Rare Female Artisan Preserves Memories in Hanoi

The craft of darning clothing requires an eye for detail, creativity and patience, and for the 72-year-old craftswoman in Hanoi, it has proven to be a lucrative source of income.

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Just a few steps away from the bustling streets of the capital, Nguyen Thi Hong has been attached to a craft that she has followed since her twenties. As one of the few remaining talented artisans in the city, her dedication to her work is unparalleled.

The Essence of a Bygone Generation of Hanoian Women

The essence of Hanoian women from a bygone generation is something that cannot be duplicated. These women were hardworking, determined, and devoted to their families. They had a strong sense of pride in their culture and traditions, and they held their community together. They were resilient in the face of adversity, and their courage and strength of character inspired generations to come. Their legacy of courage, fortitude, and self-sacrifice lives on in the hearts of those who remember them. They may have passed, but their spirit will always remain in the hearts and minds of those touched by their courage and grace.

 Nguyen Thi Hong has been spending over 40 years yarning clothes in Hanoi. Photo: Dan Tri

Residents of Thanh Mien Alley in Van Mieu Ward of Dong Da District, Hanoi, are accustomed to the sight of Nguyen Thi Hong, a small grey-haired woman, sitting in front of her humble abode — number 2B — peacefully weaving clothes.

Since 1979, she has been a constant presence on her ancient chair, surrounded by a toolbox filled with needles, strings of all hues, scissors, pens, notepads, tape measures, and other items. All of these were necessary to bring her craft to life.

Inside the house, a tall wardrobe full of shirts, pants, scarves, and socks received from customers for repair fills the air with a comforting aroma of antiques and nostalgia. The scent lingers, a reminder of times gone by.

Life has changed dramatically in recent years. Tailor shops and clothing stores have become increasingly popular, but Hong’s garment repair shop has remained a well-known and much-frequented establishment. Customers continue to visit the shop for its reliable quality and excellent service.

Even a wealthy family on Kham Thien Street has, for the past two decades, gifted her with a variety of items – from inexpensive scarves to expensive coats – to be skillfully tailored by her.

No matter how large the tear, Hong always manages to mend the fabric so expertly that the average person would never even realize it had been repaired.

While slowly knitting the sweater that she had received that morning, Hong remembered the days when she was just starting out. “In the past, it was common for women in Hanoi to be skilled in needlework,” she reflected. “When I was 29, my mother-in-law Ta Hue Diep taught me the craft.”

 The simple working tools of Hanoian craftswoman. Photo: Dan Tri

Nguyen Anh Dung, Hong’s husband, fondly remembered: “My mother was once renowned as one of the most talented seamstresses in the capital. She worked in a tailor shop near Hoan Kiem Lake, where she used to mend extravagant clothing for Western officials.”

Besides Hong, Diep also passed her craft on to her own three daughters, all of whom later opened dressmaking shops and employed workers.

Hong exclaimed that she was thrilled that so many people had come to interview her for newspapers, books, and films. Her decades-long skill and dedication to her craft have earned her the honor of being listed in the Thang Long Imperial Citadel as one of Hanoi’s few living dressmakers.

Rejuvenating People’s Cherished Memories

Although her agility may no longer be what it once was, Hong can still complete a garment within one or two days. This is the same way in which her mother-in-law raised four children, and she has managed to bring up her son in a healthy and successful manner.

Without a large shop or employees, Hong may never become wealthy, yet she is content with her peaceful and comfortable life.

I never tire of my work, except when I’m feeling under the weather. Each day I repair a different tear, no two are ever the same. The money I make from mending clothes is quite good, enough for an elderly couple to get by on.” She smiled.

Normally, I charge just fifty thousand dongs (US$3) for a simple yarn, while more sophisticated ones – due to the fabric or the weave – may cost a few hundred thousand dongs ($10 and above), for example, blousons,” she went on.

 A profession that requires a craftswoman’s ingenuity and perseverance. Photo: Dan Tri

Hong calls herself the “memory patcher”, as she not only repairs new garments with defects, but also restores cherished items that her customers don’t want to throw away. Most of these items have been gifted or are particularly special to them, so her services are invaluable in restoring these treasured memories.

Many years ago, when the monsoon season arrived, an elderly woman approached me and asked me to repair her old, tattered cotton jacket. She told me that the garment had been passed down to her from her grandmother, and that it held great sentimental value. I was more than willing to help her, so I got to work right away. I patched the holes, reinforced the seams, and stitched up the fraying edges. After a few hours of hard work, I was able to restore the jacket to its former glory. The old woman was ecstatic and thanked me profusely for my efforts. This experience taught me the importance of taking good care of one’s possessions, no matter how old or worn out they may be.

At first, I was hesitant to tell her that the jacket was too torn to mend and would cost a lot of money, so she would be better off investing in a new one.

But the woman pleaded with me to repair it, saying that no matter the cost, she had to have it fixed so that she could wear it; it was a gift from her beloved son, given to her just before he died.

There are foreign visitors from distant countries toting bags of clothing to her store. Some chatter in Vietnamese about having been recommended to Hong by friends, while others read about her in the local newspaper.

When retrieving their items, customers often give her tips, but Hong always politely refuses to take more than a few dollars – the same amount she charges Vietnamese customers. Furthermore, she is always kind enough to provide them with advice on how to clean and care for their garments.

The beaming smiles and heartfelt thanks of her customers bring simple yet precious joy to the woman who spends most of her life darning clothes at her doorstep.

 The Hanoian woman helps people to patch the priceless memories in life. Photo: Dan Tri