One man's quest to revive Hoi An tradition

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  Tourists feed worms with the precious Cham mulberry leaves at the Silk Village in Hoi An. The village was set up by a businessman to restore the town's tradition of silk production which dates back 300 years.

Hoi An is no longer about just lanterns: an audacious businessman is trying to revive the town's centuries-old tradition of silk production by creating a "silk village" with a million dollars of his own money.

Le Thai Vu, director of the Quang Nam Silk Company, spent more than 20 years studying the silk-weaving industry, which he describes as "romantic," before creating the village as a symbol of ancient rural Vietnam.

It opened to tourists in early August, offering an interesting and intimate insight into one of the country's traditions.

Vu, who has sunk more than VND20 billion (US$960,000) in the village, said it is yet just the first stage. He hopes to bring back a time when, 300 years ago, Hoi An was also a bustling port from where silk-valued as much as its Chinese counterpart in Japan and Southeast Asia was shipped.

He says he did not actually have to create anything, just revive the "golden" traditions.

For the silk Vu spent a lot of time looking for seeds of the Cham mulberry tree which has become rare in Vietnam.

He chose this variety since the tree is believed to make for the best silk in the country. There were several reasons silk from Quang Nam Province in which Hoi An is situated was chosen to offer to kings in the past, and one of the most important was the Cham mulberry tree.

His efforts paid off when early this year he found a tree on a mountain in Que Son District. It had been there for very long, but locals did not realize its worth. They showed him 40 other trees in the area, each thought to be around 500 years old and some more than 10 meters tall.

He uprooted all of them and planted them in the village.

Old Cham women from Ninh Thuan Province, the home of Cham temples on the south-central coast, were employed to operate the looms there together with some younger women.

The village's main products are silk cloth and brocade pieces, the latter a typical garment worn by the Cham.

Vu says the village is home to some precious silkworm varieties besides the Cham mulberry, but he hopes it will one day become more than just a mere museum.

"It can grow into a silk production center, win back fame for Vietnamese silk which has for decades now lost out to Chinese products," he says.

Creating the village was like going through a course in advanced culture, ethnography, and architecture, he says.

He read books, consulted leading architects and researchers about the structure of the ruong the old wooden Vietnamese house the looms used by the Cham in the area for more than 1,000 years, and those brought by the Kinh, the country's predominant ethnic group, from the north.

"Putting up the houses felt wonderful.

"Each house is like a person. It needs to have its spirit and serves the same purpose as our ancestors once used it for.

"I want to make modern people love the houses because Vietnamese houses are very beautiful."

The artisans live and work in the houses now.

The 2.1-hectare village at 28 Nguyen Tat Thanh Street, 800 meters from the town center, is an amalgam of the Vietnamese and Cham cultures of the peoples who used to live there.

Apart from the old houses are areca ranges, banana gardens and a main path bordering lotus ponds.

Visitors are allowed to participate in different aspects of the silk-making process like picking mulberry leaves from the garden to feed the cocoons. They can buy products from the village, rent silk costumes to put on and walk around, and see dozens of costumes from the early 1900s worn by the country's 54 ethnic groups at a museum.

They can listen to folk songs from of the region sung by young women working at their looms, and enjoy Asian and European buffets served from baskets on shoulder poles like in the past.

Visitors are welcomed at the village gate by a small stall selling che, the popular sweet soup, and nearby is an altar house to worship Doan Quy Phi, a woman famous for developing silk-making and dyeing in the region 300 years ago.

Vu hopes visitors could experience the same feelings that he himself has, explaining that the village changed him, making him mellow and serene.

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