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Artisans out from under the Classic Conical Hat (December 11, 2003)

VietNamNet - If you are lucky enough to arrive at Chuong village on market day, you will happen upon a wonderful scene, the village’s market ground covered with thousands of conical palm hats, known in Vietnamese as non.

On days that end with zero and four in the lunar calendar, merchants from many provinces gather here to buy stacks of non, which they then distribute throughout the North of Vietnam.

This small village of Ha Tay Province, 40 kilometres on the west of Hanoi, has maintained its reputation for over three centuries. Just like Van Phuc villagers with their fine silks, Cu Da villagers with their soy sauce, Chuong people have their own pride – the famous non.

Since the first images of non were etched into Ngoc Lu bronzes drums 3000 years ago, it has become an inseparable multi-purpose item for Vietnamese women. It is used as a shield to protect them from sun and rain, a glass to get water when they are thirsty, a fan when they are hot, and a basket when they have nothing else with them to carry things.

Due to its popularity, each region in Vietnam has, for itself, a well-known non-making village. The non of the Tay ethnic group has a distinctive red colour, while non in Thanh Hoa differs from others with its 20-hem frame. Hue’s non is thin and elegant, in contrast with the thickness of those from Binh Dinh.

Chuong artisans makes two types of non: the traditional flat-top, known as non quai thao, and the cone-shaped Xuan Kieu that appeared in the 1930’s.

Women in the village learn to make non since as teenagers. Anywhere and anytime, you can find them wrapped up in their work, stitching the white palm leaves.

“Non making is work of painstaking precision”, said 83 year-old Le Thi Viet, the oldest master of Chuong village.

Palm leaves, the raw material of non are bought from Thanh Hoa and Quang Binh in the Central region, or Phu Tho and Son La in the North. After being sun dried, the leaves are flattened by hand, and then ironed with a hot ploughshare until they turn absolutely white.

The skeleton of non is formed by round bamboo hems. A Chuong village non always has 16 hems, to make it firm and easily identified among others.

It is said by another 90 year-old artisan that in the past Chuong village produced three types of the hats; non ba tam, non nho and non dau. The classic non was large and flat, with a small hummock in the centre that fits the head.

Vietnamese women used to wear the traditional three-tailed or seven-tailed dress. The tails come in various tints: they may have the colour of a peach blossom, a day-lily flower, a Tonkin bunch, or a lemon.

In the old days, non quai thao were sported with a pair of buffalo-leather bow shoes or painted wooden clogs. A light pink or yellow belt makes a perfect match during festivals.

In the late half of 20th century, the flat-top hat was gradually replaced by the cone-shape, just as change has affected the basic ingredient; the palm leave. A new material, lui leaves from Nghe Tinh and Quang Binh provinces, make each non Chuong lighter, and therefore more elegant.

Non are no longer built from the ground up by the tinkers of Chuong village. The process is divided into several phases, and the less important parts, such as skeletons and edges, are now farmed out to nearby villages. Todays Chuong artisans only undertake the roofing and sewing.

Such specialisation, however, may be a little misplaced, as women of modern times find non less than practical for day to day life in the urban environment.

But the little girls of Chuong village are still sewing non, and the hearth of the non will always be warm.

Reprinted from VietNamNet


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