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In Hoa Binh, a Social Enterprise Supports Vietnam's Last Remaining Paper Artisans

As aid to Vietnamese communities decreases, how do we continue to preserve cultural heritage? Zo Project, an organization based out of Hanoi, offers a compelling example of the role social enterprise can play in Vietnam.

Beside the train tracks in the Old Quarter, you will find a modest shop selling traditional paper products. But Zo Project is much more than your average souvenir store. The minimalist storefront is one of the last places in Vietnam selling handmade paper. Founded in 2013, Zo Project works with formerly aid-dependent villages outside Hanoi to help them enter a profit-driven economy without sacrificing their cultural heritage. This way, local artisans are able to continue to earn a living from their trade.

In the small Mường village of Suoi Co, situated beside a river in the mountains of Hoa Binh Province, Nguyen Thi Huong wakes up every morning and begins the tedious process of making handmade paper. The ingredients she uses are all sourced locally. paper, which is soft to the touch, is made almost entirely of bark from the (Rhamnoneuron balansae) tree. The other main ingredients are water and a naturally occurring adhesive. To add color, the team makes dyes from the flowers and leaves of chàm trees.  

Suoi Co villagers collect branches from tree plantations. Photo by Hong Ky.

Turning these ingredients into a piece of paper, however, isn’t easy. It takes years to perfect the skill and, in Suoi Co, only one worker is trusted to carry out this complex task. First, tree bark is stripped, steamed and beaten into an off-white pulp. Then, in one swift movement, the mixture is spread evenly across a bamboo screen. As it rests, the fibers interweave and meld together to create a sheet, which is then pressed to remove excess water. Once peeled off, the paper is left to dry for an extended period in direct sunlight.  

“The process of making paper could take you one month to learn. But the process of mastering it, to have a good skill, takes a really long time, ten years or longer than that.” Hong Ky, project manager at Zo Project, told Urbanist Hanoi.

Workers in Suoi Co mixing pulp and laying sheets of wet paper. Photos by Chris Humphrey.

But these days, young adults in the area aren’t learning how to make paper. Instead, like the majority of the local population, they are heading off to work in a nearby clothing factory. While the factory has been a source of economic stability for Suoi Co, this new industry has also become a threat to the longevity of the village’s famous, skillful tradition. 

Although paper has existed in Vietnam since the Ly Dynasty in the 13th century, keeping the tradition alive has proved difficult. Throughout the 1990s, numerous small villages across Vietnam began to receive aid from both international and local organizations and thus had less reason to practice traditional crafts. Recognizing that paper, and the knowledge that surrounds it, was at risk, Suoi Co became the recipient of an aid program designed to preserve the skill. In the early 2000s, the Vietnam Rural Industries Research and Development Institute (VIRI), a Vietnamese nonprofit established by the Ministry of Science, was brought in to give assistance.   

Eventually, though, the role of VIRI, like the fate of so many crisis-oriented aid programs, became unneeded. The village found much-needed economic stability, and in 2008 the original vision of the aid agency was declared a success. The villagers then faced a completely different challenge: what happens when support is taken away?

While incomes have grown substantially in rural villages like Suoi Co, the per capita growth of those in the countryside is estimated to be nearly 50% lower than their urban counterparts. Which begs the question: how, exactly, are rural communities expected to grow alongside Hanoi and Saigon? And will there be room for Vietnam's cultural history to remain intact going forward?

“Social enterprises are the next level of NGOs. After the war, a lot of NGOs came to Vietnam to help the country develop and improve our life. But now, Vietnam is developing very fast, and so NGOs are gradually leaving the country. The next level will be social enterprise,” Hong Ky said.

What's more, politicians now recognize the role social enterprises play in the nation’s growth. Vietnam’s Enterprise Law was revised in 2014 to provide a legal definition of social enterprise, and the government promised to “encourage, support and promote the development of social enterprises”. According to the legislation, social entrepreneurs will be able to obtain funding, sponsorship, and investment from Vietnamese and foreign individuals, enterprises and NGOs to cover their operational and administration costs.

Zo Project, then, feels like a natural progression in an industry formerly subsidized purely by NGOs. And the organization’s founder, Tran Hong Nhung, used to work for the exact kind of organization that’s now left the area.

“I worked for a long time in [the] NGO sector and learn so many lessons that if we provide fish and even tool to fish for the community is not enough, you have to create the conditions to lift up the whole industry,” she said. “Then you can start to see the change.”

Examining the wealth of products for sale inside their store – notebooks, calendars, lamps and necklaces – the extent to which Zo Project has successfully revived a unique aspect of Vietnamese culture becomes clear. They are also aware, looking to the future, of the delicate balance they wish to maintain between entrepreneurship and ethics.

One of Zo Project's calendars. Photo courtesy of Zo Project.

“One more thing that we spend a lot of time thinking about, is that if you scale up your business, how big will the impact be to the environment and the community?” adds Hong Ky. “If you make paper with a lot of modern techniques, it becomes closer to the industrial way, and we don’t like that.”

They plan to bring the paper-making process to Da Bac, another rural district in Hoa Binh, in the next year, although when asked if she thinks younger generations are taking an interest in the paper, Hong Ky seems skeptical. As we travel to Suoi Co Village on one of Zo Project’s bi-monthly tours, though, three college students from the city come with us. They want to look into the feasibility of incorporating into modern art and post the entire paper-making process on Instagram.

While clearly showing enthusiasm for the tradition, however, their ideas remain separated in tone from the more earthy tendencies of Zo Project’s founder, and the organization as a whole. “When you touch paper, you can immediately connect with nature, it feels like it has soul,” Nhung said. “It helps us look deeper inside of ourselves and question our lifestyle; how much we don’t pay attention anymore to what we buy.”

“We are lucky to live in the world where people are ready to change and move toward a brighter future where we make use of our natural resources with great care,” Nhung added. “So take this chance and make a better place for all of us.”

[Top image courtesy of Zo Project] 

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