Learn with masters of their craft in the place where they honed their skills
It’s a long way to Cao Bang, a scenic mountain province in northern Vietnam, near the border with China — eight hours on a sleeper bus from Hanoi, and then a motorcycle ride the rest of the way, up mountains and past paddy fields. But it was worth the trek just to be able to spend time with Vietnamese fashion designer Vu Thao, the driving force behind up-and-coming label Kilomet 109, in Phuc Sen, a Nung An village where indigo dyeing has been kept alive through the generations.
I’d backpacked around Vietnam before, but I would never have found this village were it not for Thao and Vacation with an Artist, an online platform that offers the unique opportunity of traveling and picking up creative skills from artists in their hometowns, much like a mini-apprenticeship. The brainchild of an advertising creative director Geetika Agrawal, VAWAA launched in November 2015, six months into her year-long sabbatical.
Geetika had spent summers in between college terms working with local artisans in small towns in Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu in India; she’d learnt a lot from those experiences, and the idea of traveling and learning something new from local craftspeople is at the heart of her online venture. During her year off from advertising, Geetika traveled to 12 countries in 12 months, finding different artists she could enlist on the platform as masters or teachers. Today there are 45 artists in 16 countries offering a variety of creative vacations — from cooking in Malaysia to tango in Argentina; shoemaking in Prague; ceramics in India; photography in Norway among others.
In Cao Bang, most of the women of the Nung An, a highland tribe, keep vats of indigo outside their home, and rolls of blue woven fabric hang from their balconies and ceilings. They wear a traditional dress called the ao cham, or “indigo clothing”, that’s made entirely by hand — from growing and harvesting the cotton, spinning it into thread, weaving it into a fabric, to dyeing it a beautiful deep indigo, sewing and adding embroidery details by hand. The process is so intricate and laborious that each woman can make only four ao cham a year.
Thao works with several of the Nung women — Nhat, Chi Phung, Chi So — along with other ethnic tribes around Vietnam, applying their traditional skills to contemporary pieces for her shop in Hanoi, and I was there to learn alongside her.
We spent one morning harvesting wild yam roots in the mountains, followed by an afternoon of peeling, chopping, pounding and squeezing yam roots to make a beautiful peach dye for our fabrics and yarn. As the sun began to set and the air became cooler, we hopped on our motorcycles and went off to harvest fresh indigo for dyeing. With small knives we chopped enough stalks to fill the metal trailer attached to one motorcycle.
In the village we prepared the indigo dye in the vat. Over the next few days of fermentation, we watched the liquid change in color and thickness. Once the dye bath was ready, we dipped our fabrics into the vat carefully, making sure the dye didn’t overflow and that the fabric was evenly soaked. Then it’s a long wait in between dyeing, washing and drying, a process that’s repeated over and over until you achieve just the right shade of blue. The deep dark indigo of the Nung An women’s traditional dress involves dyeing the fabric 40 times, which usually takes two weeks to a whole month.
There’s something magical about watching the dye turn fabrics from yellow green to turquoise to a deep blue as you lift it from the vat and run it through water. We spent several days drying and dyeing fabrics; in between all that I learned how to spin cotton and how to weave using the local backstrap loom, a clever contraption with a seat and pedals that takes about four women just to set up. Sometimes, instead of weaving, we would sit around waiting for our dyed fabrics to dry, usually with a big bowl of jackfruit from the garden as a snack.
At the end of each day, I rode with Thao on motorbike back to our modest hotel in the town center. Dinners were spent at what seemed like the only restaurant in town, where we would have long conversations about our work, about working with communities, textile traditions and other Vietnamese tribes, over fried dumplings, fish and rice.
Going somewhere and learning something new from a local artist is one of the best ways to really travel. As Geetika says, “Learning doesn’t stop in the studio. Conversations and shared meals with the artist are some of the richest moments of a vacation with an artist.” After six days, I left Vietnam for the Philippines with an overweight bag — bursting at the seams with beautiful handwoven, naturally dyed fabrics and yarn — a mind racing with new ideas, a full heart and a bright spark in my soul that will keep me inspired for a long time.
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This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Smile magazine.