Conical Straw Hat, Nón lá
Vietnamese hats are often made of palm leaves stretched over a bamboo frame. Those owned by men and soldiers were once reinforced with metal at the pointed crown. Conical straw hats are light but sturdy, making it easy to move and work while staying shaded from the sun and protected them from the rain. You may even come across young couples shielding their kisses form the public behind this traditional hat during their dates.
The Nón lá is a traditional symbol of Vietnam, which like many other traditional costumes of the country, has an origin story that comes from a legend. The legend here pertains to the history of rice-growing in Vietnam. As the legend goes, once upon a time, during a torrential downpour of rain that lasted weeks, flooding lands as well as homes and causing unfavourable disturbances to the rural life. A graceful goddess descended from the sky, she was wearing a giant hat made of four large leaves stitched together by bamboo sticks on her head. This hat was so large that it guarded the people against rain, and she was able to dispel the clouds and rain, allowing the people to return back to a normal life. After the Goddess was gone, Vietnamese built a temple to commemorate her as the Rain-shielding Goddess.
Nón lá has many variations since its original version after making the first appearance about 2,500-3,000 years ago. According to Vietnamese ancestors, nón lá is divided into three main types: Nón mười (Ten hats), Nón nhỏ (Medium hat) and Non sấu (Crocodile hat). In general, the hats have a round collar and flat-shaped like a tray. There is a contour in the outer ring, giving the hat a gong-shaped look. At the heart of the conical hats is a knitted small ring with just enough space to embrace the wearer’s head snuggly. Moreover, hats were also classified into different types based on the social status of its owners such as the elderly type, wealthy type, children type or military type.
Although Nón lá gives an impression of a simple product, it requires complicated skills from the artisans. Starting from the careful and elaborate selection of palm leaves, which are the major component in making con hats – the leaves must be tender, their vein must be green and the colour must be a pleasant green. Old leaves are strictly avoided in the hat-making process due to their brittleness.
Furthermore, before using, palm leaves are put under the hot sun simultaneously to dry and maintain a long-lasting colour. After drying, an appropriate amount of sulfur is added onto the leaves to make it white. The whiter the leaf is, the higher the price is because white leaves are specially used for the most beautiful and delicate hats. Finally, leaves are ironed flat by heat in order not to become curly and removing the torn ones.
Next comes the step of arranging leaves on the ready-frame. Each layer of leaves is put onto one another in a neat and attentive way and ensuring there are no open gaps between the leaves. Afterwards, the artisans, using a type of thin thread and a needle, start to sew the hat with a rhythmic and graceful movement so that when removing the frame, the hat will become a strong united body.
For those who haven’t touched a needle before, this task is expected to bring many difficulties, mostly being poked at the fingertips by the sharp needles. However, for professional artists, it is rare to see the needles touch their hands or even leave a scratch even though their movements are surprisingly quick.
The two best known are the Nón lá from Chương Mỹ District near Hà Nội and the Nón bài thơ from Huế, the old imperial capital. The Nón bài thơ of, also known as the poem hat, usually has a picture of bamboo or poetic verses under the leaf layers, which can only be seen under the sun.
The image of a young lady wearing nón lá and áo dài is a beautiful symbol of Vietnam.