When travelling throughout Vietnam, tourists never fail to take notice of the local charming ladies donned in Áo Dài (Vietnamese traditional long dress) and Non La (conical leaf hat, Vietnamese: Nón Lá) walking gracefully along the streets. By no doubt, the Ao dai embody the femininity and charm of the Vietnamese women, while the appeal and functionality of the Nón Lá creates a beautiful harmony of the entire ensemble, leaving a strong impression of gracefulness and romance to any tourist who visits the country. In recognition of the hat’s distinct shape, Nón Lá earned its common name, “Vietnamese conical hat”.
Origin of the Nón Lá
Vietnam is a tropical country characterized both with rainy and dry seasons. Clearly, Nón Lá is essential for the people to protect themselves from heat which could last for months, and sometimes even reaching 40 degrees Celsius in intensity, and also during long periods of enduring rain. Though the Nón Lá has appeared even from the earlier days of the country’s history, no one can precisely trace back as to when the conical head piece exactly originated. Images of the Nón Lá, however, are evident on the Trong dong Ngoc Lu (Ngoc Lu bronze drum) and Thap Dong Dao Thinh (large bronze cylindrical jar of Dao Thinh) known to date back some 2,500 to 3,000 years ago indicating that the hat had already been utilized during the period, or even earlier. Nón Lá had in fact existed as a daily essential of the Vietnamese from thousands of years ago and even in legends and fictions handed down throughout the generations.
Making a Nón Lá
Years have passed since the advent of modernization and the rise of industrial machines. How a wide range of traditional items are crafted had changed significantly as they are now created with the assistance of commercialized machineries. But despite all that, Nón Lá had remained an entirely hand-made craft even up to present. Apparently, no machine is worthy of replacing the remarkable skill and mastery of the traditional techniques inherited throughout generations of craftsmen who are capable of creating the most elegant and delicate Nón Lá you will ever find.
The simplest materials such as dry leaves and a conical frame are required to construct a conical hat. The leaves of palm trees are considered most ideal and a perfect conical frame is made from bamboo. Young green palm leaves, after selection, are allowed to dry under the sun. The warmer the sun gets, the easier the leaves wither. The craftsmen then uses a baked steel bar to iron the dried leaves, heated just enough to flatten the leaves but not burning them which causes its color to turn yellow. On the other hand, if the bar is not hot enough or had cooled down upon touching the leaves, it causes the dried leaves to wrinkle after the ironing process. After they are flattened, the leaves are sewn on a conical frame consisting of 16 round bamboo rims. Sixteen had been found to be the perfect number after years of studying and testing along with the practical experience of skillful artisans. That had become an unchangeable principle when constructing a perfect-fitting and delicate hat.
Looking at how a hat is constructed may seem very simple, but in reality, it is not. A well-made Nón Lá requires painstaking precision of the maker owed not only from talent itself, but also from numerous years of experience in the craft. It may be hard to believe, but every single needlework is steadily sewn in equal spaces even without measuring. The connection of sewing nylon threads is skillfully hidden beneath the minute and even stitches. There is no doubt how the step-by-step process could be very time consuming and requires so much patience from the craftsman.
Sophisticated decoration of Nón Lá
Running stitches through the bamboo frame’s sixteen rims makes up the shape of the conical hat, but artisans often incorporate sophisticated decoration to make the hat look more appealing and elegant. The most famous pattern is called “Non Bai Tho” (Poetical hat), originating from the ancient capital of Hue, known as land of the peaceful Huong River and majestic Ngu Binh Mountain and birthplace of many famous poets whose creative works served as inspiration of the capital’s romantic setting. Romantic characters or images of Hue’s symbol are inserted between two layers of leaves, which the maker then stitches together. Unique and sophisticated decorations become readable when held against the sunlight.
A simpler technique to decorate Nón Lá is to stick pre-assembled flowers made from colored papers inside the hat. Traditional countryside landscapes, rice fields or bamboo hedges commonly comprise the decorations of hats widely used in other regions. Sometimes, bright colors are added by artisans by sewing colored threads at two opposite points inside the hat to hang a silk cloth chin trap which helps position the Nón Lá when worn. Today, Nón Lá made available as souvenir items for tourists are skillfully decorated on its surface with national symbols to embody a message of the country’s unique charm and the gracefulness of Vietnamese women.
Lands of Nón Lá
Nón Lá is popular throughout the country and is commonly found in famous villages and areas across the North, South and Central of Vietnam. Hats made from each region exhibits special characteristics which translates the distinctiveness of the locals in that particular area. The Lai Chau hat, for instance, is a symbol of the Thai ethnic minority; the Tay ethnic group is famous for red Cao Bang hats; while Binh Dinh province is popular for its thick Go Cang hats; and Quang Binh earned a reputation for making the elegant, thin hats indicating the ancient capital Hue, known the Ba On hats.
Chuong village of Thanh Oai, Ha Tay province is known as the most famous land of conical hats. The village produces thousands of hats per day amounting to millions per year, all used either for personal, souvenir and export purposes. The village has a reputation for crafting the skillfully-made, well-fitting, durable and the most beautiful Nón Lá in the Northern Delta. Probably every family in Chuong village is involved in the trade. It takes decades to master the techniques which are handed down to the next generations. Amazingly, this tiny village has maintained such reputation for the past three centuries and has remarkably preserved this interesting cultural aspect of the country.
Nón Lá in Art performances
Nón Lá may not be as commonly used anymore in the daily lives of Vietnamese from the urban parts of the county nowadays. But the conical hat strongly remains a symbol of Vietnam and is still popular across the country. For the past thousands of years until today, Nón Lá is very much an integral part of Vietnamese life. If anyone happens to come across a white Nón Lá at any point, it will unmistakably symbolize the Vietnamese charm, elegance and romance.