditionally woven fabrics have a tendency to be heavy, and then one doesn't do much with them when one gets home. I once travelled days to a little village in central Thailand because a friend's mother was a weaver, and I would get to see her in action. I did, and I bought some exquisite pieces from her...but they have disappeared somewhere in the intervening years.
The best examples of Vietnamese weaving come from the Hill Tribe districts in the Central and Northern provinces. They are quite sturdy and heavy, but the materials themselves are usually of poor quality - colours run easily if washed, and threads pull and come unraveled at even the slightest use.
That said, I still adore their wonderful colours, and our house is generously be-draped with some wonderful large pieces I have brought back from my adventures.
There used to be some wonderful shops in the Pham Ngu Lao district of Ho Chi Minh City that sold Hill Tribe fabrics at quite a reasonable price, but they seem to have disappeared. There are one or two little boutiques left in Saigon that deal in the fabrics, but they are considerably more expensive than they used to be.
In fact, earlier this year I found it quite difficult to find traditional fabrics at all in any of the large cities. Like anything, I suppose that fashions in souvenirs come and go, and it would seem that traditional weaving is well and truly forgotten. Makes me wish I had bought more over the years.

Monday, May 4, 2009


In Vietnamese culture, big parties are what keeps the social wheels lubricated.
Since recorded history, the Vietnamese have been willing to spend an inordinate amount of money on elaborate parties to celebrate weddings, funerals, engagements and death anniversaries. All and sundry are invited to these events, and the festivities last over several days - particularly in country areas, where there is not really any other entertainment available.
In this photo, taken at a family member's wedding in the early 90s, you can see the traditional gifts presented in red lacquered boxes and then covered with a red cloth. The red symbolises good fortune, and the gifts inside are themselves symbolic - esoteric things like fresh tobacco leaves, betel and black tea.
These days weddings are a huge industry, especially in Ho Chi Minh city where vast wedding palaces are busy 7 nights a week hosting elaborate wedding parties that know no boundaries when it comes to tackiness. When I was there earlier this year the big trend was elaborate guards of honour lining up outside the venues to greet the guests and, ultimately, the bride and groom. Some confined themselves to the traditional seven bridesmaids and seven groomsmen, but some show offs had retinues of twenty or more of each sex. Wedding halls are hung with vast portrait photographs of the the happy couple, normally taken weeks before. These are generally real tributes to the art of digital manipulation, and even the most humble couple take on glamorous proportions when blown up to 5 metres high and photoshopped to within an inch of their lives. Elaborate videos are also made of the proceedings, and no digital effect is spared in rendering an exceedingly tedious and long-winded social gathering moderately visually engaging.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I like to avoid weddings. They are interminable, and gift giving is reckoned according to perceived social status, and as a result I am expected to give something big - gold jewellery or a big gift of cash. Maybe I'm stingy, but in Australia all they'd get from me would be a blender, and I resent being forced to shell out big amounts of money to people I hardly know.