Nón Lá: The Story behind the iconic Vietnamese Hat

I would never have thought I would be writing about a hat. Fashion isn't my thing. I am usually writing about food, experiences, culture but there's no denying that a nón lá is more than just a hat.

In China, it is called dǒulì. Sugegasa in Japan, do'un in Cambodia, koup in Laos, khamauk in Myanmar, terendak in Malaysia, caping in Indonesia, salakot in the Philippines and in Korea, the hat is called satgat. In Vietnam, the conical leaf hat is called nón lá.

The nón lá of the Vietnamese people forms a perfect circular cone which tapers smoothly from the base to the apex. Made from bark of Moc tree, bamboo and layers of dried palm leaves, nón lá requires great skills, and even the most skillful workers can only make an average of three hats a day.

There are over 50 types in total. Women wear a broad-rimmed version whereas for men, the cone is higher and the rims, smaller. Different versions are made for the upper class, for children, for army troops, for the religious monks, for different regions even.

The image of the nón lá is strongly associated with peasant lives from the paddy field to boatmen and women. The origin of the hat comes from a legend related to the history of rice growing in Vietnam.

Legend has it that during a torrential downpour that lasted weeks, flooding lands and homes in rural Vietnam, a graceful goddess descended from the sky. She was wearing on her head a giant hat made of four large leaves stitched together by bamboo sticks. This hat was so large that it guarded the people against all the rain, and she was able to dispel the clouds and rain, allowing the people to return back to a normal life.

The goddess taught the people how to grow crops among many other things, and one day during one of her educational stories, mankind fell asleep listening to her soothing voice. When they woke up, the goddess was gone. In her honour, a temple was built, and people went into the forests to find leaves similar to the ones that the goddess had on her head, which they then stitched together on a bamboo frame.

Today, the nón lá is used as protection from the sun and rain, a basket for vegetables when shopping at the market, or as a drinking bowl to relieve thirst when passing by a well. You will even come across young couples shielding their kisses from the public behind this traditional hat during their dates.

For 400 years, the nón lá has shielded the Vietnamese people and has endured the test of time.

This traditional symbol of Vietnam remains without age, sex, or racial distinctions and is an integral part of daily life in Vietnam.

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