The conical hat is synonymous with the Far East, generally the working classes in a rural environment. There is a legend in Vietnam of the hat, relating to maternal love and not surprisingly the history of the main crop in Vietnam’s fields, rice.
Legend has it that during monsoon rain, a giant woman emerged from the sky. She was wearing four large round leaves on her head. The leaves were stitched together with bamboo sticks. In those days, the people were still naked but these four leaves protected them from the rain. She pushed away the cloud and rain and taught the peasants to grow crops. One day everyone fell asleep as she was telling a story and when they awoke she was gone. They built a temple in her honour, calling her the Rain-shielding Goddess. They also went into the forest to collect leaves that they stitched together in the style of the Goddess’ hat to wear as protection, not only from the rains but also the sun’s rays which at times can be very strong. While you are in Vietnam you will see the conical hat everywhere.
Of course, Vietnamese girls who look so nice in the Ao Dai want their headgear to be just as attractive. They want a hat with elegance, a delicate hat that matches their clothes and personality. They sometimes steal a kiss on a date behind their hat. The conical hat though has practical value as well as shelter; it can act as a container for carrying vegetables or water from the well.
The shape and size of the conical hat has changed over time. Men’s hats tend to be high with a small brim, women’s a wide brim but overall there are perhaps as many as 50 different takes on the design? If you are picking the most popular two stand out; that worn in Chuong in Ha Tay Province to the north of Hanoi which has a disc-like bamboo frame covered with palm leaves and within it a smaller frame to fit around the head. The strap is often made of silk, regularly with decorative yellow tassels. It is certainly the hat that rich families will wear when they visit the pagoda or on festival occasions.
The Bai Tho is the other, coming from Hue the ancient capital that is regularly included in Vietnam tour packages. It was a city of beautiful girls who inspired poets and writers. Their verses were cut out of palm leaves and then attached to the leaves on a hat. When the sun shone, the characters were easy to read on the hat. These days the decoration rather than characters is often a flower or a dragon.
Hats are all handmade with young leaves from the forest, softened by dew then flattened. They are sewn together with a special thread, ‘’doac’’, the hat is shaped and coated with oil for smoothness. They make a great souvenir of a Vietnam vacation.