by Ngo Thu Hue

What started out as something to do for peasants between the rice harvests has become a symbol of the romantic city of Hue, and the key to one village’s economy.

The people of Tay Ho village, on the banks of the Nhu Y River outside Hue, recall that Bui Quang Bac was the first to make non bai tho (poetry hats) back in the 1660s.

These look like the conical hats available throughout the country but when held up to the light, silhouettes of verse can be seen.

The villagers say Bac adored poems which captured the soul and beauty of Hue and so stuck the verses on the inside of non so he would always be able to read them.

His idea has been built on by subsequent crafts-people so now the hats include poems as well as pictures of Hue landmarks such as Linh Mu Pagoda and Trang Tien Bridge.

Centuries of toil

The village’s non tradition began when farmers were ruled by a feudal system which forced them to look for other ways to make extra money.

During the wars for the country’s independence, the village’s women diligently kept their non making skills alive while the men went to the front.

People still believe that the village’s non stand out from others available because of the women’s skill and pride in their craft.

When the men returned from war, the production of the hats became segregated so men now tend to make the hat frames and prepare the materials while the women undertake the more difficult tasks of ironing and polishing the leaf and ensuring the tautness of the finished product.

Tay Ho hats are known for their glossiness as well as the ring threaded around the top which is said to make them stronger than other non.

Standing out

Girls from the village have continued making non when they marry and move away, ensuring the tradition has been spread throughout the central province of Thua Thien Hue.

But Tay Ho still has a stranglehold over the market.

Only seven of the village’s 307 households don’t make the hats and the craftspeople manage to send tens of thousands of non to markets every month.

Selling for an average VND5,000 to VND7,000, the Tay Ho non have managed to hold their own against the increasing competition from other villages.

It’s not a particularly profitable craft though, most people only earn VND10,000 a day for their labours. But for Tay Ho villagers the process of transforming the coconut leaves has taken root in their daily lives.

Most of the residents spend the evenings sitting with their family and crafting the hats.

Truong Thi Be, 80, who has been involved in the business for as long as she can remember, said the village’s hat makers are able to put a bit of their soul into their creations, ensuring they are more desirable than the competition.

Poetic seal: While young women donning ao dai and a non hat have become increasingly hard to find in big cities nowadays, they can be spotted in Hue, Viet Nam’s non capital. — VNS Photo Nguyen Phuc Son

Non are popular with local and foreign tourists who head to the city’s central Dong Ba market to bargain with the many sellers for their own slice of Hue.

Young women in the area grow up with a love of the hats and go to all lengths to find the trappings which will make theirs more noticeable. It is common for them to have hats made up incorporating their favourite verse and pictures.

Non have become so entrenched as a symbol of Hue that it is now impossible for Vietnamese people to imagine the city without thinking about women in their ao dai and the ever present head covering. VNS