Beautiful craft works could be an interesting and unique souvenir from your trip to Vietnam. The Vietnamese conical hat is an iconic image that reminds people of the farmers working on the golden paddy fields or Vietnamese girls wearing the traditional dress, ao dai, strolling down the streets. The hat has been an item that evolved with Vietnamese culture, becoming an essential part of daily life, and is still used by many Vietnamese locals. From our Vietnam travel guide, you should be able to know why this hat has become so famous around the world, how much work the craftsmen have to put in to make it, and of course, where to buy this great souvenir.
Origin of the Vietnamese Conical Hat
“Non quai thao” and “Non ngua”
In Vietnam, there are many types of hats that are made from palm or similar leaves. For example, “non quai thao” a flat round hat that is mostly used by women in formal events like festivals, or the most popular hat with a conical shape called “non ngua.” It has a small decoration at the tip of the hat and is used in horse riding.
Beautiful pattern on “Non bai tho”
The poem hat, “non bai tho,” has a layer of a picture or a poem is put between the two layers of leaves to make this hat. And a general plain hat “non la” that is mostly used by farmers and elderly women.
There are many stories about the origin of the conical hat. An early version of the conical hat is said to have been carved on the Ngoc Lu bronze drum and Dao Thinh bronze jar around 2,500 and 3,000 BC. However many believe that the conical hat had become popular and was widely used in the Tran dynasty in the 13th century. Women used it as an accessory even though it was thick and heavy at that time. There is also a story in Than Village, Hanoi about a princess who taught the villagers how to make “non chao rang,” an early version of the conical hat, which is made by sewing the old palm leaves. In Hue, the idea of making “non bai tho” was born in Tay Ho in the late 50s by a craftsman who made conical hats and also loved poems. He made a layer of verses of the poem and put it between the layers of leaves. And since then the conical hat has become a symbol of Vietnamese hat. Men or women, children or elders can wear the conical hats with no distinction at all. It can be a symbol for labor and farmers, but it also represents the nobility in the past and the elegance of the Vietnamese girls.
Usages of The Vietnamese Conical Hat
How to wear a conical hat – Put the cone on your head, and settle the ribbon strap under your chin to secure the hat’s position if it has one
There are many ways to use the conical hat. Of course like any other hat, you wear it to protect your head, mostly from the intense sun rays. But the conical hat is coated with a layer of waterproof varnish, it is also like a small umbrella, protecting you from the rain.
You can get a bit creative with it, too. When turning the conical hat upside down, it makes a perfect basket in which you can put small items you get from the markets or hold a small amount of water inside. In hot summer days, the conical hat is like a cooling device; you can wet the conical hat with a little bit of water then wear it and use the evaporation to cool your head, or just use it as a handy fan. The multi-usages, lightweight, and low price of a typical conical hat have made it the favorite headwear for many people in Vietnam, especially the farmers and street vendor sellers.
Wear a conical hat to protect you from the sun or as a fashionable item
The conical hat is also a symbol of Vietnamese fashion. It would be less frequent to see a conical hat in urban than in rural areas, but there are still many young girls wearing “ao dai” or “ao ba ba” with the conical hats for photo shoots in places like the Notre Dame Cathedral and festivals in Ho Chi Minh City. The simplicity of the conical hat makes a perfect match with dresses like “ao dai” and “ao ba ba,” adding a touch of elegance to Vietnamese traditional dresses.
In Hue, the land of poetry, poems are attached to conical hats as an alternative to writing on paper. They are widely sold as a souvenir, not only to tourists but also to the locals. “Non bai tho” is not only a special gift to those who have a love for poetry, but it could also be a keepsake of the past.
How the Vietnamese Conical Hat Is Made
The material and the frame of a conical hat
The palm trees and palm leaves are easily found in any countryside in Vietnam, so this could be why it became the primary materials to make conical hats. The leaves are beaten to open up the layers and dried under the sun to become harder and more durable. The leaves are then ironed; this part of the process is the most sophisticated because it requires the right amount of pressure and heat you apply. If the heat is too little, the leaves will not be straightened, but too much heat and pressure will burn the leaves. After that, two layers of leaves are placed on the hat frame. The frame is made of bamboo sticks that have been shredded and bent into circles of different diameters. The vertical bamboo strips will be used as the backbones of the frame, and circled strips will be placed from the bottom to the top of the frame into a conical net. People will sew the palm leaves together with small threads, which requires a lot of skills and patience from the makers to make the perfect shape and knit the leaves tightly. This part usually takes a lot of time even for the professionals; it might take a whole day for an amateur to finish one conical hat.
Conical hat with (right) and without (left) a strap
Two threaded holders will be sewed on two sides, inside the conical hat. Those are where a silky neck strap is tightened to keep the hat positioned on your head. After that, the conical hat is processed with heat (on fire or under the sun) one last time to prevent mold and turn a lighter color. Finally, it is coated with turpentine oil that gives a protective film and makes the conical hat a bit glossy.
Where to Buy Conical Hats in Vietnam
The Vietnamese conical hats have made it to the world; Amazon sells conical hats for an average price of US$18/piece. But you can buy it for a much lower price when visiting Vietnam. A typical hat in Vietnam is about VND 30,000 (USD 1.5), ranging to VND 100,000 (USD 5), depending on how it is decorated. Sophisticated hats like “non bai tho” should be about VND 60,000 (USD 3) and above.
As such an iconic fashion item of the Vietnamese, conical hats are widely sold as souvenirs at tourist spots
There are many craft villages where they make and sell conical hats to other parts of Vietnam. One of the most famous villages is Chuong Village in Hanoi. This ancient town has many old houses, and their traditional conical hat craft has been passed down for over 300 years. Annually, in June, there are market sessions held at Chuong village to sell conical hats solely.
Location: Phuong Trung Ward, Thanh Oai District, Hanoi
In Nam Dinh, there are many craft villages that have become an essential part of this province’s tourism, and Nghia Chau Village is one of them, making conical hats since 1940.
Location: 17km from Nam Dinh City, in Nghia Chau Ward, Nghia Hung District, Nam Dinh Province
Another old village with a history of making a conical hat for 100 years is Ha Thon Village in Quang Binh.
Location: 50 km from Dong Hoi City, in Quang Tan Ward, Ba Don Town, Quang Trach District, Quang Binh Province
Tay Ho is a village in Hue that is famous for making the light and elegant poem hat known as “non bai tho.”
Location: 20 km from Hue City, by Nhu Y River, Phu Ho Ward, Phu Vang District, Thua Thien – Hue Province
Traveling all the way to the South, you can find a village in Can Tho that makes conical hats. They use the local palm leaves from the lady palm trees that grow in abundance in the Southern provinces of the Mekong Delta, like Tay Ninh, Phu Quoc, and Ca Mau.
Location: 35 km from Can Tho City, in Thoi Tan Ward, Thoi Lai District, Can Tho Province
In areas that don’t have craft villages making conical hats, you can still go to the local markets and find shops that sell them. In Ho Chi Minh City, you can go to a market like Binh Tay market in District 6.
Location: 57A Thap Muoi Street, Ward 2, District 6, Ho Chi Minh City (temporary location for reconstruction in 2017)
Summary of the Vietnamese Conical Hat
In modern times, when most Vietnamese use motorbikes as their primary mean of transportation, there is less chance to use a conical hat, especially in urban cities. But it is still a gem in Vietnamese culture and the beauty of Vietnamese craft. Seeing how it is made would make you understand why it is one of the worthy souvenirs to buy in Vietnam, and using it would make you feel like it still exists against the flow of time.