Madam Hoàng Thị Vân Lan had never seen quilts before when Mekong Quilts first arrived in her village 16 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.
Mekong Quilts and Mekong Plus founder, Bernard Kervyn, during a bamboo bike tour in Ho Chi Minh City.
“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 working on a Sa Pa quilt, one of Mekong Quilts’ best sellers.
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.
Close-up shot of the Sa Pa quilt’s pattern.
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.
Surviving the pandemic and strengthening moral
Perhaps unexpectedly, the pandemic of 2020 has helped Lan 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 Batik face mask.
Perhaps rather heartbreakingly, Lan has had to make tough decisions that would impact her teams both financially and mentally.
“Because of the pandemic, we sometimes only have two orders a month.” She explained. Instead of retrenching quilters, work is distributed amongst them so everyone gets a fair share of work and profits.
“At least everyone gets [paid] something. With less work, many of our ladies quilt at home while taking care of their families. I think this is sustainable until the pandemic ends,” she added. She notes that although many quilters have moved on to working in footwear factories for additional income, the comparatively toxic environment has also discouraged several of them.
“We used to have 5 teams in my village in [Đức Linh], now we only have one. Till it ends, we have to stay strong!”
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