The Oldest Embroidery Shop in Hanoi

by Qui Duc Nguyen, Oct 1, 1994 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Ask any Hanoi taxi or pedi-cap driver about the Tan My embroidery shop and he will likely claim to know where it is. He will also be likely to take you to the wrong one, for there are three such shops. Two are newer spin-offs run by brothers of the owner-manager, Do Thanh Huong, but the one you should insist on visiting is the original store run by Huong herself at 109 Hang Gai Street, a few blocks from Hanoi's Lake of the Restored Sword.

The store entrance to the original Tan My is in fact a tiny and dimly lit alley that has deceived many shoppers. Just a few feet beyond that narrow alley, you'll find a windowless but cozy shop whose assistants will cheerfully show you endless pieces of exquisite table cloths, silk blouses, dresses, shirts, pajamas, and wall hangings-all adorned with tasteful and gorgeous embroidery.

The embroidered clothes and linen, made out of Vietnam's finest silk and cotton fabric, occupy every inch of wall space. The glass cases and ancient shelves are stacked with even more such beautiful pieces of embroidered pillow cases, bed sheets, baby bibs, and handkerchiefs.

The Tan My embroidery shop has been in Hanoi for 26 years. It was started by Huong's mother, who first learned embroidery when she was eight. Years later, she became a popular worker favored by the French residents of Hanoi. It wasn't until 1968 that she set up her own embroidery shop at the Hang Gai address.

For a store selling such a non-essential product to be established at the height of the Vietnam War was odd, Huong admits. "Mother often made embroidered pillow cases for newly-weds, but her most popular pieces back then were the handkerchiefs and scarves that mothers, wives, and girlfriends commissioned as gifts to the soldiers setting off for the battles in the south."

Huong was initially reluctant to enter the family business. "I didn't think it could succeed," she says. "It was after all a time of terrible warfare."

During the worst days of American bombings, Huong's family was forced to abandon Hanoi to take refuge in towns further north. She was left alone in the capital to tend the shop."

I was young, and remember little of that time," says the 36-year-old woman. Taking care of the shop in those days was her first taste at running the family business, and it wasn't encouraging. Instead, Huong studied to become a nurse, and for a couple of years she worked at a state hospital. But by the late seventies her family had returned to Hanoi, and Huong began to notice that the number of appreciative customers kept increasing."

Not only that, but our shop began to attract foreigners as well," Huong explains. "They were mostly Eastern Europeans then, but also a few Scandinavians."

Huong abandoned nursing, and by 1980 she had become the manager of the shop. Although her five older brothers are technically in charge of the factories, Huong is clearly the one overseeing the entire operation. It is obvious that Huong has turned into a no-nonsense businesswoman, but she has retained a soft-spoken manner, and a kindness enters her voice when she speaks of the workers that produce the lovely pieces of embroidered fabric she sells.

Huong's workers all come from the villages of Thuong Tin, in the province of Ha Nam Ninh. It is here that the age-old Vietnamese embroidery tradition is carried on.

Huong currently employs 500 workers, all working by hand to make the embroidery that includes designs of majestic dragons, subtle green and blue lotus flowers, or sceneries of Vietnam. "Our employees are all descendants of generations of embroidery workers," says Huong.

Huong's workers are separated into two villages, one producing embroidery solely in white, the other colorful designs. "Our customers appreciate the embroidery. But they also say they like the softer Vietnamese fabric, the finer weave in our silk."

Still, it is the embroidery that has kept up Tan My's reputation. Hanoi now boasts dozens of embroidery shops, but it is the work of Huong's employees that stands out. To an uncritical customer, Huong will proudly point out the subtle differences."

Always look for the flowers that come alive on a piece of table cloth," she explains. Indeed, the tonal changes in color on the chrysanthemum petals or on the lotus flowers, the various shades of greens on the weaving stems or leaves do add to the vibrancy of the designs. Even on minuscule designs depicting the peasants working on the fields of Vietnam, the Tan My's embroidery workers have seemed able to portray astonishing details, using threads of varying colors to show the way light lands on a person.

Aside from traditional Vietnamese motifs, Tan My also offers customized designs. Some of the most charming pieces adorning the walls of Tan My are embroidered scenes from European children's story books."

Our customers often bring in pictures that they have adored since childhood," says Huong. "We take two to three months sometimes to reproduce them on a weaving." Westerners pay from US$50 to US$150 for a customized piece; table cloths with accompanying napkins for a setting of six or eight range from US$25 to US$40.

Visitors to the Tan My shop are often taken with the Vietnamese traditional designs of Asian flowers and peasant scenes. Others will find the white on white embroidery just the proper compliment to a refined table setting or bedroom set. But be prepared also for the irresistible children's bed sheets, with classic scenes of blonde haired girls in red-and-white striped dungarees, or of boys in yellow shirts and blue sailor caps, toy boat in hand.

With an eye on the future, Huong says she's waiting for the day when it will be easy for her to export her embroideries to the United States and other Western countries. "I really hope to see a Vietnamese tradition being celebrated abroad," she says.

Huong also acknowledges that times have changed. "Unlike my mother, I won't let my son go into the business. I want him to study and become a computer scientist," she says. As to the family, there's always her daughter. "She'll follow in my footsteps and continue the embroidery tradition."