Long time ago, a young man would present his sweetheart with a conical bamboo hat, or non. The gift was all the more precious since the suitor was expected to make the hat himself, and even skilled hat-makers can only turn out about two hats per day.
In the 1930s, Vietnam had over 50 styles of palm-leaf hats, including the imposing quai thao, a style of large, flat hat that is still worn by women performing Quan Ho folk songs. The most widely worn style of palm-leaf hat today is the conical non, which was derived from the bai tho or ‘poem’ hat of Hue.
The village of Chuong, which lies some 30km southwest of Hanoi, is the best-known source of palm-leaf hats in northern Vietnam. Set beside the Day River, this picturesque village is the topic of various folk verses, including one that advices: “If you wish to taste really good rice and fish, if you wish to wear a really good palm-leaf hat, come to Chuong.
Just as they have for centuries, Chuong’s villagers still earn their livings by farming, fishing, and making hats. Palm leaves are bleached over flames, then stitched onto bamboo frames. While many urban women eagerly follow the latest fashions from Korea or New York, these hand-made conical hats remain one of the most widely recognized symbols of Vietnam.