Wild Tussah Explores My Nghiep Cham Village
- Danica’s experience visiting the Cham Brocade
- Day One- One Stylish Host, Four Weavers & Com Tam
- Day Two- Jaka, Kindergarteners, Mud house & Phan Rang
- Day Three- Phan Rang City & Saigon
A transparent look into where our Cham weaves come from.
The traditional art of weaving brocade has been around for hundreds of years in Vietnam. My Nghiep Village, located in Ninh Thuan Province, 10kms outside of Phan Rang City, has a reputation for its high quality weaved products and well-preserved Cham culture.
According to locals, artisan Ponuga is the founder of the craft that was then taught to the Cham people in My Nghiep. Nowadays when girls get to the age of ten to twelve years old they learn how to weave from the older women in their family; mother, grandmothers, aunts and cousins. These weaves are tailored according to the motif patterns used and the purpose of the weave. They are commonly woven to make traditional Cham clothing and souvenirs; headscarves, belts, sarongs, wallets and handbags. Weaving is one of their main forms of income. Without the demand for weaved souvenirs and wholesale bulk orders, they would struggle to keep the tradition alive and provide for their families.
The biggest contributors to preserving this unique culture is the Inra family. Inra Sara, a poet, and Inra Hani, a weaver and dancer, created the Inrahani Culture Center in the village to educate visitors and display a weaving workshop. They raised their sons both in the village and Saigon. They have been a valuable part of the community for decades. Inra Jaka, Sara and Hani’s son, has made it his mission to spread culture awareness and teach Cham language to others. We were fortunate enough to have Jaka as a tour guide during our visit to the village, as well as meet Mr. Sara later in the day and work with Mrs. Hani in Saigon, sourcing weaves in the city.
There’s a lot of information written about Cham weaves, but if you want to get a deeper understanding of what its like to be an artisan in the village you have to go there for a visit. So Danica, Wild Tussah’s Founder, and Khuê (also known as Megan), Wild Tussah’s Administrative Assistant and Translator, booked a six-hour train ticket from Saigon to Phan Rang to do a bit of exploring.
Danica’s experience visiting the Cham Brocade
Before Hopping on the Train
Whilst sourcing weaves in Saigon, we came across Mrs. Hani’s weave shop in the city where she acts as a liaison between My Nghiep Village and wholesale buyers. We told her our plan to visit the village up north, so she kindly offered for her son, Jaka, to show us around when we arrived. She informed us that he is well educated, loves teaching others about Cham culture and speaks perfect English. We were sold.
We booked our tickets a couple weeks later and planned a three-day trip as a team-building experience and the opportunity to learn more about where our Wild Tussah weaves directly come from.
Khuê was so pumped for the trip. She grew up in Saigon and had never explored this part of Vietnam. Khuê’s interest spiked after she researched brocade weaving for Wild Tussah. She had lots of questions lined up to ask Jaka about Cham culture and religion. I knew this would be a great experience for the both of us. This trip would put a lot more weight and meaning behind the mission of Wild Tussah.
Getting to the Village
We met each other at the train station before a 6am conductor whistle. We climbed into the second level of a six bunk bed cabin, and wow did the next six hours fly by! With the help of beautiful scenery that could entertain for hours and the hum of the train that could put the lightest of sleepers to rest, 12pm came shockingly quick.
This was the first time I had the opportunity to travel with someone who could speak Vietnamese. Past trips around the country involved lots of miming and creative communication strategies with the locals. So once we got off of the train I was relieved at how easy it was to hire two motorbike taxis to take us to our accommodation. Thank you Khuê!
On the way, our drivers gave us a mini tour; pointing to the mountains to tell us about the local cave, excitedly showing us the ducks roaming around the rice fields and drove us through the grape vineyards where local fruit is grown.
Day One- One Stylish Host, Four Weavers & Com Tam
Once we arrived to our accommodation, the most stylish Vietnamese woman I have come across greeted us, Phuong Dung. She had her hair thrown up in a big bun on top of her head and wore a colorful, floral dress to match her extroverted personality. She was like our mother away from home. Ms. Dung made sure we were charged the right price for motorbike taxis, pointed us in the right direction for dinner and even offered to personally drive us to Phan Rang City 10kms away the next evening. We later found out that she used to be a policewoman, which made sense since she had a protective way about her.
After unloading our things into our room, we borrowed one of her motorbikes and went to My Nghiep Village.
My Nghiep Village
Upon our arrival we met Mrs. Hani’s cousin, Mrs. Diem, who runs the Cultural Center while she is away and owns a local grocery shop. She welcomed us inside and let us ask a few questions whilst she was weaving.
We learned that Mrs. Diem was taught how to weave at the age of ten from her mother, as well as how to set up the loom according to specific patterns. The loom takes a day to set up and then a weaver can make up to 120 meters of brocade a month, depending on how good she is.
Older women wear scarves around their heads that are usually hard in texture and decorated with glitter thread. Younger women wear scarves wrapped around their neck that are usually soft in texture and made from cotton and silk.
In the past, Cham people collected coral from the beach in order to balance the thread. Mrs. Diem described the sounds of the coral moving up and down as beautiful music from the sea. Now they use cement or small sand bags of equal weight.
After a bite to eat, we visited the weaving workshop down the street from the cultural center. We quickly found out that it was harvesting season. The large open room was full of empty looms. Many of the weavers were back at the farm harvesting the rice so only two weavers were left. Ha Thi Nga was one of them. The particular motif she was weaving with the second weaver was one of their Gods, Shiva. It requires two weavers at a time and is the hardest to learn. It is the most time consuming pattern and takes a whole day to weave five blocks of Shiva. Khuê and I bought one for ‘luck’, as they described it.
We continued onto the next room that displayed all the finished weaves and products that were ready for retail. Mrs. Hani’s sister, Thuan Thi Trao, was resting on a hammock waiting for people like us to stroll on through. Thankfully she agreed to let us ask some questions and record her answers.
Mrs. Trao’s Interview Video
We learned from Mrs. Trao that she was taught how to weave at the age of twelve, knows how to use three different types of looms and her family has the oldest loom in the village; passed down ten generations! These looms were definitely built to last. She also shared with us that Shiva is a Hindu Deity. He flies on a magical peacock holding two magical torches and brings health, wealth and luck to people keeping the Shiva brocade.
Once the rain subsided after the interview, we took a thirty-minute walk back through town, past rice fields to our stylish host’s accommodation. The sun was setting so we needed to get back before we were forced to wander aimlessly through the dark. Ms. Dung recommended a few restaurants along the main road for dinner, including a Com Tam place (broken rice with meat), a standard Vietnamese dinner.
We had an early start planned for the next morning so we headed back soon after dinner.
Day Two- Jaka, Kindergarteners, Mud house & Phan Rang
Journey through My Nghiep Village Video
The next morning our 5am alarm came too quickly. We groggily turned it off and made our way to the culture center to meet up with Jaka.
He zoomed in on his motorbike, dressed in traditional Cham clothing and said ‘Hello’ like he had been awake for hours. Right away I could tell he had a unique personality all his own. As we chatted over ca phe sua das (iced coffee with condensed milk- tastes like chocolate!), Jaka spoke very poetically; a trait I think he must have inherited from his father. He chose his words carefully and explained his ideas through analogies and phrases I hadn’t heard used before, whilst making complete sense.
We bounced around talking about what it was like for him growing up in a Cham Village and Saigon, what his life purpose is, his experiences travelling around the world and the impact he hopes he can make. He referred to himself as ‘a city boy with a farmer instinct’ and hates the question ‘what do you do?’ as he has many talents and skills he uses to make money. His response to that question is, ‘I do what I do’ and ‘yes, I am a government body. I govern my body and mind’. He was born with a destiny and that is ‘to protect culture’. Jaka has done lots of travelling around the world and has found that ‘the spirit of good people around the world are the same’.
At one point in the conversation he explained what inspired him to teach Cham language:
‘One day during a university lecture, my professor explained that every couple of weeks a language is lost. And in 20 years, the Cham language will be lost too. That’s when I knew I had to do something.’ –Inra Jaka
That realization struck me hard as well. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have the language I spoke with my family and friends go extinct within my lifetime. Jaka told us that the Cham schoolchildren nowadays don’t even learn in Cham. They learn in Vietnamese. Therefore, the next generation most definitely will not be fluent in their native language. He had already made an effort to change that in the local school system, but there’s only so much one person can do.
I had packs of colored pencils and stickers I wanted to give to the children around the village, so I asked Jaka for recommendations. He confidently pointed toward the school across the street and said ‘the kindergarten class!’. I expressed some worry of making it a big deal, but he responded enthusiastically. The children would associate this positive experience with foreigners and the English language. My natural shy side took over and I hoped he would forget this idea once we started our tour, but it turned out the kindergarten class was the first stop. I couldn’t get out of this one.
As soon as we reached the class and I saw their cute four-year-old smiling faces, I felt thankful for this opportunity. This turned out to be my favorite part of the whole trip! The children gave me a big ‘hello’ and giggled as Jaka joked with them in Vietnamese. I threw out some questions to the students, including how to count. Luckily I’ve learned up to ten in Vietnamese, so I could tell them if they were right. Their reactions to receiving the supplies were priceless.
After our visit to the kindergarten class, we continued walking through the village. Jaka was obviously a favorite in the town. He seemed to know everyone we came across and they eagerly started conversations with him. He also has a lot of family members in the village, so we toured through a few of his relative’s houses, including his grandmother’s, who had an eighty-year-old loom inside! Every family has a loom of their own that they use to make their own clothes or sell for retail.
As we went through the village, Jaka kept taking notes out loud on how traditional Cham mud houses are built. He had just completed a mud house of his own, which took two months to build; a project that all the elders in the village had an opinion on. As with any custom built house, there are obstacles that pop up along the way, such as the realization that you used the wrong material to build the roof like Jaka had. Instead of the roof lasting five to six years he will have to replace his in two. He seemed to accept these minor mishaps, but was glad to be finished with the building process. I was excited to see this traditional house of his.
Next stop was the pottery village. On the way we saw farmers drying rice out in the road. I had no idea that this was how they did it! They spread the rice out all over the road with a rake and their feet. After the rice dries, the farmers take it to a factory where the rice is separated from the husk and bagged to sell to the public. Motorbikes and trucks continued across the roads like nothing was unusual. Khuê and I, on the other hand, had never seen this before. So we bounced and skid across as cautiously as we could until we arrived at the pottery village.
Khuê was excited by the clay Cham statues. She had read so much about them before coming, so she bought one of her own to take back with her.
After a pit stop for a sweet black bean drink, Chè đậu đen, we continued on to the Cham Temple, passing vineyards on the way.
The Cham Po Klong Gerai Temple
I have already seen a few Cham temples in Vietnam, but this one was by far the most impressive. It is located high up on a hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding area.
Khuê fired out questions about Cham religion; how the individual structures are used for ceremonies, who the Gods are, how the temple has changed from the original design. A few facts we learned:
- There are three towers in Po Klong Garai Temple: The Gate Tower is the front, the Fire Tower to the left, which is used for preparing food for ritual and the Main Tower in the back. In the middle of the towers, there’s a square yard called “Mandala”, which is also used for preparing rituals
- Cham temples have a very small door for only one person to go in at a time without any windows.
- A special technique is used to paste clay bricks together without the use of cement.
- Traditionally, no one is allowed to live or go inside the Main Tower except for the highest priest and his student or assistant.
It was almost time for lunch, so we went back to Jaka’s recently built, traditional Cham mud house. I was surprised by the location; it was a further 10 minutes out from the center of the village, surrounded by cactus, open fields and two beautiful lakes.
While waiting for the fish stew to finish cooking, we had fresh yogurt that Jaka’s neighbor made accompanied by a bowl of local grapes.
We learned that Cham houses are built with the woman of the house in mind and with strict rules according to Cham beliefs and culture. Some interesting facts:
- The gate should head south with a roof above.
- In the courtyard there should be a spot to dry rice.
- The walls are made from a clay mix to keep the house cool and coated with a protective top layer.
- The windows are positioned according to wind direction to make the most of the elements of weather.
- The kitchen and restroom are separate from the rest of the house to prevent cooking smoke coming inside.
- The bedroom is sacred. Only husband and wife are allowed in.
- Every house displays the year it was made at the top of the front door.
After an amazing lunch with Jaka, Mr. Sara and Jaka’s friend, we said our goodbyes, and made our way back to our accommodation and then on to Phan Rang City. Our trip was already a success and it wasn’t even over.
Phan Rang City
For the second half of the day we enjoyed Banh Trang Nuong, a caphe sua da and tra da for afternoon tea. We drove around town, watched the sunset on the beach and ended the day with octopus soup and fruit smoothies.
Day Three- Phan Rang City & Saigon
At 4am our alarms went off so that we could catch the ‘must see sunrise on the beach’. I thought we would be the only ones there, but as we pulled up to the boardwalk we saw loads of people with lifejackets swimming in the ocean, men playing soccer, women doing interesting hip exercises and fishermen in coracles. Unfortunately, it was an extremely cloudy morning, so no beautiful sunrise today, but great for people watching.
For breakfast we had egg and octopus Banh Can. Phan Rang’s specialty. Khuê and I were very excited for this meal, as it’s quite hard to get back in Saigon. Check out Wild Tussah’s Instagram account to see how it is made in tiny clay pans.
After breakfast we drove through a few other Cham villages to the sand dunes. I was picturing them to be next to the beach, but it turned out they were in the middle of the local villages. Often farmers trekked through with their cattle to get to the other side of the dunes.
The Train Ride Home
1pm came quick. It was time to catch the train back home. So the two of us piled on one scooter with our heavy backpacks to get to the train station (my first time riding with two other people on one motorbike), quite a terrifying ride I might add. Even Khuê was scared; if a local Vietnamese person is worried, then you should be too!
Khuê and I reflected on the trip on the way back home. We had learned so much during our stay. This journey to My Nghiep Village was a great reminder why Wild Tussah exists in the first place. We were an important piece of the puzzle in the fight to help preserve cultural minority groups. The more we can help create demand for their traditional skills, the more the culture stays alive.
If you’d like to see the trip from Khuê’s perspective, check out her blog post.