Every country has its own iconic head-ware. The beret is the symbol of France, Britain is renowned for the London bobby’s helmet, Australia has the akubra, (made famous in the Crocodile Dundee movies), and the Israelis use the yarmulke. We usually see the Russians warm their bald spots with their classic fur caps and dangling ear flaps, which at 50 degrees below, tends to come in very handy. Indian Sikhs wrap their heads in elegant turbans, Greece is associated with the fisherman’s hat, while we typically see Saudi Arabians in their white headdresses, and of course, the Americans in their ubiquitous baseball caps. In Vietnam the national bonnet is the nón lá or conical peasant hat.
Along with the exquisite, and very feminine silk áo dài, the nón lá has become a de-facto symbol of Vietnam that is recognized internationally. The simplicity of the non-la reflects the simple lifestyle of the Vietnamese, whether it be toiling away in the rice fields under a glaring sun, setting up shop on the sidewalk, swimming before the sun rises, or labouring under the burden of the yolk. The traditional conical hat, is particularly useful for farmers in such a tropical country as Vietnam, where harsh sunshine and heavy rains take place as often as a glass of iced coffee is consumed. It can be used as a basin or bowl to hold water when they are thirsty, a fan to cool them off, or as a basket to hold fruit and vegetables when they go to market. In fact one size fits all, your non la is my non la. Like many other traditional costumes of Vietnam, the nón lá has its own fabled origins, coming as it does, from a legend related to the history of farming in Vietnam. The folk-lore goes like this, and I am paraphrasing here. The heavens had opened up for many a day, and the land was being deluged with torrential rain, in fact they did think of building an ark, but no, a giant woman appeared in the sky, clad only in a hat made of four round shaped leaves to guard the fields against the torrent of water. The woman shielded the fields, the crops were saved and she disappeared. Forever grateful, the Vietnamese built a temple to commemorate her as the “Rain Goddess”.
They then attempted to make a hat modelled after the Goddess’ by stitching together palm leaves, which is remarkably similar to what we now have today as the Non la. The image of the nón lá has since become synonymous with country folk toiling away in rice paddy fields and picking tea in the mountains. The legend of the “Rain Shielding Goddess” was born! The nón lá is made out of such simple and available materials as palm leaves, bark of the Moc tree and bamboo. Many a village throughout Vietnam survives on the production of this lid. Locally in Nha Trang, you can view woman pursuing this ancient craft when you take a city tour with Ever Blue Travel. The nón lá is a timeless symbol of the Vietnamese people, without age, sex or racial distinctions. According to historians, Vietnamese girls and women have worn the conical hat for centuries, and it dates back some 2500 years ago to the Dong Son culture. The ancestor of today’s conical hat was carved on a Ngọc Lũ kettledrum and Đào Thịnh bronze jar, and if you happen to be heading to the capital, samples of these artifacts can be found at the Hanoi-based, National Museum of History’s exhibition of Vietnam’s Dong Son Civilization (1,000BC to 100AD).
The image of a young lady decked out in a nón lá, and draped in a stunning silk áo dài is a beautiful symbol of Vietnam’s timeless charm; a part of the national spirit, and closely links Vietnamese people together. If you are searching for a special souvenir from Vietnam, and one that has folk-lore attached to it, what better than a non la?