Cultural assistance

By Kim Nga, Thanh Nien News

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A stable job is a lifetime dream for many poor women in the Mekong Delta province of Vinh Long. 

Lily Phan, a Vinh Long native who grew up in the United States, realized that during a visit to her homeland last year.
The idea of opening a handcraftsmanship training center for local women immediately popped up in her mind.

She said she felt lucky to have such a good life abroad when she saw that her people were “very hard working but didn’t have the opportunity to break the poverty cycle.”  

The idea grew bigger in her mind when Lily met To Hong Lan, her aunt. Lan was likewise eager to get involved in the project. They soon built their Viet Artisans workshop right on Lily’s grandmother’s land on An Binh islet in March, 2013.  

The operation struggled from the very beginning, but that could not stop Lan, who’s already experienced a life of overcoming hardships as a disabled person. 

“We launched this non-profit project to help disadvantaged women in the province. Earnings are spent to cover the expenditures of running the project, then, the balance is re-invested in training and paying salaries for the workers, both interns and those with full-time jobs,” Lan said.

“At first, we researched the disadvantaged families and visited them to learn about their real circumstances. After a careful selection, a list of those women who were willing to go to work to overcome poverty was sketched out.”

Viet Artisans’ training center is still just an open-air class with wooden tables and chairs in Lily’s grandmother yard. The center's lack of facilities did not interest anyone, even the poor women in need, at first. 

“Only two [women] agreed to stay with our apprentice program. Before coming to us, their jobs were splitting longans, picking limes and pulling weeds. It was very difficult for these manual laborers to do intricate jobs like bookbinding, embroidering or sewing at our school. We also offered a monthly allowance of VND1.5 million (US$75) to help ease their minds so they could study wholeheartedly,” Lan said. 

After two months of basic traineeship, those who pass the skills test will be approved as Viet Artisans’ workers with a wage of VND2 million (some $100) per month along with related social insurances. 

“Besides the living wage, I think they [women] need a safe and comfortable working environment. They have a stable income to guarantee, at least, their children’s school fees and daily costs.”

Nonetheless, the salary is not always a magic wand for those whose families are living in worn-down thatched roofed huts or cannot afford their own place, like 33-year-old Ty. 

Ty and her 13-year-old boy are staying with her in-law because her family owns no house. Before she knew about Viet Artisans, Ty and her husband both worked as laborers at construction sites. 

The job, which requires a woman like Ty to do heavy tasks like mixing cement, carrying bricks, sand, and climbing poles, pays her less than US$1 per day.  

When Ty found out that she was expecting a second child, she quit the dangerous job and Viet Artisans appeared just in time. 

Tra My, 18, is Viet Artisans’ youngest worker. The girl had to give up her studies when her parent’s unstable income could no longer feed the family of six. My left behind her dream of getting a university degree to earn a living. My said that she hopes that one day she can continue to pursue her studies. 

“We also have extra money to help them to cover their children’s school fees, rebuild their houses or get out of their emergency situations,” Lan said. 
Out of dozens of applicants, Lan said that her organization now has 13 full-time workers. 

Although Lily is the first founder of Viet Artisans, she refuses to say anything about what she has donated to the project. 

“I passed the entire workshop’s organization to Lan, who is living in Vinh Long and knows the plights of the women, now workers, better than me. But it is still my responsibility to take care, if Lan has any problem with the management,” she said. 

Small gifts from a big culture

The products of Viet Artisans, including bags, greeting cards, notebooks, Ipad covers, jewelry holders, postcards and purses, are eco-friendly.

“With the slogan “Chung tay bảo vệ môi trường” (We protect the environment), we give priority to natural and recycled materials in making the products,” Lan said. 

The notebooks are Viet Artisans’ most popular pieces so far, especially with foreign customers. The notebook making process is inspired by traditional sophisticated Vietnamese handicrafts that require deft hands. 

“Nowadays bookbinding is usually done by machine. But if I am the customer, I want to buy a good-looking notebook as well as know how to make it,” said Lan. 

“Stab binding has a long history in Japanese bookmaking. In Vietnam, this kind of binding has been used over centuries. It is like a treasure when you find it in Vietnam, as the method is no longer used.”

Lan said that it took Viet Artisans three months to find teachers to teach the bookbinding art. 

“This method [stabbing] is a very simple and sturdy way of binding a book. It is a lot faster than Coptic stitching. Punch holes through the book near the spine and lash it together with needle and thread. In Vietnam, we are proud to preserve such a nice cultural trait,” said Lan.

Silk-screening, which adds a three dimensional look to a surface, is also applied on rice paper to make the notebooks and bags made by Viet Artisans even more beautiful. 

“Many customers who come to our workshop and witness the worker doing those traditional skills give us compliments. We are proud that we can show them a big culture through some tiny art pieces.”

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