The everyday hat

October 10, 2007

The everyday hat
09:08′ 09/10/2007 (GMT+7)


VietNamNet Bridge – The popularity of conical hats from Chuong craft village has made ‘non Chuong’ virtually a brandname in Vietnam. Duc Hanh explains the power behind Vietnam’s most recognizable hat.

I had pictured craftsmen sewing conical hats inside brown tile-roofed houses in Chuong village, where thousands of conical hats (non la – literally leaf hat) are produced daily, meaning it’s considered the home of the conical hat in today’s Vietnam. But I hadn’t expected a main thoroughfare lined with multi-storey houses and shops flogging electric equipment, the latest fashions and canned food.

However amongst these symbols of progress and modernism, I see a smattering of conical hats on the heads of old women chewing betel nuts and young girls, all dressed in pink blouses, sitting around gossiping.

Away from the bustling market, in a more tranquil part of the village, I discover the engine room of conical hat production. A man in shorts and a T-shirt carries a pile of leaves towards a girl, who turns the leaves over in the sun. These leaves will be plaited through a bamboo frame to make a conical hat.

Further along the dyke, an old woman is supervising her nephews who are sewing hats. Looking at her crooked back, wrinkled face and shriveled hands, it’s hard to imagine that she can hold her hands steady enough to do the needlework, but she manages ably.

“My mother taught me to sew non la when I was six years old. Now that I’m 78 I could sew hats with my eyes closed,” says Tam with a wide smile that reveals more than a few missing teeth.
It seems every family in Chuong village is making conical hats; in fact, 80 per cent of the village’s population lives off conical hat production. The average income is around VND700,000 to VND1 million a month; summer income is higher than winter as it is harder to sew the hats in winter so production drops off.

It takes an hour to sew a normal non la, one that might be used by a farmer in the field, but it can take all day long to make a more fanciful one.

During summer the whole village seems to have their heads down. Raw materials are stacked high. Fresh hats sit in piles. The average income is around VND15,000-25,000 a day per household. The wholesale price is VND3,500- VND10,000 a hat. In Hanoi a hat might cost VND30,000 to VND100,000 depending on the quality.

Improved transportation and telecommunication services mean that Chuong is a ceaseless production chain catering for customers the length and breadth of Vietnam.

In total Chuong village produces 7,000 to 8,000 conical hats a day and about three million hats a year for Vietnam and for export.

“Our regular clients from the south, the centre or other northern provinces phone in orders so we can deliver immediately,” said Tuy, a 40-year old craftsman. “My latest contract is signed with a handicrafts export company to export 5,000 Vietnamese conical hats to Japan.”

“We’re very skillful with our hands. We have to sew smooth and regular stitches as well as hide the knots at the end of the strand,” says Tran Hung, one of the village’s craftsmen.

Conical hats must be as durable as they are light. Each one is made with a frame of 16 bamboo rings. It should shade but not cover the face.

To represent Vietnamese heritage at the APEC 14 held late last year, Chuong craftsmen from Hung Vuong workshop spent 15 days creating a hat which had a 1.5m diameter, stood 3.6m high and weighed in at 15kg.

There are hundreds of other kinds of non la in Vietnam. You could fill a museum with samples from each ethnic minority through the country. But each one is made from palm leaves, bamboo string or thread.

According to historian Le Van Lan, the Vietnamese people have donned the conical hat for a long time. The ancestor of today’s non was carved on a Ngoc Lu kettledrum and Ao Thinh bronze jar 2,500 to 3000 years ago.

“Though no one knows exactly when the hat was born, for a long time the conical hat has been considered the symbol of Vietnamese farmers and Vietnamese people, in general,” says Lan. “It is easy to wear, easy to find the materials and easy to make, it’s also cheap and durable. And it is suitable with the scorching hot, continuous rainy and wet climate of Vietnam.”

“Besides sheltering you from rain and sun, it can be used as fan when you are hot, as a water ladle when you are thirsty, as a basket when you go to market without bag, and it’s very charming when a girl uses it to hide her awkward face!”

It is also an iconic symbol artists and even fashion designers cannot ignore.

“I use the conical hat as a traditional material to reflect modern life. For me, the conical hat is a symbol of Vietnamese women who are graceful and tender but also steadfast. The hat is very light and thin but it can confront nature,” says designer Minh Hanh.

While Hue-based artist Dinh Khac Thinh, who created an installation of 5,000 conical hats which was showcased at the Hue festival in 2006, wanted to honour the humble craftsmen who produce the hats day to day.

“Installation art pieces are all about viewing and touching. Besides creating an artwork, I wanted to highlight a cultural value and honour the skillful hands of craftsmen as well as present an opportunity for them to introduce their products to the world,” says Thinh.

At the same festival fellow artist Le Thua Tien also created an installation piece of one huge conical hat made out of 400 normal ones.

The legend behind the hat is that once upon a time there was a very tall woman who often wore a magical kind of hat made from four round leaves knitted together with bamboo. Her hat was as large as the sky itself. This kind-hearted woman always appeared to shelter people caught in heavy rain. Wherever she appeared clouds passed and the weather became favourable. She also taught people to plant vegetables and trees to live.

Then one day she passed and ascended to the heavens but she was honoured as the Goddess of Human Defence and ever since they have made hats in the shape of hers to protect themselves from the sun and the rain. This hat became know as the non la (conical hat).

(Source: Timeout)

One Response to “The everyday hat”

  1. chris & ngoc Says:

    Keep up the good work Donny! btw, we just saw a documentary on viet boatpeople – Bolinao 52 at the Austin Film Festival. Must see.

    ps: despite freezing every other frame, we did NOT see you in Iwo Jima…very disappointed.

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