Envision rice paddies throughout Southeast Asia and one of the first images that comes to mind are the conical straw hats worn by the farmers. Although you may see similar hats in other parts of Southeast Asia, the Non La of Vietnam represents a lot more than a simple head-covering. Its history is as old and nuanced as the country itself.
Legendary origins of Non la
How many fashions do you know of that have endured for more than 2,000 years? The Non La is depicted on two of Vietnam’s most famous, and most ancient, relics. It appears carved into the intricate pattern of the Trong Dong Ngoc Lu drum, as well as on the Thap Dong Dao Thinh, a bronze jar from the Dong Son people. These relics were created 2,500-3,000 years ago. Four thousand years is not a bad lifespan for a hat.
Like many of the ancient myths and legends of Vietnam, the story of the non la is intricately tied to the growth of rice. Legend has it that the people of Vietnam were plagued torrential rains until a giant woman from the sky took pity on them and sheltered them with her hat. The people observed that her hat was formed of four round leaves stitched together. In gratitude for her assistance, they built a temple to the Rain-shielding Goddess and replicated her hat using palm leaves, the bark of the Moc tree, and bamboo, materials easily found in Vietnam.
A useful tool
While its utility to protect the wearer from the sun or the rain are enough to make these hats ubiquitous in Vietnam even today, especially for rice farmers and boat people, there are a number of uses for a non la. Women sometimes use the non la as a basket to hold items they purchase at the market. It’s stiff design also makes it an effective fan, while the oils used to help rain slide off the hat easily also make it watertight enough to use as a bowl or cup to dip water from a well on a hot day. How many hats have that many uses?
Fashion and inspiration
In addition to being useful, the non la has also been adapted to reflect social standing and inspire the wearer. There have been more than 50 different varieties of non la throughout the centuries. Some of the stylistic differences reflect ideas of gender and beauty. For instance, women’s non la are traditionally wider than men’s reflecting the ideal beauty standards in Vietnam. Traditionally, pale skin has been considered the height of beauty in Vietnamese women, therefore wider non la are preferred to keep the sun off of their faces. In addition, a wide non la provides a rather sweet and demure way to hide the kisses of a young couple. Other variations in shape and size reflected social status; sometimes the stylistic differences were simply regional or purpose-driven.
A few notable types of non la:
- Chuong non la – the most common conical hat in modern times; the one most used by farmers and boat people and the most purchased as souveniers.
- Non quai thao – a flat version of the palm leaf hat that is more ornately decorated with tassels and has been worn by women when they are dressing more formally for festivals, to go to pagodas, etc.
- Non bai tho – an embellished version of the non la created in the Hue region of Vietnam in which a poem or piece of art is sandwiched between the two layers of palm leaves; the verse or picture is then visible when viewed from below in the sunlight.
Experience the artisan-ship
Non la, even the most ornate and embellished versions, may seem simple, but the construction of them is actually an intricate and painstaking process. It’s a process worth viewing if you are visiting either Hue or Hanoi (Chuong is just 25 miles west of Hanoi). In both villages you will see that the non la industry has been passed from parent to child. This iconic symbol of Vietnamese culture continues to sustain families and villages.