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Once Home to Hanoi's Greatest Tailors, Làng Cựu Is Fading Into History

Làng Cựu, a village about 40 kilometers south of Hanoi, houses nearly 50 mansions that showcase the best of French and Sino-Vietnamese architecture from the turn of the century. It was built with the fortune of the tailors who originated there, and who were once considered to be some of the best garment craftsmen in Tonkin during the French colonial era.

 

 

A large mansion in Làng Cựu that reveals the village's once opulent streets. Photo via Lao Động.

Lying dormant south of the capital and oblivious to the fast-paced landscape outside its walls, Làng Cựu at first glance appears to be identical to other model villages in Vietnam. Upon closer look, however, the distinction is clear. The seemingly modest village is home to many century-old mansions with ornate rooftops and columns reminiscent of the old quarters on some of Hanoi’s famed streets.

Mansions currently still standing in the village. Photos via Người Đô Thị and Lao Động.

To unaware travelers, the buildings are merely sources of wonderment. But to their residents, they are sources of identity and pride, as their ancestors were once among the richest and most skillful tailors in Northern Vietnam.  

Humble origins

It all started in 1921. 

The tailors of Làng Cựu at work. Photo via Vietnamnet.

After several years of poor harvests and a fire that engulfed Làng Cựu, two brothers, Phúc Mỹ and Phúc Hưng, decided that a change was needed. They gathered everything they had left and set out for the capital in search of better times. Once they arrived, both vowed never to return to the fields again. They instead set foot into the booming suit industry. Starting at the bottom, the brothers frequented French-owned fashion boutiques and earned the tailors’ trust as their primary fabric merchants. However, the brothers aspired to be more. Enthralled by the art of bespoke tailoring, Phúc Mỹ and Phúc Hưng wished to become protégés in exchange for their reliable servitude. Although the tailors were initially skeptical of the brothers' abilities, they quickly accepted them after witnessing their talent and passion for the craft. 

By the mid-1920s, the names Phúc Mỹ and Phúc Hưng were well-known in the couture community, and they finally drew the attention of the dandy officers and nobles, all of whom yearned for a suit made by the two Indochinese tailors. From two unknown merchants in a stranger’s land, they rose to popular tailors to some of Hanoi's most powerful men and women. Their shops naturally grew into a household brand on many main streets, with plans of expansion to Cochinchina being considered. 

Advertisements for tailor shops with the names Phúc or Phú. Photo via Style Republik.

News of the two brothers’ fame and fortune traveled back to their hometown, inspiring many others to abandon the mattocks for threads and needles. By the 1930s, renowned stores such as Phúc Duyên, Phúc Thành and Phú Long were established in many regions, using "Phúc" or "Phú" as their namesake to signify their affiliation with Làng Cựu, and perhaps, the reputation of pioneers Phúc Mỹ and Phúc Hưng. Thus, the “Golden Age” of Làng Cựu as a powerhouse in the bespoke clothing world began. Around this time, many residents had left Làng Cựu for the cities. But some decided to come back and rebuild their hometown by using their personal funds to bring the glory of the capital to the heart of Làng Cựu.

The delicate details and large pillars of a still-occupied home would have been even more impressive in their heyday. Photo via Lao Động.

From the remains of the wooden huts, rows of cement mansions rose, each one embellished with Neoclassical-inspired ornaments. The use of Asian symbols and feng shui principles persisted, which resulted in a harmonious blend of eastern and western styles throughout each mansion. Nearby neighborhoods were in awe of the splendor of the new Làng Cựu, and they dubbed it the "western village" — the most beautiful in the Red River Delta.

Culture-blending elements found in Làng Cựu's buildings. Photos via Lao Động.

A harsh decline

In accordance with its inhabitants' prosperity, Làng Cựu's population grew gradually in the years that followed. But as the curtains of the Second World War fell, so did the village's fortune. Despite being the victor, France had suffered greatly in the war which created a knock-on effect on the economy of Indochina. Furthermore, the rise of communist movements throughout the northern countryside meant that anyone who possessed great wealth could be persecuted as alleged collaborators with the French regime. As a result, many tailors were forced to leave their homes once again in order to keep their businesses afloat in the cities and avoid punishment. Some tailors left caretakers behind to maintain ties with Làng Cựu, but most had given up on their hometown. In less than five years later, Làng Cựu had returned to its desolate state. 

Làng Cựu as seen in 2017. Photo via Người Đô Thị.

Làng Cựu’s population never truly recovered from the mass exodus of the 1940s. Only about 500 locals reside in the village today, with most having returned to agricultural means of making a living. The few that still practice tailoring now work in a nearby factory, earning just enough to make ends meet. Since the early 2000s, the villagers have been striving to preserve the remaining mansions, citing their historical importance to the community and to Hanoi. With that knowledge in mind, a team of domestic and international architects has devised plans to restore Làng Cựu in 2020. But two years have passed without a word on when the project will commence.

No entrance, no tour. Photos via Lao Động.

A mixture of emotions can be felt as one enters Làng Cựu today. The serene and enchanting atmosphere will surely excite any visitor who will feel as if they are transported back in time to a period only described in historical books. Walking further down the village’s main road, however, a sense of sadness soon arrives. It is easy to see the ravages of time and negligence upon the most beautiful village in the northern delta. The once-vibrant and -lavish rows of mansions now stand decrepit, and most have been demolished in exchange for the comforts of modern homes. Only about 50 mansions remain to this day, silently seen through locked doorways with no one's return being longed for. 

[Top image via Lao Động]

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