A reed mat (chiếu) used to be a must-have item in Vietnamese households when I was small. My family ate around a big round tray on a mat on the floor. One of my chores was to roll out the mat before meals and to neatly roll it back again after. In addition to using these mats as places to eat, we slept on mats instead of sleeping on a mattress. On hot summer nights when there was no power, my grandmother would put a mat on our roof top so we could lie there in the cool(er) air and I would fall asleep listening to her telling folk tales.
I found out about Cam Ne mat village last month when researching traditional handicraft villages in Hoi An bigger area. The village has been around since the 15th century and they used to weave mats for kings of the Nguyen Dynasty in Hue, which is about 100km from there. Obviously if the kings were sending for mats from so far away, they had some pretty good skills. I have always wanted to buy a couple of mats for our house because of my childhood nostalgia about them, and I was curious about seeing them made in the traditional method. So off we drove on our blue scooter to Cam Ne on a burning hot day.
My husband and I expected to see colorful reeds everywhere once we passed the village gate, but reeds and looms and mats were nowhere to be found. It took us half an hour driving back and forth and asking to finally reach an old lady’s house who was said to sell mats. It turned out that she and her partner together with another lady in the village are the last people who are still weaving mats. She said her daughter-in-law knows the technique but had switched to become a construction worker since the pay is so much better.
Cong is 79 years old and her weaving partner, her niece, is 78. She said her family had been weaving mats for nine generations but she was not optimistic about who would continue the tradition. It was hard work after all, and nowadays people rarely use reed mats anymore. According to Cong, the village once wanted to develop tourism but the plan didn’t work out because of its remote location.
My husband and I bought two mats realizing that we are seeing what is likely the end of hundreds of years of handicraft in the village once revered for it. Sad, but such is the way of life. Most places producing these mats are doing it with machines now, which are much faster and more profitable due to their output.
Here’s how these traditional mats look like in our house now. What do you think?