Madam Hoàng Thị Vân Lan had never seen quilts before when Mekong Quilts first arrived in her village 17 years ago. And in fact, she did not see foreigners for a while after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975.
“I was born in Danang city, but moved right after the end of the war,” she explained. As Da Nang lost its charm when the country slowly began to recover from the shambles of war, her family moved to the rural Đức Linh District of Vietnam’s South Central Coast.
Perhaps it was fate, but she was also one of the first locals that Bernard Kervyn first met when he arrived in the district more than two decades ago with Mekong Plus, an organisation that vowed to eradicate poverty in Vietnam.
Ms Lan at the Mekong Quilts’ shop for the monthly “Meet the Quilters” event.
“Life was difficult in the early-90s,” she said, as she began a verbal summary of her biography in brief.
“There wasn’t much work to do, [so] my father raised fowl and pigs to feed the family. Other than the provincial paved roads, it was mostly mud roads in our village.”
Fortunately, flooding was not a common occurrence in Đức Linh. But life was difficult with regular droughts and power outages.
A turning point in life
In 2000, Lan’s husband died in a motorbike accident, leaving her a widow with four children.
“Two of my children dropped out from school. [And] my eldest son fell into depression when he was unable to find work after graduating,” Lan relayed. Not too long after and against all odds, Lan was recruited into Mekong Quilt’s first quilting team and began working in both her village as well as in Ho Chi Minh City.
“[Initially] it took me 20 days to complete a full set of quilts beddings. [But] after about six months of guidance, I was able to complete a full set in just two weeks.”
Ms Lan’s nimble hands working on a baby quilt.
From just quilter to more than a team leader
As Mekong Quilts’ scale of production grew, Lan was appointed leader of several quilting teams and was regularly sent around the country to assist with coordination and training. All of Mekong Quilts products feature three layers of fabric, and Lan takes part in the social enterprise’s extensive quality control practices to ensure that no flaws are found on any product before they are handed over to the packaging department.
Top view of our best selling Sa Pa quilt.
Lan notes that the most complicated items to complete and check are ones with complicated shapes and patterns, including Mekong Quilts popular line of animal motif quilts designed with children in mind.
“The animal portions of the full piece have to be completed first, taking almost three times the amount of time!”
Elephant pattern on a baby quilt.
For her and other quilters, time and effort is sometimes accompanied by physical pain.
“You know, [for us quilters], getting pierced by needles is an almost daily affair!” She said as she laughed.
Ultimately, Lan believes that the social entreprises’ success lies in its fundamentally sound organisational practices. Everyone is trained to perform well in their own individual roles and tasks.
“[The] sewing department, patchwork department, quality control [department], packaging [department]. Everyone needs to be coordinated!” She explained. This ensures that customers receive goods on time without any unpleasant surprises.
Getting back on track after the pandemic
Perhaps unexpectedly, the pandemic of 2020 helped strengthen Lan’s love for quiltmaking and helped her realise the importance of creativity.
With a huge reduction of tourists, which made up almost 85% of Mekong Quilts’ customer base, Lan was also placed in an initially awkward position of creating new products that are relevant to her teams’ pre-existing skills.
“We tried our best to innovate. [Like] the batik mask. We’ve done batik designs for quilts before. So we did [that] for masks and it sold very well.”
Mekong Quilts colorful face masks.
Post-pandemic, Lan has continued expanding on developing other visual styles for Mekong Quilts’ products including star and log cabin patchwork. These designs and more have proven to be very popular with both local and foreign fans of quilts.
Her quilting workgroup in Đức Linh has seen a drop from 26 to only 10 women, but Lan insists that regular work for committed quilters is important—a smaller team means that passionate quilters don’t need to supplement their income with odd jobs in the village.
With every member’s monthly income bouncing back to nearly VND4,000,000 (US$170), or approximately half of pre-pandemic numbers, Lan is optimistic and hopes that tourism continues to recover in Vietnam to help the brand grow.
“Our ladies love their [quilting] work. It is our life. We hope that the spirit and love of quilting brings people closer to our [Vietnamese] culture and art,” Lan relates.
Bringing quilts closer to the people
Since late June 2023, Mekong Quilts flagship store at 85 Pasteur Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s bustling District 1 has introduced a new and exciting activity—once every month, visitors can join a nimble-handed Mekong Quilts’ artisan to be in awe with every precise stitch and stroke.
The unique patterns and motifs of Mekong Quilts’ south-east Asian-inspired quiltwork made possible only with uncommon Asian techniques is sure to stir curiosity within the minds of quilt and fabric lovers.
Two of Mekong Quilts’ best quilters at the Mekong Quilts’ shop for the “Meet the Quilters” event
As one of the first artisans to host a live-quilting session in Ho Chi Minh City, Lan is grateful for the opportunity to interact with foreign tourists despite not understanding their native tongue.
“We may not speak the same language, but all I know is that we share the same love for quilting!” Lan exclaimed with a smile.
Follow the Facebook page for updates about the next live-quilting session today to meet the women that have made Mekong Quilts possible.