Ethnotek Tribe member and photojournalist, James Pham, accompanied the Ethnotek team this year on a visit to the Cham village in Vietnam to celebrate the Kate Festival with their weavers and friends. For a unique and unbiased perspective, we asked James to write about his experience and share some photos. He was happy to oblige... Enjoy!

James Pham (bottom left in the gray shirt). Inrajaka (third from right), Inrahani, and Jake Orak (Ethnotek founder). 

The night is pitch black. Every now and again, a solitary spot of light breaks up the night, bouncing ever closer, signaling another visitor bumping along the dirt path on a motorbike. It’s the eve of Kate (pronounced “kah-tay”), one of the most important Cham religious festivals of the year bringing Cham people back from all corners of Vietnam.

Established in the second century AD, the Champa civilization reached its peak in the ninth century, controlling parts of Central Vietnam down to the Mekong Delta and extending west into present-day Cambodia and Laos.

Known as intrepid seafarers, the Champa Kingdom developed international trade routes that allowed them to accumulate wealth and political power. However, as their contemporaries grew stronger, the Champa people were slowly driven south by the Vietnamese kings and east by the Angkorian kings, leaving centuries-old sandstone towers as silent place holders of this once-great civilization.  

Cham Towers near Phan Rang, Vietnam

Despite no longer having a land to call their own, the Champa Kingdom is survived by the Cham people, one of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups. We’ve traveled almost eight hours to Phan Rang, on Vietnam’s South Central coast to experience the largest Cham gathering, the annual Kate Festival.

Our guide is Inrajaka, a 30-something cultural ambassador of sorts. We arrive at his home, a modest thatch-roofed abode with walls coated with buffalo dung set in a wide field, away from the more “modern” cement houses that make up the nearby town.

Home of Inrajaka, photo by Inrajaya Photography

Raised in Saigon (Vietnam’s largest city), Inrajaka made the unusual decision to move back to his tiny blip of a hometown, building this traditional home with few creature comforts. This night, it’s the setting for an impromptu gathering of friends and family who have returned for Kate from far-flung locales where schooling and employment are more accessible. As dusk turns into night, the few lights in the home are turned on, but most of us are sitting in half darkness on the brick terrace, sharing a bountiful yet simple meal, passing around a clay jar of distilled spirits, sipped from a communal straw. The stars are bright and the night is quiet, punctuated by the laughter of old friends and new acquaintances.

Cham schoolchildren in Inrajaka’s village of My Phuoc

“No matter where I went or who I met, something always pulled me back,” says Inrajaka as to why he chose to give up a promising future in the big city. “Every time I went back and put on Cham clothing, it just felt like me ― the moonlit nights, the wide open sky, the smells, the people. I felt the best way to help preserve the culture had to be to live here and survive here”.

The Cham are different from other minorities in Vietnam in that they customarily live side-by-side with ethnic Vietnamese, instead of being geographically isolated, like the hill tribes of mountainous Sapa in Vietnam’s far north. However, as with so many minorities around the world, Cham villages are often depressed economically, with little access to higher education and decent jobs.

“For most young people, when they feel like they have the strength to fly, they fly away,” says Inrajaka. This exodus of the young has placed further pressure on the Cham to integrate into Vietnamese society. “There are families who feel that teaching the Cham language to their children is not important, that it’s better for business if they learn English or Japanese. The Cham have a saying that ‘those with knowledge sit in the best places and eat first; those without can sit right next to you and you wouldn’t even notice them.’ We used to value knowledge, literature and music above material possessions but now it’s cars and big houses and money,” Inrajaka says wistfully.

Thankfully, Inrajaka isn’t the only one in his family trying to make a difference. His mother, Inrahani, is battling to revive the fading art of Cham weaving.

Early Chinese sources suggest that the Cham wove both cotton and silk cloth incorporating multiple colors and patterns. Cham weavers “knew how to mix gold thread into the weft and weave, wrong or right side out, a different pattern on each side" and they "embroidered complicated motifs made more dazzlingly luxurious with gold, silver, pearls, and gemstones.”

Inrahani at the loom

We visit Inrahani’s small weaving workshop in the village where a few local women are sitting at long, narrow looms, their hands and feet working in tandem to make beautiful textiles, thread by painstaking thread. More than just cloth, it wouldn’t be wrong to call these “books in fabric”, as designs woven into the textiles tell ancient stories with motifs named after everyday objects like “cucumber” or “dog foot”.

Earlier in the day, though, as we take a walk around the village, we see discarded looms abandoned in the front yard of houses. With the working-aged all but gone, there are only the old and the very young left, with no one to continue the art of weaving.  

“When I was a girl, almost every family did weaving, even in the evenings,” Inrahani remembers. “But then many people left the villages. You could work at a factory or be a seller or do manual labor like picking coffee or cashews and make more money. It was only the older or weaker ones who stayed behind to take care of the homes and children. The looms were being discarded for firewood.”

So began Inrahani’s quest to revive the art of weaving in her village. “It was almost lost, maybe only 10% left. But I knew that if we called them back, they would come. If they could earn even VND 3 million (USD 150) at home instead of VND 4 million (USD 200) away, people would come back.”

In 1990, she began with a modest business selling woven handicrafts as souvenirs in Saigon. In the decades since, she’s established herself as the face of Cham weaving in Vietnam, recently receiving an award for being the country’s largest Cham textile producer. Her success has allowed her to revive the craft in her village, also partnering with Ethnotek to produce custom designs based on traditional patterns. “A lot of people talked, but my American friend (as she calls Ethnotek owner Jake Orak, in part because she can’t pronounce his name properly, as there is no “j” sound in Vietnamese) was the only one who did something about it. They pay us 50% upfront which allows us to buy the materials. They are genuinely interested in helping the community.”

With her success, Hani hopes to reinvest in the Cham villages. Her workshop now also doubles as a museum of sorts with Cham artifacts on display and a library, primarily consisting of an old wooden bookcase with yellowed books in Chamic script. Her dream is to build a preschool where village children can be taught the old Cham ways and a proper library where people can read Cham writings. She wants to build traditional-style Cham houses for visitors to see what Cham family life is like. She wants to restore all 30 Cham weaving motifs. “Red with silver or gold patterns for men. Dark green and other dark colors for women. The colors and patterns are used to show hierarchy. It’s worn by our priests who talk to God. It’s worn by our mothers and fathers when they pass on. So how can it die?” says Inrahani of the craft that is at once her livelihood and her passion. “We still have the [Cham] towers which are historical artifacts. I also want to make sure our culture survives ― our food, our arts, our way of life.”

The next day, we’re up early to witness the first day of Kate, traditionally held in September / October. The multi-day festival includes dances, the ritual of changing clothes for the local Champa deities, and music and chanting to recount the histories of the gods and goddesses and to invite them to be present and bless the Cham people.

The day starts out with a colorful procession leading towards the soccer stadium repurposed for the opening ceremonies, umbrellas out in force to counteract the blazing sun, even at this early hour.

Early arrivers take seats on the bleachers, but most of us stand around the perimeter, yielding to the kids who squirm their way to the front to take in the action. Music and dancing ensues with fan dances, folk music and speeches.

The next day, we head to Po Rome, one of the many Cham towers that dot Vietnam’s central coastline. The 8-meter tower located on a hill was built in the 17th century in honor of a wise Champa king who the people later deified.

It’s early yet, but families have already staked out their space in the area surrounding the tower. Offerings of meat, fruit and rice are carefully laid out on bamboo mats. More and more people filter in as the morning wears on, and when there looks to be no possible room for more, someone slides over and another mat is put down.The ritual changing of the wardrobe is happening in the tower, but only a few are allowed entry. Most are content to simply be a part of the ceremony, catching up with old friends, and making new ones. Some will stay the whole day and share their offerings while others make their way down to the nearby beach for a picnic, reunited with friends and family who they haven’t seen in a year.However, even this age-old tradition is being threatened. The celebration that was once reputedly one full month during the days of the Champa civilization has been shortened to a few days. What’s left is being co-opted and re-branded as a “Cham New Year” to better sell to tourists. And young Cham sometimes find it difficult to make it back to their home villages because employers often don’t understand the importance of Kate.

“That seems to be a common thread with most of the ethnic minority groups here in Vietnam,” says Jake Orak, Ethnotek founder. “They’re either being pushed out or put on display. Ethnocide poses a real threat here because there's just not enough support or understanding of the importance of their cultural practices. We've made it our responsibility to restore demand for handmade textiles by bringing business to these areas as well as helping to tell their story to a wider global audience. Cultural preservation through commerce and storytelling if you will"

Jake adds, "and this isn't coming from a high and mighty perspective... We're not saying we're helping the poor defenseless artisans. That's not our place, nor would it be fair to say about them. The artisans are clearly implementing methods to help themselves. Our work is better suited to finding the right partnerships on the ground with community leaders like Hani who fully understand the process and cultural norms and can band the people together. Hani recently winning an award for being the largest Cham textile producer in Vietnam is proof of her effort. Clearly she has taken action and knows how to lead this effort. It's our job to find those leaders and support them and put our money where our mouth is. By placing consistent fabric orders year after year to prove that there is a viable source of income in protecting these art-forms. And so far so good on that front, thanks to the support of our awesome customers!”

Know more, do more:

  • The roughly 167,000 Cham people in Vietnam are concentrated in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces (near Phan Rang) and along the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh and Chau Doc provinces. Inrajaka sometimes arranges tours to experience Cham culture.
  • To understand more about the history of Kate, this academic article by researcher William Noseworthy is a good resource.
  • Pair a visit to the ruins of the large Cham temple complex of My Son (about 1.5 hours outside of Danang, Vietnam) with a visit to the excellent Cham Sculpture Museum in Danang.
  • Check out “Incredible Champa” on Facebook, a page by photographer Inrajaya (Inrajaka’s brother) featuring images of Cham culture

Support the Cham weavers by purchasing the “Vietnam 9” textile featuring the “dog foot” and “cucumber” motifs or the “Vietnam 11”, one of our newest threads in a bold blue with woven Cham designs.






Ethnotek featured in the Textile Institute of England's Publication

We couldn't be more thrilled and honored to be featured in this month's publication by the Textile Institute

The Textile Institute is a unique organisation in textiles, clothing and footwear. It was incorporated in England by a Royal Charter granted in 1925 and is a registered charity.

The Institute has individual and corporate members in up to 80 countries, the membership covers all sectors and all disciplines in textiles, clothing and footwear... 
If you're interested, you can subscribe to their magazine and all other data resources here:

For the full scoop on Ethnotek's feature, see the page inserts below... Enjoy!

May 01, 2015 by the Tribe Scribe

Copper, wax & cotton.

The latest collection of bags we're launching this week comes from the artisan's hands of Surakarta, Indonesia. In the form of batik dyed cotton, these cool-colored works of art are a modern take on some very traditional techniques, both in batik fabric design and classic East Asian architecture.

Woven reeds, palm leaves and wild grasses have been a multifunctional mainstay for most cultures from Peru to the Philippines. The design for the Indonesia 6 collection came from this classic weaving style which in Indonesia is widely used in architecture for roofs and walls, but mostly in floor mats called Tikan Pandan in Surakarta. These mats are rolled out every night at Warungs (small street-side cafe's) where people gather to eat late night snacks and drink tea. 

This weaving style can be seen everywhere in Indonesia. We saw it translated into furniture, fans, boats, bedding, sun shades and small food containers that dudes where carrying as they chased our train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta trying to sell us stuff... Haha, we tried to resist, we caved! The sticky rice and jack fruit inside those little woven containers was awesome! 

The design used in this collection of handmade Thread fabric is a custom design made by our head batik artisan, Iwan in the legendary Lawayen part of Surakarta, or as it's known today as Solo. Solo lies some 100 km south of Semarang and some 60 km east of Yogyakarta. As the 'twin' sister of Yogyakarta, this city looks much like the latter. But because Solo is not a provincial capital, this city has preserved much of its Javanese character. This also means that Solo is less touristy than Yogyakarta. The town is a centre of art and education and offers some good shopping. It is said to be the least westernized city in Central Java... So this is how they do batik Solo style!

Step 1 starts with a drawing, via pencil and vellum or parchment paper so that there is some translucency. Translucency is key so that the artist can trace their ancestor's designs so the copper stamp maker can then translate that to the tool... Step 2 is taking copper scraps and magically bending them into form to match the artist's drawing. It's mind blowing how they do this! Copper strips manipulated with pliers, hammers, shears, picks and files... True craftsmanship!.. In Step 3 the artist comes to do a quality control check to make sure the copper craftsman's tool matches his/her drawing... Step 4, the approved or adjusted tool makes it's way onto the wax stamper's shelf.

Step 5 is all about reduction... The "batik chef" who knows the right recipe for the batik wax, (which can be gleaned here) melts the wax so the stamper can apply the wax to the cotton fabric... In Step 6, the stamper takes the artist's & coppersmith's tool, dips it in the chef's wax and ever-so carefully applies it to the virgin cotton fabric... Now that wax has been applied and has seeped into the fibers of the cotton it is ready for Step 7, to be bathed in dye... After it's dye bath step 8 is the easiest of all, hang it out to dry... 

Step 9. From the train back from Solo to Jakarta to fly back to Vietnam, our founder + head designer dude, Jake places an order for the fabric (in between replying to #etktribe members on Facebook). In Step 10, the fabric arrives to the ETK workshop and is sewn into final Ethnotek bags with tender love and care. Step 11, those hot new items ship to you!  Step 12, you wear that bag, that story and the pride of supporting every artisan along the way everyday. That's keeping culture alive!

 Here it is, the Indonesia 6 collection in all it's glory!


From the Ethnotek team, thanks for keeping culture alive and making it a part of your everyday. We're all in this together. Without you our mission could grow stagnant and that's not what us travelers and cultural advocates are about... As our friend Nahko says, "Make the movement move!"


December 03, 2014 by the Rambling Shaman

The Inner Circle Sale

Here at Ethnotek, we are so thankful for you, our customers, the Ethnotek Tribe. You are a powerful bunch! You've tagged us all over Instagram and Facebook, you've shared your adventures and journeys with us, big and small, at home and on the other side of the globe.

We love serving you, our Tribe. Our customers don't just buy a bag, you become part of a community of people who make world culture part of their life and keep it alive, hopefully for generations to come. This is no small feat, we are all involved in some small way, interconnected, and your purchase makes all the difference. You’re part of the community that sees the status quo, and walks – no – hikes, bikes, paddles the other direction. If we didn't have you, it would be a lonely journey.

It's with that appreciation that we announce our Inner Circle Sale. This is a very limited time sale for our "inner circle" - if you haven't received an email with the link, you can request one - just sign up in the upper left hand corner of our site. You probably know that we rarely have sales and promotions. Our smaller production with such precious handmade textiles create products that get snatched up pretty quickly. But this holiday season, we selected some of our best sellers and created a sale just for you, our inner circle.

There are so many giftable products at really great prices, but that's all we can say. If you want access, sign up now (check out the upper left corner of the site).

If you missed it, we have another surprise for you, any order over $100 receives a Padu Pouch. You can learn all about it, and see more images here.

We appreciate you and hope you enjoy this sale! You're welcome to invite your friends too. The more, the merrier...although stock is limited so you might want pick your favorites first!


Happy Thanksgiving Ethnotek Tribe! Thank you for everything you do!

Collaboration With a Kingdom

You guys and gals, our beloved Tribe, have always loved the textile designs that are featured in our bags, which originated with the Champa Kingdom and are woven in the Binh Thuan & Ninh Thuan Provinces of Vietnam... In the name of increasing demand for the artisans so they can grow their family weaving businesses, we listened carefully to your feedback for inspiration to think of new ways to increase demand even more! 

Typically we hand select the most traditional textile designs, but for this round we took a new approach... The feedback from you stylish and well travelled individuals, was that you liked our Cham designs, but were curious to see patterns that were bigger and bolder. We took that feedback to heart and asked the artisans if they'd be interested in teaming up with Ethnotek on a new artistic endeavor to take their most classic textile motif "Dog Foot & Cucumber" and enlarge it to take on a modern and even pixelated look... They loved the idea and were excited for the new creative challenge! So, we decided to collaborate with the kingdom!

As it is with most of our artisans we work with, they design them from things they see in everyday life. In the Champa Kingdom, pets and animals are sacred and loved. Dogs run freely throughout the village and their paw prints are seen everywhere. Hence the ‘Dog Foot’ design. The second element of the new Motif is the 'cucumber' design, which is an abstraction of the triangular or diamond-like shapes inside the core of the vegetable which can be seen when sliced open. Cool huh?!

Without further ado, here's a look at the Limited Edition Vietnam 9 Raja Thread and Raja Backpack. We hope you love it as much as we do. It's a new approach to our socially responsible sourcing model. This will be an interesting experiment to see how it goes. The artisans are proud of it and so are we. Your purchase is your vote for how much you dig the design and support this modern method of Ethnotek artisan collaborations. Don't be shy, share it on social media, talk about it, ask us questions. We'd love to hear your feedback on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. We're always listening!




Getting Scrappy

If you read the last blog you know we've got some surprises up our sleeves this holiday season and here's one of em... Ladies and gents, meet the Padu Pouch. We made it just for your accessories - whether you want to store chargers and flash drives, or pens and pencils, or makeup brushes and eyeliner - the Padu Pouch will make it easy to keep everything in one spot.


Every day you inspire us by your commitment to do good in the world. You've shared your adventures both at home, and abroad, and we're stoked! You're resourceful, generous, and making a difference out there! 

As part of our Tribe, you know that Ethnotek shares your commitment! We are always looking for ways to decrease our environmental impact, and reduce waste wherever possible. Well, Founder and Head Designer, Jake was eyeing some extra fabric on hand (you may recognize these punchy prints and bold colors from our limited edition Threads) he started playing with the "scraps" and couldn't stop. Most companies would consider that waste, but not us. Your Ethnotek purchase has always supported the Artisans who create these incredible fabrics. We work closely with them and their communities so there's no way we could just toss out their hard work. There's beauty and function everywhere, even in the "scraps." Just like that a new product was born and the ETK workshop was busy making the most of handmade textiles from around the world.

Now here's the surprise: you can have the Padu Pouch for free. It's our gift to you this holiday season. We're serious! After buying any of our socially responsible products here at, tell your pals about us on Facebook or Twitter and it's yours. 

Our goal this holiday season is to welcome more like-minded humans to the Ethnotek Tribe. The more of us there are, the more good we can do in the world! So if you'd like to make a difference, employ artisans around the globe, and keep culture alive, tell your friends and family about our Tribe and we'll surprise you with a Padu Pouch! 


Thanks for inspiring us to make the most of things, hopefully create the best of things, and be a little "scrappy" along the way!

November 11, 2014 by the Tribe Scribe

Design Perspectives - The Setia Pack

Hey tribe, as the holidays draw near, we have heaps of exciting new things that we've been waiting on the edges of our seats to share with you! You've given us such thoughtful feedback over the last year and we've listened closely. So, without further ado, we introduce, The Setia Pack!
Maybe you're one of our tribe members who has traveled the world with your big Raja Pack, or maybe you braved those urban commutes with the mid-sized Wayu Pack - and for that, we salute you! Despite your rave reviews for those two packs, you said you also wanted a smaller pack - something perfect for your shorter journeys. You told us about dodging taxis in bustling cities as you rushed to work, and hiking up mountainsides on crisp fall mornings, and then your adventures took you on bike rides just as the clouds rumbled and rain poured down. Those adventures cried out for something smaller, lighter weight, and water resistant. So our Head Designer Jake went to work creating something with those escapades in mind and he's proud to introduce to you to his latest pack design in the below video... Enjoy!
Ok, lets meet another very important member of the Ethnotek team! A lot of you may already know Jennifer if you've called or emailed us to ask questions about our bags or to get help with your order... She's the super friendly one on the other end of the line and works her butt off to make sure you all have the best experience possible when interacting with us. Here's her take on the Setia Pack...

"Hi, I’m Jennifer Vogel! By now you’ve already seen our all-new Setia Pack, so I wanted to share my experience with it. It was the first time I visited Vietnam, when Jake and I were about to hop on a motorbike to commute to the ETK workshop where we combine our Thread fabrics with all the durable ballistic nylon, to create Ethnotek bags and backpacks.

We were gathering our laptops and other necessities, and Jake pulls out this really compact backpack. “Woah! Is that it?” I asked, “Yup, the new Setia…” Jake replied as he started packing it. Immediately I thought "you made it just for me!" it was the perfect size for me – I’m about 5’2” - and this backpack looked custom made for me. I was secretly wondering if we’d be able to carry everything in that one pack, or if we’d have to grab something else.

Jake filled it with our laptops, chargers, jackets, bananas and water bottle. We were off! Everything for our workday was contained in that backpack and we weren't weighed down. Now, if you've ever spent much time in Vietnam, you know how quickly the rain will sneak up, especially on a June afternoon. As we rode home that day the skies grew darker, we pulled off the road to quickly throw on our rain gear. Jake pulled out the Setia's built-in rain cover (which tucks away in it's very own pocket and remains attached) and we were back on the road.

Months later, back home in Los Angeles, I had a few Setia samples in the office. As coworkers and friends passed by the Setia I watched them respond just as I had that day in Vietnam. They'd try it on and say "This is the PERFECT fit!" The funny thing was it didn't matter who tried it on - short or tall, man or woman - each person felt as though it was made especially for them.

The word "Setia" means loyal, faithful, true, and trustworthy in Bahasa Indonesia. It's a fitting name for such a trusty pack, created to be your loyal companion for the day, or the weekend. In a way The Setia Pack has already earned it's name; it's been trustworthy on adventures and people love it like a loyal companion.


I’m excited for you to take it on your adventures and tell us about it! You can tag us on Facebook and Instagram @EthnotekBags."


Thanks, Jen! And thank you all again for your feedback that helped us hone in on Setia's design. Stay tuned for more holiday magic, now through January. We have something exciting to talk about and launch every single week.

- Tribe Scribe

November 11, 2014 by the Tribe Scribe

Fly Icarus fly

Remember the last couple blogs where James Pham helped us spread the good word on Ethnotek, the story of how we began and about our mission as a whole? Yeah, he's the man, and now it's his time in the sun!

James' writing, photography and blog Fly Icarus Fly has been featured in MSNBC News, Smarter Travel, Boots N All, Oi and Vietnam Pathfinder. Do yourself a favor and get inspired by his travels and musings here:

About James, from James:

Born in Vietnam, our family emigrated to the US when I was two. Since growing up in Virginia, I’ve worked in Toronto, Phnom Penh, Bangkok and now Ho Chi Minh City.

My background has always revolved around my love of language. I’ve been a translator, proofreader, teacher, educational manager and now writer and photographer.

As an ENTJ “Field Marshal”, I’ve dedicated my insane and sometimes exhausting focus to traveling. Low and slow. Shabby and chic. I love it all.


As I was telling my friend about an upcoming dream trip around the world (and the sizable chunk of change it was going to cost), he looked at me incredulously. “Think of all the gadgets you could buy with that!” True, travel eats up a huge part of my savings, but looking around my home and seeing the hand-knotted rug that brings back memories of hours of friendly negotiations over milk tea in Kathmandu, or the simply woven grass basket from the Okavango Delta in Botswana or even the soap dish I bought outside of the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo after the freshest sushi breakfast ever, I know that all my travel memories are priceless. Gadgets come and go. Souvenirs break. Rugs fray. But memories last a lifetime. Those are the moments when you experience pure giddiness from seeing something that you’ve dreamed of forever, or something so completely unexpected…

Thank you for coming along on my journey. Please have a look around the site at my magazine writing and photography. For more of me in my more unguarded moments, “like” Fly, Icarus, Fly on Facebook or Twitter. You’ll hear all about wardrobe malfunctions, catch photos of the weird and wild that is my everyday life in Saigon and see things that you cannot unsee.

And no matter where you are in the world, may you experience endless Icarus moments of your own!


September 14, 2014 by Jacob Orak

Acaat In Review


Experienced and avid world traveller, photographer and journalist, James Pham, took his Vietnam 5 Acaat Messenger for a test drive and wrote about it for Oi Magazine Vietnam. below is the break out of his review. Enjoy! 

"I really wanted to like Ethnotek’s Acaat Messenger. But inspiring backstory aside, the pragmatist in me needed to know whether the bag was worth the price point and wouldn’t be confused for something Sapa-inspired that I could pick up on Bui Vien. In a word, yes and yes. As a travel writer, at minimum I carry an iPad with keyboard case and a DSLR (sometimes with more than one lens) everywhere I go. On longer trips, a laptop comes along.

The problem with most messengers for me is that the body of the bag is too slim, with little give on the sides, which makes for a very awkward fit considering the bulkiness of the camera. The Acaat Messenger not only has a padded sleeve for a laptop (with an unexpected textile finish and a fuzzy poly-tricot lining), there’s also a second sleeve that fits a tablet.

The generous 20-liter body is large enough to house a camera and a couple of lenses with plenty of room to spare without being unwieldy to carry. There are also four slip pockets for accessories as well as a zippered pocket for documents. If you’re not using the luggage trolley pass-through on the back, zip it up and it becomes another large pocket. The “tech” side of Ethnotek comes through with some geek features, like removable bumper inserts (to snugly fit a 13” laptop) and a stabilizer strap, so you can cinch the bag close to your body, handy for running through airports or when riding a bike, true messenger-style. Small touches are also well thought out, like the extra loop to hang your bag up and off the ground, or the compression straps on the bottom of the bag that double as a place to roll up your jacket or a yoga mat.

Another gripe of mine is narrow straps that bite into your shoulders when the bag is fully loaded. Thankfully, Ethnotek’s bag has a wide padded strap while judicious use of Velcro makes everything easily accessible, including the ability to change out your thread (the textile flap on the front of the bag). While the bag itself is solid (made in Vietnam of 840-denier water-resistant ballistic nylon) and comes with some really nice features, its uniqueness springs from the interchangeable threads. I bought an extra one (more muted and not out of place at business meetings) and love that I can carry a tangible piece of Vietnam with me wherever I travel.

My one reservation with the bag is actually with the handmade textile covers wearing out with use, but at USD 29-39 for a new one, it’s a small price to pay to basically reinvent your bag."


Thanks James! It means a whole lot to us to receive such a shining review from a world traveling tech savvy digital nomad such as yourself. 

Want to learn more about James, see him and dive into his creative works? Us too!!! Stay tuned to our next blog for the reveal.

Survival Gear

This month we made it into print with Oi Magazine Vietnam and we couldn't be more excited!!! This is one of very few times we've been in print and not only is it crazy to see our story in physical form, it's a deeper dive than most of our other reviews! Journalist James Pham discovered us and came to Ethnotek Founder and Head Designer, Jake's studio in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for a quick interview... Which then turned into a four page spread for Oi, a product review and a partnership to do a written piece for the Cham community, complete with one-on-one interviews with the Inra family and partaking in the annual Kate Festival. Yup, there's lots of excitement around this project that we could talk about for ages, but for now, we'll just let you read the Oi article. It's a good one, enjoy!

Survival Gear

Ethnotek’s mission to keep culture alive, one bag at a time

Trekking far off the beaten path amongst the solitude of the hills of Sapa, bag designer Jake Orak found himself in a different world, in more ways than one, far from his suburban upbringing in Minnesota (USA). By that 2007 trip, Jake was already onto his second career, after a stint at industrial design for 3M. “There were extremely smart people there; I was having lunch with thermodynamic experts, mechanical engineers and chemists. But it was too big a company for a budding designer. I wanted something more ‘lifestyle’, a bit more me,” he recalls. He then took on a job as a design intern in Saigon for an international bag company, working his way up to junior designer. “I didn’t know anything about bags,” he confesses. “I thought it was going to be easy. After all, it's just fabric!” But having access to the sample room, where he could just hand over a sketch to be mocked up was exhilarating. “I learned so much, doing 50 things a day, managing whole collections, from sketches on a napkin all the way to freight on board and into retail.”

It was through the eyes of a bag designer that he appreciated the craftsmanship of the Hmong villages he encountered. “Seeing tribes in their natural environment, just existing, was incredible,” says Jake. “Some didn't even use money, just trade. I witnessed thriving communities, people with their hands dyed blue from indigo, wearing their traditional dress… I felt incredibly privileged to experience this and I wanted everyone I knew to know about it, that something like this still exists on earth. I felt a sense of responsibility wash over me.”

Suppressing his first impulse to quit his job and join an NGO somewhere, he thought: “I’m a bag designer. Let’s be proactive and design something!” Jake remembers sitting down after a long trek in Bac Ha and writing in his journal about how inspired he felt, thinking how many other places there were like this in the world with basic human diversity and tradition still intact. “It's gotta be rare and I want to help protect it,” he wrote.

But then, as it often happens, life went on. Jake moved to Los Angeles to become the senior designer for another high-end bag company. However, the idea for creating bags using local fabrics was rekindled when he spotted a shop selling African textiles while cycling in downtown LA. He recognized, though, that the idea of working directly with individuals in remote villages was simply not compatible with the large quantity sourcing required by a big company. “At the end of the day, it was just creating junk that's produced in a factory with no real meaning. It’s a product without a soul,” he says of the mainstream bag industry. “I wanted to create something more meaningful while sustaining myself, a product that does some good in the world, but at the same time be practical. Something that improves people’s lives not just because of social good, but because it’s functional. It had to have a tech side and not just be a hippy dippy slouchy bag.”

Jake started sourcing textiles in 2010 and launched Ethnotek ( in 2011. Trips involve a lot of research, attested to by ethnic textile books and a stack of Lonely Planets in his office. “There’s usually only one tiny blurb on where to get textiles”, he laments. “You can only do so much research. In the end, you just have to parachute in and ask someone who’ll usually first take you to a souvenir shop. It’s only when I explain that I want to meet the family who made this and order from them every three months forever, that they’ll say: ‘Oh! So you want to go to my cousin's house!’”

Jake then spends 2-3 weeks with these families to gain their trust. “It's a business-to-business relationship. It's not a charity,” he says. “These people don’t want handouts. They want you to buy the things they create. They don't want to leave their home to get a job in a factory. They want to stay at home and work from home. That keeps the kids in the village and it passes on the knowledge.” The time spent in the villages also allows Jake to work through a detailed protocol of finding out more about the artisan’s process, everything from whether the dyes used are natural or synthetic, where the cotton comes from, where the dye is disposed and what motifs mean. He also needs to be sure villagers have an export license and are tech savvy, being able to use email, receive wire transfers and understand shipping methods. Respecting fair trade standards also means asking about working hours, where the artisans live and how far they have to commute (in the case of collective weaving centers).

Jake now sources textiles from Vietnam, Indonesia, Ghana, Guatemala and India. A small factory in Vietnam turns these fabrics into “threads”, interchangeable covers for backpacks and messenger bags, and a range of chic travel accessories (think travel wallets and iPad covers). His Vietnamese textiles are embroidered by Red Hmong, Black Hmong and Flower Hmong villages in northern Vietnam and on looms in the Cham communities near Phan Rang. This month, he’s visiting the K’Ho minority tribes outside of Dalat. “That’s the story for all ethnic minorities here in Vietnam. They’re either being pushed out or put on display. Ethnocide faces the biggest threat here because there's no support. It’s really important for us to restore demand, to bring business to these places where the people are trying to get by on agriculture or by conforming. I feel a sense of urgency when I visit the villages,” he says.

His work has seen results, though. He still gets goose bumps when talking about a village in India where Ethnotek started out collaborating with a single family of four, weaving three months out of the year. Ethnotek’s success has now allowed them to engage six looms in two villages weaving 8-10 months out of the year. The goal for every village they work with is to provide year-round sustainable employment. “We pay 50% up front to artisans so they don’t have to fund raw materials and production themselves,” he says of Ethnotek’s humane business model. “We take on a lot of risk to help the artisans and not exploit them in any way. They produce what they want at the pace they’re able to. For example, if you go beyond the Sapa Sunday Market, you’ll see that embroidering fabric is what a lot of Hmong people are doing in their free time ― when it's raining or in between harvests… It’s a passive sourcing model because we're taking what they want to do, not pushing them to do anything. Once they understand my intentions are pure and I'm there to help them spread the story about their culture to a wider audience which translates into more business for them, they get really excited.”

With only two salaried employees (including Jake), Ethnotek has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Just two weeks after launching, REI, a US-based outdoor retail company with more than 130 stores, called to say they wanted to carry Ethnotek products. The Ethnotek “fulfillment center” is no longer Jake’s mom’s basement. And the ETK “tribe” as Jake calls his customers, is growing stronger by the day. “Tribe implies a sense of community around the mission and the product. People feel ownership on a deeper level than just buying a bag and going away. When people send in their photos with them and their bag on social media, I get stoked, super happy. That's instant gratification, seeing someone I don't even know, just loving their bag. In a sense, they become cultural consultants, helping to spread the message. That's extremely rewarding and makes all the struggle worthwhile. This is a personal, emotional business.”

While owning your own business and getting to design and travel for a living is a dream job for almost anyone, in the end, it’s about the survival of these unique, beautiful people spread across three continents. “It’s like the Latin language going extinct, but here, you see things disappearing in front of your eyes. In Cham villages, every house has two looms ― one for the older generation and one for the younger generation to learn. Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of these looms collecting dust and moved out of the house and into the yard. Helping to preserve these cultures by applying it to a product is more sustainable, like buying coffee beans directly from the person that grows it, rather than donating something where someone will take a cut and pass it on to someone else who’ll also take a cut before eventually getting to the person it’s supposed to.”

Much more than a hippy dippy, Kumbaya startup, the story behind Ethnotek is just as compelling as the one of the villages it’s helping to save, the ultimate in “survival” gear.