By Thúy Hằng
Despite being born and bred in Nga Sơn, a rural district in the central province of Thanh Hóa famed for its traditional bed mats and other products made of sedge, Trần Doãn Hùng never wanted to follow the craft and becoming involved in a business endeavour relating to the material never even crossed his mind.
Like many in his village, after graduating from high school he headed to Hà Nội to attend university and then worked for a few years in the capital.
In 2017, he went to work at a resort in the beach city of Nha Trang on Việt Nam’s south-central coast, where by chance he found a new direction in life. A female co-worker showed Hùng her new handbag, made of sedge. Admiring its meticulous weaving, he began to think about his hometown’s famed craft.
“I wondered whether this was something I could do,” the now 28-year-old recalled. “After some restless nights, I decided to quit my job and return home and found a start-up.”
And so it was that in 2018 Hùng founded Cỏ May Craft (Gold Bear Grass Craft).
“Gold Bear grass, the local sedge, is flimsy but durable,” he said in explaining the company name.
“Like many people who were born and bred in a village, when I was living in the city I was always nostalgic for home, with its green pastures and sedge. It’s what brought me back.”
Without knowledge and experience, though, he had to start out from scratch. While studying and learning the craft, he was fortunate enough to meet a helpful craftsman in the central city of Huế who was willing to share his skills and experience.
He also decided, though, to focus on sedge products other than mats, which had been made in his home village for hundreds of years.
Cỏ May, therefore, specialises in producing women’s handbags. Together with sedge, the company also makes bags using other natural materials such as rattan, bamboo, straw, and hyacinth.
“Customers only accepted our products once they met their requirements in quality and design,” he said. “This why I pay particular attention to such details.”
His bags are rounded out by leather straps, handles or flaps, which add a modern touch. They also come with a removable inner lining, so they can easily be kept clean.
For the young and demanding entrepreneur, product quality isn’t just about durability but also about style and elegance.
“Quality must be seen in every detail,” he said. “The product must look nice, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have to care about every single knot and seam.
“Keeping an eye on such details requires that craftsmen be experienced in observation and be self-disciplined.”
Though any number of enterprises have been seriously hit by COVID-19, Cỏ May has come through it all largely unscathed.
“Sales have only been down slightly, as we mostly sell via online platforms,” he said.
The 1,000 bags produced each month are sold on Amazon in the US at prices ranging from US$75 to $150.
Hùng’s products have also found favour in France and Australia, with substantial monthly orders coming from traders.
COVID-19 did, however, give the young businessman a new idea.
“People weren’t able to go out during the pandemic, and instead spent more time at home,” he explained. “So the thought occurred to me: Why we don’t create decorative household items from sedge?”
Cỏ May Craft then started to introduce decorative wall hangings made of sedge on Amazon in February and feedback so far has been positive.
Last year a project of Hùng’s called “Combining natural materials and leather to create handbags” won first prize at a contest on start-up ideas from young people organised by the Thanh Hóa provincial Youth Union.
To create stable jobs for his fellow villagers, Hùng has begun a training course for a group of women aged 35-55.
“Once they become skilled weavers of our particular products, instead of employing people from elsewhere, such as Kim Sơn in Ninh Bình or others from Huế, we can recruit local villagers,” he said.
He feels happy whenever he receives a photo of customers with one of his sedge bags.
“That’s when I realise my products have travelled all over the world,” he said. “I feel proud to have contributed to promoting ‘Made in Việt Nam’ arts and crafts to international customers.”
His ambition continues, with plans to cooperate with Vietnamese fashion brands as well as foreign retailers in creating a new range of items. VNS