It is not clear when non la (Vietnamese conical leaf hats) became associated with Vietnam as a cultural characteristic of this country. When talking about Vietnam, the images of tender women in ao dais and simple but a delicate non la will often come to tourists’ minds. Through many ups and downs of the times, non la is still able to retain the unique charm that has captured the hearts of many people. In the subconscious of the Vietnamese, the image of non la appears simple, humble, and poetic. Regardless of wealth, status, age, and gender, everyone has at least once worn non la, because it is one of the national quintessences. Located 40km west of Hanoi’s center, in Thanh Oai district there is a village called Chuong. There’s a saying that goes:
“Muốn ăn cơm trắng cá trê,
Muốn đội nón tốt thì về làng Chuông.”
(Translate: If you want to have catfish with rice,
or wear a good hat then come to Chuong Village)
Chuong Village has long been famous for producing various types of traditional hats. Not only so, but Chuong Village’s hat was a favourite item of queens and princesses in ancient courts. From 1940 until now, Chuong Village has only been producing one type of hat, which is non la. Chuong villagers have no clue as to who the ancestor of the crafts was, they only know that non la has been invented and associated with this land for more than 300 years.
Day by day, month by month, year by year, Chuong Village’s non la has not only been a decorative accessory for people but more than that, it has also been associated with daily life’s activities :
“Trên đầu đội nón làng Chuông
Ra đồng, xuống chợ, tới trường, vào thơ
Dịu dàng che nắng, che mưa
Nón bằng, nón chóp ngàn xưa chung tình”
(Translate: With Chuong Village’s hats on our heads, we travel to the fields, to the markets, to schools, into poetry. Gently sheltering us from the sun and the rain, flat hats and conical hats have been faithful for thousands of years.)
Most people must not know how much effort and time that the artisans need to spend to create a hat. First of all, is the leaf selection stage. The best leaves for hats are way over Quang Binh, Phu Tho. The materials for hats are usually palm leaves, straws, bamboos, coi leaves, and ho leaves. After being collected, the leaves will be cleaned by sand and left in the sun until their greens turn silvery-white and meet the following criteria: paper-thin, durable, sturdy, flat, non-brittle, and non-tearable.
Then comes the hoop making stage. These artisans make hoops with uniformly tapered bamboo culms so they stay circular and unwarped when connected. Chuong Village’s non la has a total of 16 hoops because this will help it achieve durability while still retain a certain amount of grace.
Next up, the artisans will flatten the leaves out by pressing them on a heated plowshare then meticulously tuck each of them into the hoops, under a layer of bamboo sheath and another layer of leaves then stitch everything together. This is arguably the most difficult stage because it requires finesse and attention to every smallest detail. The needle-holding hand must be quick and delicate enough to make every stitch evenly straight from both sides. Another vital thing is that the stitches must be short and have small openings so that the non la is round, tight, and smooth from the edge of the leaves to the seams. The brilliance of Chuong Village’s craftsmen lies in how all the stitches line up perfectly and are subtlely concealed. After stitching, the artisans will heat the hats with matches so their colour turns pure white. Then, they will apply oil so the hats have shine and don’t get mouldy, warped or shrunk from the weather. To make the hats prettier, the artisans will decorate them with a combination of graceful patterns and stylish letters.
Because the making of a proper Chuong Village’s non la has a lot of stages and requires finesse and attention to every smallest detail, an artisan will spend from half a day to a full day on average to finish it. Even the fastest hat-maker can only make 2 pieces/day. Every finest and prettiest Chuong Village’s hat will cost more than 100.000 dongs. In addition, hats from skillful young female stitchers can also be sold for 70.000 dongs/piece, but hats with less precise stitching can range from 30.000 – 40.000 dongs.
Being a purely agricultural region, Chuong Village’s traditional craft of making non la will create jobs regularly for many workers, especially women – they can simultaneously manage fieldwork, housework and have a daily income from this hat-making craft. To preserve and develop traditional crafts, elders in the village today still always focus on teaching and passing their hat-making expertise to their children. Coming to Chuong Village, people will easily find grandmothers, mothers, and sisters gathering to stitch hats and spread their happiness throughout the village.
Chuong Village’s market is held six times a month on the 4th, 10th, 14th, 20th, 24th, and 30th (lunar calendar), and only sells non la. They stack non la in piles that are so big and white that it blurs a corner of the street. This is also a unique feature of Chuong Village that is kept to this day. If you want to feel the bustling energy of the market then you should come early in the time frame from 6 to 8.
Even though non la appears everywhere in the country, the Chuong Village’s ones still hold a special position in the hearts of Vietnamese. Many tourists all choose Chuong Village to visit and conical hats (non la) as souvenirs. The reason why Chuong Village’s conical hats are so favoured is due to its durability and beauty. Everything comes from the dedication of the hat-maker. In the era of modern technology, most people run after the hustle and bustle that are accompanied by so many new things that they seem to have forgotten the traditional beauties of Vietnam. Non la is one of them. Love is not enough, show that love with actions to preserve and develop the traditional hat-making craft of Vietnam.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt