World famous conical hat of Vietnam (April 30, 2003)
In Vietnam, the national hat is without question the non, or conical hat. Along with the lithe ao dai, the conical hat has become a sort of informal Vietnamese national symbol recognised worldwide.
Nobody really knows when the first conical hat was donned in Vietnam, but doubtless it dates back to the region's earliest civilisations thousands of years ago.
The ingredients, after all, remain quite basic - bamboo and palm leaf - and the need for a sunhat would have probably paralleled the first cultivation of rice.
The non has been around a long time, and this distinctive hat may well be one of the most timeless aspects of the Vietnamese landscape.
Today the conical hat is made in different parts of the country, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
Different regions put their own spin on the basic design. The conical hat of Hue remains famous for its lightness and supple thinness. The central province of Quang Binh makes its own Ba Don non, which is a sturdy version inlaid with elaborate decoration.
The different countries of southeast Asia, in fact, have all designed their own unique versions of the basic palm-leaf hat. Thai women, for example, favour a palm-leaf hat that resembles an upside-down basket.
HEAD & SHOULDERS ABOVE REST
In the northern province of Ha Tay, a tiny village has devoted itself almost exclusively to the production of conical hats. Situated just a few kilometres from Hanoi, the poky village of Chuong is, so to say, the headgear capital of Vietnam.
The community makes a number of designs, including the non dau (the smallest model), the non quai thao (a flat design), the non thung quai thao (a larger version of the flat design) and the basic non.
Conical hats have been the community's traditional product for as long as one can remember and they are marketed throughout Vietnam. An estimated 3,000 families - roughly 80% of the community - are involved in the hat-making industry.
Visitors will often find roads to the village are completely covered with bright green palm leaves, which villagers have spread out in the sun to dry.
The process is relatively simple: the leaves are dried, whitened, stitched into bamboo frames and given some decorative touches.
It takes five to six hours to craft a basic, no-frills, conical hat. When sold in a typical town market, a conical hat might turn a VND 5,000 profit.
Fortunately for the village of Chuong and other conical hat producers nationwide, the non has gained popularity among western tourists. Visitors to Vietnam often buy the hats as souvenirs, as decorative wall-hangings, and of course, as highly-effective sunhats.
You will frequently see these hats, often embellished with complicated decorations, for sale wherever foreigners shop. The simple non does look slightly out of place sitting in a gift shop on Hang Bong Street or Noi Bai Airport duty-free (which also sells such intriguing items as air conditioners and washing machines), but they are typically the establishment's most sought-after item. The markups at such exclusive shops generate a profit far higher than VND 5,000, of course.
If you want a basic conical hat at local prices, go to the market and bargain with a smile. You won't get a hat at local prices but, with persistence, you can come close. After all, any price is a bargain. Remember that taking home a non is like taking home a piece of Vietnam.
Reprinted with permission from Nhan Dan Newspaper
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