1, 2, 3 – CHARGING!
Name of village: Ban Thach Mat Village
Location:

1, 2, 3 – CHARGING!

LeX: SP X DTU | Da Nang, 27 March 2016 – 9 April 2016

OF XIN CHÀO AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS


When I was first introduced to LeX by my Gen Ed lecturer, I thought that it was a good deal. You get to do an otherwise semester-long module in only two weeks and furthermore, you get to do it overseas. I for once have never been on a plane before so the promise of going overseas somewhat reeled me in. Also, I thought that it would be a great opportunity to grasp as it would definitely be a new experience altogether.

The first meeting with my team mates was somewhat awkward to say the least. Everyone was quiet and some looked like they would rather be somewhere else. Alarm bells were already ringing in my head at the thought of working with people I could not talk to but thankfully our facilitator, Mrs Leong, managed to break the ice. Since then, we became closer over the subsequent meet-ups and WhatsApp conversations.


Figure 1: Three Business students, two Science students, an Engineering student, a Design student, a Social Science student and a gentle lecturer is definitely a combination to look out for.

I guessed I should not have judged a book by its cover because my team mates turned out to be the ones who looked out for one another. On the day of the departure, I was constantly asked if I was feeling okay since it was my first flight. My team mates scrambled to look for sweets so that I would not mind the take off experience and one of them even allowed me to take his window seat so I could look outside. At this point, I realised perhaps I did not have to worry about not getting along well with my team mates after all.

We touched down at Da Nang at about 8:30PM local time. When we stepped out of the airport, we were almost immediately greeted by the cold Da Nang breeze. It felt like being in an air-conditioned room... but outdoors. We were led on board a bus which brought us from the airport to where we would be staying, the Song Thu Hotel. On the bus ride, we were given a short introduction to Da Nang By Mr Tino, one of the Duy Tan LeX lecturers.He told us about the numerous bridges that Da Nang has. For a city, Da Nang boasts about 4 main bridges. One of the bridges, the Dragon Bridge, breathes fire and water every weekend at around 9PM. The spectacle lasts for about half an hour but even without it breathing fire and water, the Dragon Bridge still looks magnificent.

Back to the hotel - it was a short walk to the Duy Tan University campus and also to the café we would have our meals at. We were told that it would be our accommodation as the campus was undergoing renovations. We did not really mind that. The hotel lobby had plush sofas and the rooms had comfy beds, hot water, air-conditioning and most importantly for Singaporeans, Free Wi-Fi! Trust me, Da Nang has free Wi-Fi almost everywhere. I was able to reply my WhatsApp messages almost everyday that my friends back at home asked whether I was really on an OSIP trip.

Figure 2: The first time we worked together as a group – in which this was probably the only time we had a formal discussion before we made way for much informal discussion circles

Meeting our Vietnamese counterparts was like opening a new storybook; the first few moments seemed to pass by very slowly with lots of confusion but after awhile, it got more fun to keep moving on once we knew how they were like. Our buddies were fun-loving and absolutely loved playing games. We were introduced to them to games such as charades and in return, they entertained us with random karaoke sessions. We formed a noisy bunch and we shared lots of jokes and laughter among us.

Sadly a few days after we got to Da Nang, I was down with fever and a terrible cold due to the weather. Thus, I was advised to not exert myself too much and to take lots of rest. My team mates were perhaps more worried than I was of myself and kept handing me different types of medicine in hopes that I would feel better. It felt the warmth of my team mates even from those small gestures and I think that was what made me appreciate them more.

Figure 3: Our facilitators often took us for walks by the river at night after each discussion session for us to relax. This was our team with our wonderful PC!

FROM CITY KIDS TO VILLAGE KIDS

Going to the village was something that I had been looking forward to since Day 1. Our village, the Ban Thach Mat Village, is located at Quảng Nam province just south of Hội An. Straws were not a rare sight in the village as almost all the households there were involved in straw mat making. It is a traditional job that is passed down from generation to generation in that village. Besides that, some of the villagers famred, cold noodles or did carpentry for side income.


Straw mats can be used for a lot of things in the village. We have seen them being used for eating, sleeping, relaxing on and in worshipping. The process to make one straw mat can take about 22 days depending on the weather. First, the straw crops are harvested and bundled together. Then, they are dried under the sun for about 3 to 4 days. When it rains, the drying process takes a longer time. Sometimes, it may even affect the quality of the straw as the moisture allows mould to grow on the straw.

After the straw has been dried, it is then dyed different colours – red, purple, green or yellow. The dye used is a powder brought from the market. Water is brought to a boil in a pot. Then, the powder is poured and mixed until it becomes a solution. After that, the straws are put into the pot by bundles and stirred with the dye until the colour seeps into the straw evenly. The villagers do not know what the dye contains but the fumes emitted from the boiling solution often gives the villagers eye irritation and breathing problems. Some of them are even allergic to the dye and it leaves them with rashes on their skin. The colour of the dye transfers to the hands when the straws are touched so it is very inconvenient. The dyed straws are then left to dry under the sun for another round, this time for a shorter period of time. After that, the straws are brought in to be weaved into mats.

Figure 4: The lady let us try our hands at weaving a mat. It was definitely not as easy as it looked

The weaving process involves a large wooden frame called a khung dệt chiếu. Nylon strings are wrapped vertically along this wooden frame, depending on the length of the mat that is weaved. A comb-like structure in the middle of the frame is bent either up or down to allow for space in between the strings. Then, straws are inserted horizontally in between the strings using a long stick with a flat end. After the straws are inserted, the comb is used to pack the straws to one end. This process is repeated with different coloured straws until the weaver reaches the end of the nylon strings. An amazing thing about the weaving process is that the villagers do not use a guide to know which coloured straw comes next. They are so used to making the mats that choosing the next colour becomes something instinctual.
Usually after a few straws a packed together, the weaver will tie a knot at the ends of the straw so that it will stay in place. Most of the time, the weaving process is carried out by two people, one person will put the straws in between the strings and one person will hold the comb and pack the straws together. The job can also be done by one person. Mats range in length, starting from 0.70m as the shortest and 1.8m as the longest. Producing a full length mat can take up to 3 to 4 hours and a household can make up to 2 mats per day.


After making the mats, the villagers sell them to a middleman who takes the mats to sell at the market. Each mat earns them different amounts depending on the length. A 0.70m mat can earn them about 80 000 VND (5.00 SGD). As this is their main source of income, the villagers will not earn money if they do not make any mats for the day. That is why most of the villagers do this job every single day without any rest.

When we visited each house to carry out the interviews, the villagers welcomed us warmly to their houses and let us stay for more than half an hour, even when we were just asking question. They were more than happy to talk to us and even let us try weaving a mat. It was not hard to pull the comb and pack the straws together but I could not imagine myself sitting for long hours and doing the same repeated movement over and over again.

What I noticed about the villagers was that they enjoyed talking to us and even invited us to talk to them more when we were free. I would have loved to be able to talk to the villagers but alas, we were separated by a language barrier. Even so, the villagers were never stingy of their smiles and their faces were always bright. I was happy enough to be able to interact with the villagers with simple hand gestures and basic Vietnamese.

Figure 5: We all came to an agreement that for some reason, the best food throughout the whole trup was all eaten at the village

The homestay experience was something that was unforgettable to say the least. Us city kids threw away all our caution to the wind and made ourselves as involved as possible. The house that we stayed in was right next to the river so we were able to watch the sunset every day (Sadly, we did not wake up early enough to see the sunrise). We helped the cô (aunt) of the homestay prepare our meals, wash the dishes and water her crops. We fell in love with the Quảng Nam style of cooking and fish sauce. We also managed to play with the little chicks and enjoyed making drip coffee by the river. Overall, we truly enjoyed spending time in the village, especially with each other as company.

BACK TO WORK

During the night after the interviews, we compiled all the data into data points and categorised the information into different headings. Each heading gave us a better understanding of what the villagers faced and felt. We identified several problems that the villagers had in common after looking at the bigger picture. The obvious ones were that the villagers needed more money and that they needed to take care of their health during the mat making process. After looking at the insight, we also found out that the villagers were lonely and needed the company of people who would appreciate their craft. The villagers living in the village are mostly old and live by themselves. Most of their children have moved to the city as there are better job prospects there. Despite mat making being a traditional craft that has been passed down from generations, the villagers’ children rarely learn it nowadays after moving to the city. Therefore, the villagers do not have anyone to talk to and their outlook on the craft is that it is not fulfilling enough.

Figure 6: Thinking of the best working solution for the villagers was definitely hard, what more when you missed the village atmosphere…
After our 3 days homestay, we went back to the city to continue our project. However, it seemed that luck was not on my side as I succumbed to a fever during the morning and had to rest in the hotel. Thus, I could not join in on the ideation process. I wondered if it was for the best that I sat out because when I joined in during the afternoon, there seemed to be an ominous dark cloud in the room and everyone had stress written on their faces. My team mates were glad that I was back in the game but they still told me to not stress myself out. I would have said the same to them.

My team mates had came up with interesting concepts which could solve the problems that the villagers were facing. However when it came to pitching the ideas to the other groups, idea after idea was criticised and shot down. Despite efforts being crushed, the team pushed forward and fixed the loopholes in our concepts. Thankfully, the second pitch was more forgiving than the first and we managed to hold onto 4 concepts which we could present to the villagers.

Figure 7: The first concept was a hanger which could be used as a rack for drying the straws. A bamboo rack was attached to a hooking point to allow for hanging. Multiple hangers could be used at the same time so that more straws could be dried at one time and more space could be utilised. This could allow for the drying of straws to happen even during the rainy season.

Figure 8: The second concept was a weaving wheel to speed up the weaving process. There were two wheels involved in this. One small wheel was placed under the comb to allow it to move back and forth and one big wheel was placed next to the frame to balance the contraption. This would make the weaving process faster and easier and when a mat is finished quickly, the villagers would not have to sit at their spot for so long thus reducing their muscle aches.

Figure 9: The third concept was a Mat Village Experience. We decided to market this towards local Vietnamese students instead of tourists as we thought, “Why not let the locals know about this experience first?” We felt that when local students come for this village experience, they would be able to have a better connection with the villagers as they speak the same language. This would let them enjoy more things and it would open up opportunities for the villagers to share their stories and have people to appreciate their craft.

Figure 10: The fourth concept was a mini weaver to make use of unused straws. Usually the villagers would dump these straws into the river so we thought that this would be a much greener effort. Plus, they could get side income from selling smaller items that could be made from this weaver, such as coasters, bags and bracelets.

My favourite part of the whole Design Thinking process would be Co-Creation. Not only for the fact that we got to return to the village, but also because we got to tell the villagers about our concepts and ask for their feedback on them. In a way, we got to involve the villagers in this project so that they could have a say in what was best for them. We could have gone ahead with our concepts and make them into a reality but it would have been meaningless if it was not what the villagers wanted.

The villagers liked most of our concepts, save for the hanger. They said that it was a bigger hassle than the traditional way and they preferred the latter. They especially liked the mini weaver idea and were interested in it. However, they did not know how to make any of the items but if there was someone who would teach them they would be eager to learn.

AND I’LL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT WHEN I SEE YOU AGAIN

I daresay, I do not think that I would have been able to enjoy this project if not for my team mates, both from Singapore Polytechnic and Duy Tan University. We were a bunch that worked hard and played harder and I think that was what worked for our team dynamics. After the gallery walk, on the day of our flight back home, we spent the whole morning and afternoon outside. It was good that we did because we got to spend time with our Vietnamese friends. Even though all of us had only been with each other for 14 days (or more for the SP students), we had been through a lot together and shared more than just secret languages and inside jokes. We shared a friendship built on unforgettable memories.

Figure 11: To summarise all the antics that the Straw Mat Village Crew has gone through, ‘wacky’ would be an understatement

I certainly did not regret signing up for this trip and I would definitely never forget Da Nang, the city that accommodated us and treated us with bạc xỉu, fish sauce, fishcake noodles, mountains, beaches and beautiful scenery. As we bid our goodbyes, we found ourselves mentally preparing for that shift when we touchdown in Singapore. It has been an amazing journey for both the mind and the soul and I could not have asked for a better location to be my host and a better programme to be my fuel.

Written by: Nawwarah Li