Lan Hieu visits a village renowned for producing one of the most evocative symbols of Vietnam: the conical hat.
Hats being sold at the local market. Photo: Do Chi Binh
As a tropical country, Vietnam gets plenty of rain as well as sun all year around. That’s why local people have always relied on the simple, conical hat made from leaves to protect themselves from the weather. One place which has been synonymous with high quality Vietnamese hats for hundred of years is Chuong Village.
Lying just about 35 km from Hanoi centre, Chuong Village in Thanh Oai District has long been famous for making conical hats. With some 4,000 households living in a barren region, people here have been depending on hat-making for generations. Although Vietnam has several other places that produce hats, Chuong hats were once the only choice for queens and princesses and are now still a popular adornment for Vietnamese women.
Visiting Chuong market is a fascinating experience. Villagers gather 6 times a month, on the 4th, 10th, 14th, 20th, 24th and 30th, and sell only one product: conical hats and the materials to make them. Women are the main makers and purchasers of this product so, naturally, the market is predominantly full of women. The white colour of the hats covers a large area, which makes a really beautiful picture. But if you want to snap some photos, you will have to arrive early because these busy women often gather from 5.am and leave at around 9.am. From here, Chuong hats make their way to many regions in the country and even abroad.
While the people of Chuong village sell the final product, many hands from neighboring villages have participated in the construction of the hats. Lua villagers make the moulds, Trang Xuan villagers whittle the hat’s rings and Giau Te villagers supply the sewing strings.
The materials used in construction are simple, just palm and lui (a kind of leaf) leaves or, bamboo and nylon string. After drying leaves under the sun, people use a piece of hot iron to make the wrinkled leaves dry and flat. The beauty of the hat depends mostly on the skill of the sewers. They use nylon thread to sew the leaves to the bamboo rings as evenly as they can. They decorate the inside with pictures to make the hats even more beautiful.
These days, Chuong village is busy with customers and tourists everyday. Normally, 7,000 hats are made everyday and distributed to many places, including China, Japan and Europe. Through this work, people’s income here is greatly improved, with the average wage reaching VND700,000-900,000 a person per month.
Visiting a famous hat maker of the village, we saw 78 year-old Trinh Thi Ngan still sewing hats very quickly. “I have had 70 years sewing hats so now I don’t even need to look to thread a needle,” she said. “In the past people said that no one could get rich through this trade but my family has always relied on this work. When I was young, I could sew 4-5 hats a day and support my children. Now they are all becoming rich through the trade”.
Ngan’s youngest boy, 40-year-old Nguyen Van Tuy, is now the most skillful sewer in the village. His family is the major domestic distributor of Chuong hats. A basic hat can be purchased for as little as VND 5,000 but Tuy receives many orders for hats costing VND 50,000 a piece. “Sometimes we make ten thousand hats each month,” his wife Tran Thi Hue revealed.
Ta Thu Hong, manager of Hung Vuong workshop is very proud of her village’s traditional trade. Hong mentioned that now besides making hats for daily use, Chuong villagers are also making hats as souvenirs for tourists because conical hat is a popular symbol of Vietnam. “These products help bring more money to the villagers, and now many families have become rich,” Hong smiled.
In the village, people often talk about the ancestor of the conical hat, Hai Cat. In the 1920s, like other families in Chuong village, Hai Cat’s family was in the hat trade and 13-year-old Hai Cat devoted his whole time helping his parents making Quai Thao hat (the old basket-shaped hat). But at that time, the basket - shaped hats made by the village were falling out of fashion due to the appearance of the conical hat from the central city of Hue. Compared with the light, neat Hue conical hat, the basket - shaped bamboo hat was too bulky and inconvinent for the farmers. Chuong villagers were losing their business and many, including Hai Cat, had to leave their village to seek another employment. Arriving in Hanoi centre, Hai Cat decided to reproduce Hue’s conical hat right here. With skilled hands and creativity sharpened by the threat of poverty, Hai Cat succeeded and was licensed to perform his work. He returned to his homeland and taught the people how to make conical hats. Thirty years, later, Chuong villagers once again lived from their hats.
With that long history, Chuong people are very proud of their hat. Nowadays Vietnamese women, especially those living in the city, are turning to many kinds of fashionable fabric hats over the iconic conical hats. Nonetheless, Chuong hats still find favour with new customers.
Let's enjoy some pictures of Chuong Village's people and their unique products, taken by photographer Do Chi Binh: