Hunting for the Black Silk of Tan Chau
The province of Tan Chau is famous across Vietnam for its naturally-colored black silk. We spent a day trying to find a place where we could watch it being made. Should be easy, right?
While in Vietnam, you’ll hear about a lot of experiences that sound like great fun. But often, you won’t be able to find many details. That’s fine if you’re willing to join guided tours, but for independent travelers, the lack of information can be maddening. Traditional silk weaving in the town of Tan Chau? Yes, please! Now… how about someone tell us where exactly to go?
The only thing we knew was that the silk was from “Tan Chau”, a town across the Bassac River from Chau Doc. We found a ferry to Tan Chau, parked our motorbike and hopped on. Already, we had committed our first and second mistakes. Tan Chau isn’t really a “town”, it turns out, but more a “region”. Taking a ferry to Tan Chau and expecting to find a silk factory was akin to walking into California and saying, “Now where are them redwoods?!”
Mistake #2 was leaving our motorbike on the other side of the river. A cardinal sin in Vietnam, where people take their scooters everywhere. It was immediately apparent that, if we had any chance of hunting down a silk weaving factory in Tan Chau, we’d need our bike. So we did a double round-trip on the ferry; I’m pretty sure the operators thought we were idiots.
Properly motorized, we headed off in search of silk, stopping in a few towns where, to judge by the dumbfounded stares we received, foreigners are not an everyday occurrence. And nobody could help us. In fact, the famous black silk of Tan Chau didn’t seem to be all that famous in Tan Chau. Scouring the map, we decided to head to Long Chau, which looked like the region’s largest town. It was also the furthest away; if we struck out here, we agreed to give up.
Pressed right up along the river, Long Chau was cute, but we weren’t here to see the sights, dammit. We directed ourselves to the town’s central market, to look for silk vendors. If anyone knew where to find a silk manufacturing center, surely they. The owners of the first silk store were friendly but weirdly insistent we go to “Tân Châu Xứ Lụa”, which Google identified as a restaurant. “No, you must misunderstand us. But thanks anyway!”
The next guy we asked, a clothes vendor inside the market, also suggested we try Tân Châu Xứ Lụa. Maybe, just maybe, it was Google that was misunderstanding. And as soon as we arrived at the doors of this establishment, we knew we were in the right place. That deafening stamping and whirring isn’t coming from a rice cooker! After being greeted at the door by a ferocious fleet of pomeranians, we stepped through the reception area and into the factory.
Inside, we found a long hall filled with automatic looms, about a quarter of which were running full-tilt. Dark and dingy, narrow and loud, with workers running back and forth, pulling levers, twisting knobs and squatting atop broken looms to fix their inner workings, this was a scene straight out of my craziest steampunk dreams. The pounding sound of the machines was hypnotic, as was watching them process their punch cards, each of which directed hundreds of needles in creating various patterns.
I’d watch one machine for a while, falling into its industrial melody, and then my ear would catch the rhythm of another loom’s shuttle, smacking back and forth between the raising and falling threads. A dozen percussive symphonies, all blasting full-volume, simultaneously.
After we’d had enough of the noise, we returned to the reception area, where the factory’s owners invited us to tea, and described how the silk is made. The silk itself is no longer produced in Tan Chau, but imported from other areas of Vietnam (such as Dalat, which we’d visit later). But it’s here that the weaving and coloring takes place. Tan Chau’s jet-black “Lãnh Mỹ A” silk gets its color from the mặc nưa berry; the dying process is done by hand, over the course of many weeks.
We didn’t get the romantic images of “workers in the field” that we had been hoping for, but we loved our visit to Tân Châu Xứ Lụa. The day had come perilously close to being a total disaster, so finding this factory really felt like a win.
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