Hanoi garment factory’s Olympic transformation

Garment workers sew clothes at a factory in Nam Dinh province, Vietnam. (AP pic)

HANOI: When Nguyen Thi Thu Huyen started work at the No. 40 Garment Factory, it was still producing boots and uniforms for the Vietnamese army, just as it had done during the Southeast Asian country’s long war with the United States.

Now the sprawling, Soviet-built complex on the outskirts of Hanoi has a different mission: churning out millions of units a year for global sportswear brands like Nike and the US Olympic team, Team USA.

“I feel very proud watching the Olympics and seeing our garments on screen. It might not be the exact one I made, but one of them must be,” said Huyen, who began working at the factory in the early 1990s.

At the height of the Vietnam War, the “X40” factory, as it had been code-named by the Vietnamese defence ministry, was one of three factories producing uniforms for the North Vietnamese army and its Viet Cong guerrillas in the south.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, state-owned factories came under extra pressure to focus on export-oriented products and raise much-needed hard currency.

Vietnam had already begun its “doi moi” process of reform at the time, but it was still under a US trade embargo that would not be lifted until 1994.

“They were making jackets and shoes and even missile covers for the Vietnamese military. By the time I arrived in 1991, the factory had already converted to making garments for export,” said Australian businessman Jef Stokes, who was among the first wave of foreign investors to place orders at X40 after Vietnam opened up.

Stokes bought the factory in 2006 and transformed it into Maxport Limited, a sportswear manufacturer that now boasts as clients Nike, Asics and a handful of Olympic teams.

“We outfit quite a few big countries,” Stokes said. “A lot of sports stars: Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal… these are all under the Nike umbrella that we produce for.”

The factory has undergone a physical transformation too.

Surrounded by a sea of concrete, few trees had existed at the factory complex, except for a large banyan tree which, according to a much-repeated legend among the factory workers, was planted by Vietnam’s founding president, Ho Chi Minh.

Stokes planted more than 6,000 trees to form a thick jungle that which engulfed the buildings in rich foliage to create an atmosphere that feels more like a Silicon Valley startup than a Communist-era factory.

“I no longer feel uncomfortable when I tell people that I’m a factory worker,” said Huyen, who began work when the factory was still known as X40. “Fashion follows history.”