Making ao dai is a family affair

June 20, 2006

Teamwork: Song (the father) works out the measurements before cutting an ao dai. His son, Hoa, is checking the silk. VNS Photo Cam Giang


by Cam Giang and Thu Lan

Vietnamese and foreign women alike often want to own an ao dai, but how do you choose a tailor shop out of the hundreds that make ao dai throughout the country? How do you get an ao dai that will faithfully represent Vietnamese culture? On a journey to Hue, we tried to answer that question, as Hue was once the ancient capital of Viet Nam and has a long-standing tradition of women wearing ao dai. That is how we arrived at Minh Tan’s tailor shop, a shop famous for its beautiful ao dai.

It was a very sunny day when the xich lo took us to Minh Tan tailor’s shop at 57 Nguyen Sinh Cung Street. It was also the last day of Festival Hue 2006 when tourists were taking advantage of the end of their stay to make last-minute purchases and take in a little more of the festival atmosphere.

However, inside the shop, a crowd was gathering to have ao dai made. Many of the women were from other parts of the country like us and there were also overseas Vietnamese or Viet kieu. Packed into the sitting room and fitting room, women and girls admired their new ao dai in the mirror.

One Viet kieu from the US, Nguyen Thi Lien, told me she ordered ten ao dais for her four daughters. The tailor had been recommended to them by taxi drivers and local people they met during their visit to Hue.

Minh Tan’s family has been famous for its ao dai for two generations. The family learned to tailor from their father, Nguyen Van Song, who is now 73-years-old. Song learned how to tailor clothing in Sai Gon when he was very young. One day, he saw a new type of ao dai with "raglan" sleeves that began to appear in Sai Gon, he decided to concentrate on ao dai. While he was there he learned how to make the new type of ao dai with raglan sleeves, which he found made women appear much more attractive and modern.

After learning the trade in Sai Gon, Minh Tan became the first person to introduce ao dai with raglan sleeves to Hue. His ao dai were adored by women in those days because they revealed their body’s curves better.

One of Song’s most memorable experiences was his four-month visit to Florida in the US in 2001. He believed he was the most busy tourist there. Viet kieu brought him a sewing machine and asked him to make ao dai. Another Viet kieu learned the trade from him and is now able to make ao dai for the whole community. Even a foreigner asked him to create a wedding ao dai for her. He was busy, but happy.

Like father, like son

Following in their father’s footsteps, Song’s three sons also works as ao dai tailors. However, two of them live far from Hue; only Quoc Hoa stayed and he helps his father run the shop.

It has been 14 years since Hoa began the career at the age of 25. At that time, Hoa’s father often woke him up at 4am and they learned to make ao dai until 7am, when the shop opened to customers. This lasted for two years until Hoa felt confident enough to make an ao dai on his own.

Time flies by. Now, Hoa is a talented tailor like his father, who considers making ao dai his destiny. Just by glancing at a new ao dai style, he can copy it exactly.

"To be an ao dai tailor, the most important thing is to be patient, as ten customers have ten different ideas," Hoa says. However, like his father, he doesn’t mind doing whatever he can to please customers. That’s why many women have come to the shop since they were young girls and still come back when they are mothers and grandmothers, with their own daughters and granddaughters in tow. Phan Kim Ngan is a case in point.

"As original Hue people, the women in my family have traditionally worn ao dai. Two generations of my family are customers of Minh Tan’s shop. It has been twenty years since I visited the shop for the first time and I still come here every several months with my sisters and niece. In fact, we have sometimes ordered ao dai at other trendy shops, but then realised they don’t compare with Minh Tan," she says.

Since its establishment, Minh Tan’s shop has always followed three principles: E ach ao dai must be beautiful in order to satisfy the customer; the cost of each product must be reasonable; and the ao dai must be delivered on time to customers. Sometimes, the third principle is difficult to follow. In one day, the shop always receive anywhere from 50 to 100 orders. Moreover, during festival seasons, big orders for hundreds of ao dai come at the same time. Meanwhile, there are always tourists who drop by Hue for a very short time and ask Hoa to make several ao dai for them in 24 hours. Hoa rarely refuses and that’s why now he can complete an ao dai in just four hours.

For Hoa, the rushed orders often provide the most unforgettable memories. One day a Vietnamese Australian asked him to make an ao dai in a short time. When she came back to pick up the dress one day later, she paid but forgot to take the ao dai. Knowing that she was on the way to Da Nang airport by car, the Minh Tan delivery van followed her car for dozens of kilometres just to return the ao dai to its owner. The tailor and the customer have kept in touch ever since. Minh Tan is just a small shop in comparison with many new ao dai fashion houses in Hue, Ha Noi and HCM City. However, it has a large customer base from the north and south of Viet Nam, and overseas customers from France, the US and Japan.

One of the advantages of buying an ao dai at Minh Tan is that Vietnamese and foreigners always pay the same fees. "The fees vary based on materials, not nationality," Minh Tan says.

"We often do custom orders for our customers. However, we don’t like to be so driven by new trends that the traditional characteristics of ao dai will be lost. Ao dai need to be fitted with one’s form, but I’d rather not to be too reformed," the old man says and smiles. — VNS

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