Hill Tribe Textiles in the Time of Coronavirus

At the beginning of February, Maren and I recognized that our usual, annual trip to the hill tribe villages of Laos and Vietnam might be hampered by the distant news of a viral pandemic. Rather than waiting until March (when I was free to go), Maren opted to leave early (anticipating possible future closure), and I chose to remain home to ensure that our Eugene “world” ran smoothly even if Maren was delayed returning. Both of us could not be caught on our regular Asian “business trip” in the event of future border closure.


While I did not get the enjoy a visit to friends and participate in our continuing learning and documentation of the silk, hemp, and cotton weavers of the region, Maren did manage to zoom through several of our regular villages for textiles and other tribal arts just prior to border closures, returning home a week earlier than anticipated.

What was it like visiting these villages on the cusp of a pandemic?  Here is Maren’s report:

Well, yes, I was nervous about visiting countries abutting the source of Covid-19.  It was a tough decision to proceed but missing the chance to see and support our artist friends didn’t feel like an option.  So, off I went.

All went smoothly flying to Vietnam.  Remote temperature checks going through Korea, but no personal stops, though I had to fill out a health survey upon arrival in Noibai Airport in Hanoi.  I wore a mask throughout my flights and in airports, and wiped down everything I could at my plane seat with alcohol wipes.

I spent a day in Hanoi, acclimatizing to the time zone and checking in with our friends who provide textiles and other tribal arts we can’t obtain elsewhere.  All expressed concern about being able to survive the decrease in tourism, evident even at the end of February in Hanoi.  Everyone was cautious and most locals wore face masks (though almost no tourists did).  Masks are often worn in large cities in Asia against air pollution, so most locals were happy to comply with wearing them against Covid-19.  A friend who stocks many small items we purchase in Hanoi even offered me 5 cloth face masks for free out of concern for my health while traveling for this trip.  Our friends in Asia are so kind!

A Hanoi street vendor prepares to make my breakfast of herb filled omelet in a baguette, all for less than a dollar!  I sat on a stool in front of a coffee stall and watched.  Note the wooden bar and baskets holding all of the tools of her trade, including the stove.

The next morning, I left Hanoi on a taxi booked through our good friend Mr. The’ who owns the E.T. Pumpkin travel agency.  Lovely, though long, drive to the border with stops for coffee and lunch.  When I arrived at the Vietnam border, they asked me for my passport before even getting into the visa check room.  Upon examining it, the border guard said I couldn’t go to Laos as I didn’t have a Laos visa.  I explained that, for the last 15 years, we had crossed at that border and obtained our visas at the Laos side as we crossed and didn’t need to have a visa ahead of time.  He disagreed.  I took back my passport and stomped, rather perturbed, to the visa room.  There, he showed me a sign that said that travelers could not cross into Laos without having a visa ahead of time, and that the effective date of that ruling was January 1, ostensibly due to Covid-19.  I told him that that was not true.  I had checked the Laos embassy site, and this border crossing had absolutely no notification of needing to have a visa in advance.  After pointing to the sign many times, he pulled me into another room, where a border guard with better English explained that that was the rule and there were no changes allowed.

I called our friend Malaithong (Mai), who was waiting on the Laos side of the border for me with a car and asked her.  She hadn’t heard of the visa requirement, even though she is the Director of Tourism Development for Houaphan Province, which borders Vietnam at this border point.  I called Mr. The’, who said Mai may be able to call the Laos visa office and have them quickly make me a visa and e-mail it to the border office.  Despite many phone calls, the effort was to no avail.  Mai ended up driving back to her home two hours from the border, and I ended up having to drive the 7 hours back to Hanoi in my cab.  There, Mr. The’ had arranged for a one-day visa for me with the Laos Embassy, and a staff member came to my hotel the next morning to pick up my passport, and then returned it that evening complete with Laos visa.  The next day I took the same cab (very sweet and kind drivers!) back to the border where crossing was easy.  I stopped to thank the English-speaking border guard for being so understanding of my frustration 2 days earlier.  Always good to admit when you are in the wrong (particulary to regular border guards)!  Two days late and many dollars and time spent in a car for both me and Mai, but the trip was back on.

Phout, Souksakone, Maren and Sukkhavit (Phout’s aunt) in 2009.

Mai met me on the other side and we finally were on our way to Xam Tai, the birthplace of the stunning silk textiles about which we wrote our book “Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos”.  Hugs all around, and great relief to finally arrive.  Unfortunately, having been delayed at the border, I missed the wedding of the young woman (daughter of Chola in our book) we first met when she was 12 years old, who wove beautiful narrow scarves with bright butterflies on them.  SO disappointing.

Four Lao sisters: Phout, Maren, Souksakone, and Mai. Maren may not look Lao, but…..

Mai and I were in Xam Tai for 3+ days, seeing friends, and buying a beautiful new supply of stunning silk textiles.  I am so amazed, every time we go, to see textiles that are even more beautiful than those available the year before.  New colors, patterns, and even new young weavers with their first pieces, shyly but proudly presenting their art for me to purchase from them in front of all of the women of their village – I can never resist buying from these new, hopeful weavers continuing the traditions of their families and cultures.

A young silk weaver in Xam Tai.

No one was wearing masks in Xam Tai, so I made the decision to not wear one either as we spent most of our time outside or in wood houses with good airflow throughout.  However, I used hand sanitizer and washed my hands with soap quite frequently.  I also emphasized with Mai, Souk, Phout, and others, that they needed to wash their hands with soap, not just rinse with water, in order to keep themselves safe.  It’s a very tough task to get people to change their behaviors when they see no evidence of needing to do so.  I was rather worried for everyone, given the number of Chinese workers on many construction projects around Laos who may have gone home for Tet and then come back to Laos for work, thus my anxiety level was higher than the usual level caused by purchasing more textiles than budgeted for due to the beauty of the pieces (yes, I did that again this year…).

The weaver in Xam Tai, Laos dons her incredibly fine naturally-dyed silk shaman’s shawl

Mai Chom as an 8-year-old in 2013.

One exciting event in Xam Tai was being invited to the young weaver Mai Chom’s house for dinner (she is featured in our book).  I had asked her, when looking at a gorgeous piece she had woven (and I bought), if she still was interested in becoming a doctor.  She said yes, and I told her that our friend Vandara’s daughter is a doctor and is willing to talk with Mai Chom about what it takes to become a doctor in Laos.  Mai Chom, now 15 years old, and her mother, were very excited about the connection, and the dinner ensued.  A lovely meal of chicken (traditional for greeting guests), delicious greens, sticky rice, bamboo shoots, and lao hai (Laos fermented rice “beer” sucked up through a bamboo straw, drinking competition style, as a celebration of special guests), were provided that evening for me, Mai, Souk, and Phout.  Lovely to be able to participate in another family’s meal and celebration.  Mai Chom’s parents and grandmothers were there, as many households consist of at least three generations of family.  Mai Chom was the youngest and only participant of her generation at the dinner and beamed shyly the whole time as we talked about her skills and capability with her family.

15 year-old Mai Chom poses with the incredible “man-woman” healing cloth she recently wove. It is woven from 100% naturally-dyed, locally raised silk.

Maren and 15-year-old Mai Chom in February, 2020.

Due to my delayed entry into to Laos, some portions of my trip had to be eliminated, so I was on a much faster deadline to see friends and textile suppliers.  Quick stops and long drives helped make up some time. Fortunately for me, our friend Somchanh, who makes the beautiful hand-carved wooden textile hangers and wall art we feature at our sales and online, is also a driver with his own van, so he provided me with transportation from Houaphan Province to Luang Prabang, with multiple stops in weaving villages on the way.  His wife Chantee came with him on the drive as she had never been to Houaphan before.  She was a great help with purchasing as she knew the prices for some of the items I was purchasing if I had chosen to buy them in Luang Prabang instead of in the village where they were made from the women who wove them.

It was in Luang Prabang where the first true impact of Covid-19 on Laos became evident.  The night market was very sparsely attended.  The night food market was virtually empty.  All of our friends in Luang Prabang expressed great concern about how they were going to survive, not only the virus, but the economic downturn caused by the decrease in tourism.  I admit, I overbought again, in Luang Prabang, out of concern for our friends trying to make ends meet.  Somchanh was worried about the decrease in tourists needing his van service and his subsequent ability to make his van payments.  Others were worried about paying rent on the spaces they showed their textiles and other goods.  Some shops where we had ongoing relationships were closed.  One other friend I just spoke with who lives in Luang Prabang is concerned that she will lose her rental home and have to live in her shop as she has had no income over the last two months and may not be able to keep paying rent on her home.

Mone, a Katu weaver, designer, and businessperson shows off one of her handwoven cloths. The white glass beads are actually woven onto the weft threads.  New textiles for 2020!

Nonetheless, people were cheerful, kind, and welcoming, as usual, and my time in Luang Prabang was lovely, despite the hard work.  I stayed with our friend Vandara both in Luang Prabang, and at her stunning guest house at Tat Kuang Si waterfall.  Her daughter Daeng took such good care of me in Luang Prabang, remembering what I like for breakfast and having it prepared without even my ordering!  Daeng also helped label my purchases for US Customs requirements and helped pack my boxes for shipping.  Such kind friends we have.

I then had a whirlwind day in Vientiane, where I checked in with Carol Cassidy at her Lao Textiles shop.  She is doing well, as are all of the weavers who work on traditional looms making Carol’s own designs for customers around the world.  She was a little concerned about Covid-19 but thought her family would stay in Laos for the summer.  That was not to be, as, shortly after I flew home from Hanoi, she and her family also left for their home in the States out of concern for the virus.  I also had a lovely meal with our friend Phout’s daughter Phouang, her husband Nan, their kids, and, surprise of surprise, Souk, who had come down to Vientiane after I left Xam Tai for business.  The next day, after visiting our shipper with a few more purchases, I flew to Hanoi.  No temperature checks, but everyone wore masks.

Maren with Carol Cassidy at Carol’s studio in Vientiane in March, 2020.

In Hanoi, I visited Mr. The’, who stored my bags for a couple of hours while I had dinner before getting on the train to Sapa.  He said that it was still OK to go to Sapa for a couple of days, but that he didn’t know if I would be allowed to stay in a village with my friends or when Sapa town would close to tourism.  The reason was that, a few days before I had arrived, two tourists from Europe had gone to Sapa, and were found to have been on a flight with someone who had Covid-19.  They were tested and were positive, so the police took them to the hospital, then back to Hanoi to the quarantine site for anyone who tested positive.  46 people in the Sapa area were determined to be exposed to them, and two restaurants and two hotels were closed on account of their visit.  Mr. The’ asked me to report in so he could know what was happening on the ground from my perspective.  I did, daily, and he checked in with me daily too to make sure I was OK.  Friend indeed.

When I arrived in Sapa, there were virtually no tourists.  Restaurants and shops were closed.  I called my friend Thi to see if she could still host me at her home.  She said we’d try, and she could talk to the village chief and let him know that I am “family” if any problem arose (we have known her family well for 15 years, and the girls – all in their 30s – call me “2nd mom”).  A friend of hers from her village drove me in his taxi to her village, and I was able to stay with her.  She had cancelled all future guests to her homestay though, and I was to be her last visitor until Covid-19 danger was considered to be past.

Our very good friend, translator, and cultural liaison Thi, near her home in Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam

We are so incredibly fortunate to have such good friends throughout Lao and Vietnam.  I can’t say that enough.  This time, having ordered some items from Thi to be made by her, her sisters, and her husband (items we have been purchasing from them for many years), I knew that she would have all arranged for me.  Not only that, but, while in Luang Prabang where her sister Sho lives with her family and has two shops selling her family’s items (Sho is the first member of the family we met on our first trip to Vietnam in 2005), I looked over some of Sho’s new merchandise, and, through a phone call to Thi, ordered a few other new items made by their sisters to purchase in addition to the original order.

Thi had everything arranged upon my arrival in her home.  We started with reviewing and purchasing the items she and her family made.  Her sister Sa, who designs and sews beautifully, was not able to bring her items to me herself, as she delivered her baby the day after I arrived!  A nephew brought over her items for me to choose from – I bought them all.  Thi and sister Zhu (who was 7 months pregnant), helped label the items I purchased from the region the morning I left.  Beautiful textiles, again.  Indigo dyed, as well as natural-colored handspun cotton and hemp, batik fabric and bags, pillowcases made from batik and hemp, beautifully used machettes and baskets, Thi’s husband Trang’s handmade traditional jewelry, what a stunning supply of traditional textiles and accessories.

Thi cutting up pumpkin for our lunch back in 2010.

During the two days I was there, Thi and I also swooped through the market and a couple other villages for the items her family did not make.  While stopping at an ATM to gather more money to purchase inventory items (yes, I overspent my budget here too!), we were stopped by a police officer on a motorcycle who chewed Thi out for not wearing her mask while talking with me, then told us that I had to go register at a tourist registration office set up to track visitors in the area so they could trace who went where in case the tourists ended up with Covid-19.  We found the office and I filled out a form stating my location and travel for the previous 14 days.  They took my temperature, checked my passport and visa, and I thanked them for being so careful regarding the health of the people who lived there.  I wanted to leave a good impression in case they wanted to make life hard for Thi, but fortunately they didn’t.

Given the virus concerns, Josh and I thought it might be best for me to get home earlier than originally planned.  Josh tried calling the airline in the US but couldn’t get through.  I tried calling the Hanoi office of the airline, but they didn’t have anyone who could speak English in the office.  I decided to cut my Sapa trip short and get back to Hanoi to change my flight there.  My flight had already been changed once to go through Japan instead of Korea (experiencing an outbreak at the time), but that created a problem with my connecting flights in the US – into Seattle, with a flight 15 minutes later from SFO to Eugene!  After just two nights at Thi’s home, I caught another train back to Hanoi.

A Black Hmong woman, masked because of coronavirus, sells beautiful hand-embroidered clothing panels in the Sapa, Vietnam marketplace.  She embroidered the belt she is holding when she was a teenager, and had used it for years until deciding to sell it.   Yes, it is in our hands now!

The train arrives in Hanoi at some ungodly hour of the morning, so I arrived at our usual hotel before 6:00 AM.  There, our lovely friend and host Tuyen opened the door for me but didn’t offer a room to a couple of young ladies on the street looking for a place to stay.  I was puzzled that he didn’t offer them a room but didn’t ask him about it until I caught a couple more hours of sleep.  When I awoke and went downstairs to see him, he said that he is the only staff member who has been working at the hotel for 28 days.  All others are back at their villages and can’t come into Hanoi.  He said that if he let in someone who ended up having Covid-19, he would have to go into quarantine and the hotel would be shut and he wouldn’t be able to see his family for 14 days.  He only allowed in people he knew – there were just a few of us staying at the time.  He said that a South Korean person had been trying to get a room a few days before and had been turned away at every hotel as, given the state of South Korea and Covid-19 at the time, any hotel that took him in would be shut and all their staff quarantined.  I don’t know where that poor man ended up staying.

I had to fill out a form that morning showing all of my travel in Vietnam, just as in Sapa.  Then, after coming back to the hotel after getting a coffee, he had me fill out another form, as I had neglected to put in the information on my flight from Laos, and the system had prompted him to get that information from me as it had been entered when I had to fill out the forms in Sapa.  Talk about up-to-date data tracking!  Impressive.

By popular demand, I was able to obtain a few of these from the town of Na Sala, Laos – indigo-dyed, ikat-style, handspun, handwoven, cotton scarves.  Here, Thong’s daughter models the lovely scarf she wove – the same style each member of our textile tour last spring learned how to ikat tie.

Once the forms were complete, I asked him to help me contact the airline office in Hanoi.  He called the office number I gave him.  The office gave him a number for an English-speaking office member.  He called her and put me on the line.  I offered to go to her office and she said “no, no, no, we can just do this on the phone”.  I gave her my original flight information and within 5 minutes she texted me my new reservation for a flight leaving that night – five days earlier than originally booked, to go home.  Such efficiency!!!!!

With one day instead of my planned 3 days to finalize all of my purchases and packing in Hanoi, I had to rush!  Earlier, while with Thi, I had e-mailed the woman whose sister makes the stunning quilling cards we discovered last year in Hanoi.  She emailed me in Sapa saying she needed me to come pick them up sooner as the hotel where she worked was closing due to no customers from Covid-19.  We managed to connect in that one day I had in Hanoi.  Whew!  The other people with whom I had placed ordered in Hanoi had everything ready for me and in a whirlwind day I picked everything up, bought boxes and tape, and my lovely hotel friend helped me organize and pack everything in order to make the flight home that night.  (He said he was pleased to help, as he had nothing else to do!).

A beautiful village valley near Xam Tai in Laos’ Houaphan Province.

I hauled all of my Vietnam merchandise home on the plane as there was not time in Hanoi to arrange with the shipper to get all of the items to her to be shipped to our customs broker in Portland.  It was a good thing too, as we have all of that inventory in hand now, but all of our items purchased in Laos are stuck in Vientiane waiting for flights to resume as, when Laos closed its borders, even cargo flights stopped.  Fortunately, our Laos shipper is very good and kind, and has put our bags in their airconditioned office to keep them all in good shape until they can be shipped.

I found it rather concerning that, in the Hanoi airport, we had temperature screening before entering the departure area and everyone wore face masks, but, when arriving in the US, there was absolutely no health screening and almost no one wore a mask.  This was on March 17, when covid-19 had been in Seattle, where I landed, for at least two weeks, and was rapidly spreading throughout the country.

A proud silk weaver in Xam Tai, Laos dons her latest, naturally-dyed handwoven “phaa biang.”

Having made it back home (out of the frying pan into the fire), I am left wondering why Laos and Vietnam have so many fewer cases of Covid-19 than the US, and no deaths to date?  I’m sure scientists and epidemiologists are all scurrying to figure that out.  My only contribution to the reasoning, besides the obvious better testing and isolating being done in those countries, is that people there eat so much better than we do.  Lots of fresh veggies with each meal, less meat and sugar.  That, and the median age in Laos is 23, Vietnam 30, and USA 38.

Josh and I are relieved that I was able to go on our business buying trip this time, as, not only did I want to check in with our friends to see how they are doing, but we were also running out of inventory due to excellent sales at the end of last year, and needed more art to share with all of our customers!

As soon as the Laos shipment arrives, we will be ready to share the beautiful items purchased on this trip.  However, due to Covid-19, all of the shows we were planning to attend to share these beautiful handcrafted items have been cancelled for this year through October.  We do not yet know whether it will be safe, or sensible, to conduct our usual Sacramento, CA, Portland, OR, and Eugene sales this November and December.  SO…….

Give us a call if you are looking for a special, handmade, custom, beautiful gift for a friend, family member, or yourself.  E-mail us with any specifications including size, color, motifs, and price for items you want.  Let us know if you are curious about what we think is extra special was discovered on this trip.  We can take quick photos and send them to you for custom, in-home shopping.  Help us support these artists through the economic downturn they (and we!) are experiencing due to Covid-19.

Most of all, know that we miss the opportunity to meet with you and share stories of your, our, and our Laos and Vietnamese friends’ lives.  Stay healthy.  Wash your hands.  Wear your face masks.  Take care of yourselves in the ways that work best for you.

We look forward to seeing you as soon as we are all healthily able to do so.

Beautiful northern Vietnam.