“We’re very proud of all our products. We never say: ‘Please buy because it’s charity.’ We say: ‘Buy because you like what we’re doing, what we’re designing.’” So says Lily Pham of her stylish Vietnam-inspired notebooks, bags and travel accessories. Immigrating to the US at the age of 11, Lily founded Viet Artisans as a way to give something back to the country of her birth. “I’ve seen my parents’ generation – very talented, creative people – but because of the war, they couldn’t make anything of themselves.
I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but I feel I owe Vietnam something. Until I do something, build something that can contribute towards its growth, I feel my life is incomplete.”
So began Viet Artisans, a social enterprise employing rural and disadvantaged women in Vinh Long where the craft center was built on Lily’s grandmother’s land. Armed with a double degree in Statistics and Legal Studies, Lily came back to Vietnam first working for an anti-trafficking NGO and then as a consultant for the UN. But her goal was always job creation, giving people a way out, instead of merely providing charity.
“In the Mekong Delta, typical jobs might be construction worker, fruit picker, doing odd jobs,” explains Lily. “The worse thing about that is they are unable to plan for the future. Everything is a dream, not a plan. People might say things like: ‘I wish my kid could finish school,’ but that’s still not a plan. If something unfortunate happens, people just have to accept it. With us, they earn a decent salary, we pay for health insurance, some of their children receive scholarships, and they receive training,” Lily says of the 11 people employed by Viet Artisans who spend their days sewing, silk screening, making tote bags and binding notebooks.
“Books are a great platform,” she says. “The covers are blank so there’s room for unlimited creativity.” The books themselves are saddle or stab stitched, a time-consuming but traditional way of binding books by sewing the paper signatures together. Lily and her team of designers draw inspiration for the covers from traditional Vietnamese elements: lotus flowers, bronze drums, vintage maps, and gives them a clean, updated look. The Viet Artisans line also includes greeting cards, travel gear, purses and eco-friendly fabric bags.
The bulk of their sales, though, come from corporate gifts, some featuring custom designs. For example, for the 20th anniversary of The Landmark, Lily designed an image of the Saigon River, starting out as rural and gradually building up with The Landmark highlighted on the Saigon skyline.“If customers like a gift, they’re going to use it all the time and that’s very subtle brand building, a priceless endorsement, really.”
In addition to being unique gifts, Lily wants Viet Artisan products to bring a smile to the face of the receiver, whether
it’s the joy of receiving a hand-written card in the mail or unwrapping the customized packaging with names like “Cool and Crazy”, “Happy Go Lucky” or the “Thinker.” “There’s a message of ‘you’re so awesome. I’ve learned so much from you. You mean so much to me’,” says Lily with a smile as broad as the Mekong itself.
Select Viet Artisan products are carried at Gingko, Artbook and the A O Show. Its full range of products is available at www.vietartisans.org with free delivery to the Nikko, Novotel and other hotels in D1. “Like” VietArtisans on Facebook for notification on full day tours to the crafts center which include workshops on silk screening, calligraphy and embroidery, boat rides and lunch. Visitors also keep the gifts they make as a momento.