If I am asked to picture an impressive image of my country, this should be it: a young woman wearing white áo dài and nón lá (Vietnamese conical hat) while riding her bicycle under leaf canopies in a sunny and breezy day. A women in áo dài and nón lá always looks charming and gentle to me. I find it hard to decide which one I have more affection for, áo dài or nón lá, as they both make me feel good about myself when I am wearing them. There’s one thing that I am certain is that nón lá is my childhood friend and it is still my favorite outdoor head wear. Almost every morning, like my neighbor women, I walk to the market nearby wearing my nón lá.
I grew up among the women wearing and making nón lá. Many families in our neighborhood made nón lá and sold these leaf hats to the wholesale buyers in our hometown. All members in the family took their part in making nón lá for a living. My mother was a nurse at Huế municipal hospital and then she changed to many other jobs but she was never a nón lá maker. Perhaps, that was because there was so much competitiveness in this business where we lived. My mother and I both love nón lá nonetheless.
Since I was a little girl, my mother allowed me to wear her nón lá from time to time when she had to send me to a shop to buy something or require me to do chores outdoor. I was head over heels in love with the light and wide nón lá and I still do today. My acquaintances saw me wearing nón lá back then would tease me that I looked like a little mushroom with a giant cap. I didn’t get offended with their jokes but enjoy it instead. I actually thought I looked cute under the nón lá!
At the age of 12, some of my friend girls and neighbors started to learn how to sew nón lá and did it so well that they could earn some money from that work. Trang and Quỳnh, my childhood friends, were very clever at sewing nón lá. They would gather at either Trang’s or Quỳnh’s house after school to sew nón lá and chit chat. I watched them doing it with great admiration. They even let me try to do it a couple of times but I did so badly that they stopped leaving the work into my hand.
I was not good at any step in making a nón lá even though I saw my neighbors doing it thousands of times. Well, I never blame myself for that as I know it takes a great deal of cleverness and patience to make one. Making a nón lá looks like building a house to me. At first, make a frame by putting different sizes of bamboo rings on a conical shape stand, then put the flatly-ironed palm leaves on and sew them together. Finally, paint the nón lá with a kind of oil to waterproof it and tie a cloth band to it. It sounds easy to make but it is actually not. To make a complete nón lá, it takes you almost a whole day.
When I first wore nón lá, the cloth band under my chin, which helps to keep the nón lá on my head, was so ticklish that I prefered to wear one without that troublesome strap. Once the cloth band was removed, I had to hold it with one hand or it would blow away with just gentle breeze. Of course, I get used to the cloth band now. While mother and other elderly ladies at her age love velvet band, I’d prefer a thinner and lighter one.
There are less and less people wearing nón lá today due to the pace of modern life but I don’t expect it to disappear any time soon as Vietnamese people still love it a lot. I can’t wear nón lá when riding on a scooter so I turn to it when I travel around on foot. And believe it or not, my heart always starts to sing “Ooh la la, I love wearing my nón lá!” whenever I put it on my head.