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Cham hammock weavers a fading breed

Update: July, 10/2012 - 11:53


Patience a virtue: Nguyen Thi Muon (right) and her daughter, Mai Thi Rai, struggle to preserve the traditional craft of the island.
Making a living from the fibre of the plane tree is difficult and tiring work. It doesn't appeal to the younger generation who would rather work in the fishing or tourism industries. Minh Nhat reports.

Whiling away the hours in a hammock on a tropical beach is most people's idea of bliss. But for the traditional weavers on the Cham Islands in the central province of Quang Nam, hammock-making means months of hard toil, sore arms, callused figures and little money.

That is why just two women, a widowed mother and her daughter, still practise the art of fashioning hammocks from the bark of the plane tree (Platanus kerrii) on the islands, that lie about 16km east of Cua Dai Beach in Hoi An.

According to islanders, hammocks made from evergreen plane trees native to Viet Nam are unique in terms of their strength, comfort and aesthetic appeal. Plane trees on the eight-island archipelago grow on mountain peaks and steep cliffsides, making harvesting difficult and time consuming. Because of the severity of the habitat in which they grow, their roots bore deep into the rock, yet the trunks remain straight and upright. They are tough trees, that can weather wind and storms and high temperatures, and they are resistant to many tropical diseases.

Plane trees are also beautiful, and when they flower, they bathe the landscape in sea of cherry red.

The fibrous bark of the tree is ideal for weaving, and has been used for hundreds of years to make papooses, rope, fishing nets and particularly hammocks.

But harvesting the fibre is a time-consuming affair. Trees are felled when the trunks are about the width of a man's thigh. Afterwards, the trunks are immersed in water for about seven days to soften the bark, which is stripped to produce milky fibres, which are washed and dried. Not until the fibres acquire an ivory-white colour and begin to shine will they be used.

The weaving process itself requires great dexterity and patience.

Only Nguyen Thi Muon, 90, and Mai Thi Rai, 68, are the only islanders weaving hammocks from plane trees.

When Muon's husband died while fishing decades ago, she was forced to raise her four children by herself from the money she makes weaving hammocks. Now, all but her second daughter are married and have children of their own.

Everyday, from dusk to dawn, Muon and Rai head off to the high peaks to harvest plane trees. It's dangerous and difficult work, but the wizened nonagenarian with still bright eyes says she wishes to keep the ancient craft alive.

"People without patience cannot weave hammocks because it is very difficult and time-consuming," Muon says, while knotting fibres for a hammock in front of her house.

Muon cannot remember how many hammocks she has woven in her life, but she says a day has not gone by when she hasn't either been harvesting wood or weaving. Although local demand for hammocks is limited, she says tourists eagerly pay VND1 to 1.5 million she charges for a hammock that takes months to make.

"A few days ago, several foreign visitors were so interested that they wanted to buy my hammocks. But I only had one left, so they ordered another three and promised to buy them all on their next visit," Muon says, beaming. But what worries Muon is that the unique craft might disappear someday because no one on the islands wishes to learn the trade.

There are about 2,600 islanders in Tan Hiep Commune, most of whom are fishermen. She says young Cham islanders do not have the patience or the attention to detail required to make hammocks from plane tree fibre. She says that two months of fishing can meet their everyday needs for the year.

And those who don't wish to pursue a hazardous career at sea, work in tourism, selling souvenirs or taking visitors on boat rides.

In a bid to revive interest in hammock-making, the local authority has launched traditional weaving classes for young people. "The classes teach hammock-weaving techniques, as well as other handicrafts," says Nguyen Van Vu, from the Cham Islands Centre for Marine life Conservation.

However, it's an uphill battle as many young islanders have moved to the mainland, which offers more employment opportunities.

Muon raises a gnarled hand to her forehead. "This is a dying art," she says, glancing at the hammock she is weaving. And I'm left wondering if she has even lain in one of her hammocks. — VNS

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