As Nguyen Thi Binh looks me in the eye, her hands move swiftly and precisely. She has no need to look down to track their movements, they are programmed into her mind, a form of muscle memory akin to tying one's shoelaces. This is the result of 40 years of practise. Sitting on a stool in her modest home, the strongly built 65-year-old Vietnamese woman is expertly weaving a Non La, the conical hat that has become an icon of her nation. Few other pieces of headwear in the world are as strongly linked to the image of a country as this palm-leaf hat is to Vietnam.
The conical headgear has been worn widely across Asia, from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, Japan in the east and India in the west. But Vietnam is its home, and Binh’s village is one of its last strongholds. In Chuong, a small community 25 kilometres south of downtown Hanoi, locals have been handcrafting these hats for more than 300 years. There used to be countless villages across Vietnam that specialised in making Non Las. Now Chuong is one of only a few that remain.
Tradition versus fashion
Thirty years ago, a stroll through its streets would have revealed fervent hat-weaving taking place in every other home, Binh tells me. How things have changed. I have to ask around in Chuong just to find the locations of the few dozen remaining Non La weavers.
What was once a rewarding trade, both artistically and financially, has edged to the verge of extinction. There is very little money to be made by handcrafting these hats. This is the result of rapid industrialisation and changing tastes. The hats no longer need to be made in a slow, painstaking method by dexterous weavers. Instead, they can be pumped out by factories.
New generations of Vietnamese people are more likely to choose factory or office-based jobs than to try to make a living from ancient skills like weaving. The former roles offer steady income and a predictable future – two things the latter trade can no longer promise.
At the same time, Vietnam's youth are tending to favour modern, Western-style clothing and headwear over traditional Vietnamese versions. Across more than a dozen visits to Vietnam in the past decade, I have rarely seen a Non La being worn by anyone under the age of 30. In Vietnamese cities, shops selling these straw hats mostly seem to target tourists – the hats remain a very popular souvenir. The only places I've regularly seen Vietnamese youth wearing them is in farming communities.
The myth of Non Las
It was in such rural settings where the Non Las first thrived. As the legend goes, there was a giant woman who lived in the sky and donned a wide conical hat that shielded the earth from bad weather. Binh nods when I ask her if she knows about this myth. "She helped the farmers," the weaver says of the heaven-dwelling woman. Non Las have been of similar assistance to Vietnamese farmers for more than 1,000 years, with historians finding images of the hats on ancient artefacts.
For rural people, the Non Las have a strong functional use, offering generous protection from the sun and rain in a country that at times is overwhelmed by the elements. Temperatures can exceed 40°C during the summer, while the wet season often sees the country buffeted by fierce tropical storms.
Unlike other Asian countries, where conical hats have been used almost exclusively by farmers, the Non La was embraced by every stratosphere of Vietnamese society. One of the most iconic images of Vietnam is that of a beautiful local woman peering out from beneath the rim of her hat while dressed in a colourful Ao Dai, the long, silk tunic that is the country's most famous dress.
Historically, women wore a flatter, broader-brimmed version of the hat, with men preferring one that was taller and narrower. There were slight variations in their design depending on whether they were for use by farmers or businessmen, monks or troops, children or adults. These days it is the flat, broad version that dominates.
The process of making one
The two most famous styles of this classical Non La originate from Chuong and the central coastal city of Hue. A former Imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue is renowned for its highly decorative Non La. Beautiful images of nature or associated with Hue are placed between two woven layers of leaves. When the sunlight strikes these hats, it illuminates the leaves revealing this pattern. Chuong's hats, meanwhile, are renowned for their sturdy construction, rather than their beauty. I come to understand why they earned this reputation as I watch one being made in the village.
A short walk from Binh's home, I find a family of weavers hard at work. Nguyen Thi Ha, 40, is clearly nervous when I approach her as she sits in the doorway of her home with a half-woven hat between her legs. She and her three children are not sure why I'm wielding such a large camera. When my interpreter explains I'm here to learn about Non La, she beams and opens up. A fine multi tasker, Ha spends the next 10 minutes teaching me the process of making the hats, all the while weaving, closely monitoring the work of her children, and pausing our conversation to correct their techniques.
The two key materials in Chuong’s Non Las are palm leaves and bamboo wood. The green leaves must be put in the sun for several days to let them dry out and take on a light straw colour. To make them flat and firm, ready for weaving, the leaves are then ironed with a heated tool, which varies depending on the choice of the artisan. By peeling these leaves, the artisans create thinner strips, which are stronger and more easily woven through the hat’s frame.
This frame is made from bamboo, which the weavers can mould themselves or buy ready-made from other sellers in the village. Inside, 16 pieces of rounded bamboo wrap around the frame, each one steadily increasingly in length from near the cone of the hat to its brim. The leaves are then carefully arranged on top of the frame, running from the cone to the brim. The next step is what makes a real Chuong Non La. Every one of its 16 layers of rounded bamboo is stitched tightly to the leaves using silk thread, making the hat sturdy and durable. Finally, a thin layer of turpentine is wiped across the exterior and interior of the Non La to give it a degree of water resistance.
From start to finish, it can take up to four hours to make a Chuong-style Non La. Despite the great labour involved, these hats sell for between 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (Dh3) to 100,000 Dong (Dh15). This price helps explain why so few people still make Non Las – it simply isn't worth their time and effort. Despite that, Chuong continues to hold a Non La market six times each month, with people from Hanoi and its surrounding areas flocking to the village to buy the hats, or the materials to make their own versions. Ha tells me her young children are beguiled by the colour and bustle of these market days. She is thankful they lived to see this spectacle, but fears the next generation may not get the same chance.