The guidebooks inform us that Vạn Phúc (please pronounce this to rhyme with "fluke," and not...well, you know what not...) is on the banks of the Nhuệ Thì River, 8 km. southwest of Hanoi. In actuality, you head down Nguyễn Trãi Road for about 20 minutes, turn right at a block of buildings, and you're there. There's no sense of ever leaving the city, and the "village," if it can rightfully be called that, at first blush appears to be nothing more than a line of concrete block shops with plastic awnings and large glass windows that just happen to be spilling fabric onto the asphalt.
But like so many places in Vietnam, it only takes a little poking beneath the surface to discover its appeal. First is the history; despite its modern appearance, Vạn Phúc really HAS been a center of silk production and weaving since...oh, about the time of Christ! The village claims to be where Vietnam's silk-making industry originated. Vạn Phúc reportedly provided the luxurious silks that were worn, first, by Chinese emperors (when Vietnam was still part of China), and later, by Vietnam's indigenous kings and queens. If nothing else, you have to give the place props for consistency.
Beyond that, there is a flavor to the place that becomes apparent as one walks around its narrow streets. Away from the shops one sees people engaging in every facet of silk production: extracting it from the cocoons of the silkworm (Bombyx mori), spinning it, weaving it, dyeing it, and so on. This is not a display for tourists; it's simply what people do, and there is something reassuring about the matter-of-factness with which Vạn Phúc continues to do what it's been doing for centuries.
To be sure, the village has been affected by Vietnam's emergence onto the world market. Large orders from French and Italian fashion centers have greatly expanded the scale of Vạn Phúc's silk production; where ten years ago there were a few hundred looms, there are now a few thousand. The repertoire of products has certainly expanded – Vạn Phúc silks come in a blithering assortment of weights, textures, patterns and colors. On the downside, the presence of tourists has created a market for cheaper, lower-quality materials, but the discerning shopper, I am told, still finds in Vạn Phúc the best silks Vietnam has to offer.
So long as one doesn't expect thatched roofs and grazing water buffaloes, Vạn Phúc is well worth the short ride from central Hanoi – for its interesting history, fine shopping, and, dare I say it, village charm.