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In praise of Vietnam’s conical hats

The Conical hat (or Non La in Vietnamese), worn in South East Asia is one of the most recognizable images of Vietnam. It is a symbol of its people and their lifestyle, in this country entrenched in refreshing Asian traditions yet met with the Western modernity of today’s world.

With its poignant history and stunning surroundings, Vietnam is the epitome of a great holiday whether a budget trip or a luxury holiday.

From the beauty and seclusion of Northern Vietnam’s Halong Bay to the riveting hustle and bustle of the Southern city Ho Chi Min (formerly Saigon), every part of this nation has something to offer.

Devour the sometimes strange yet phenomenal cuisine and lose yourself in the food markets amid the inquisitive stares of the locals and the bewildering array of indigenous fruits.

After spending a month travelling through Cambodia and observing the poverty and exploring the dynamics of its not so honest government, I was exhausted of seeing the exploitation of children and the constant examples of heartbreak. As an eighteen year old at the time, I needed something fresh and less upsetting.

Moving into Vietnam was a slight breath of fresh air. Despite a similarly horrific history, it had recovered better than its neighbour Cambodia, and its unique culture flourished.

The conical hat has been worn throughout Vietnam by workers for centuries – from the streets of Hanoi, to the sprawling paddy fields, it is hard to go anywhere without seeing this iconic image.

Before discovering the origins of the Conical hat in the historical town of Hue I travelled north from Ho Chi Min and found myself in Hoi An. This is an example of a beautiful Vietnamese city, rich in Asian culture and renowned for specialised tailoring.

As soon as I arrived, I was struck with its individuality and powerful beauty. Gone was the stench of petrol from the thousands of mopeds in the fast-paced traffic, the noise of the city had disappeared – Hoi An gave an instantly peaceful ambience.

Elderly women with the most incredible wizened faces, sit in long-tail boats on the river that peacefully courses through the town, looking as iconic as ever in their conical hats. Of course, at this point the camera was out of the bag. But these women were no strangers to tourism. As soon as it flashed, their hands were out, begging for a few Dong, the Vietnamese currency. Of course we were urged not to encourage begging.

The young locals ride their bicycles through the town; the women call you into their shops eager to design you the most elaborate pieces of clothing and the elderly residents sit quietly, sheltered from the scorching sun, looking replete with wisdom. The tourists browse the town quietly, cameras at the ready, for Hoi An is a town awash with everything picturesque.

An absolute recommendation would be to rent a bicycle from one of the many vendors and explore the back streets of Hoi An. It is the best way to get around and an easy transportation to the beach. The beach is no Thai paradise but it possesses some of the best seafood I have ever tried in the cafes along the sand. The families working there will treat you no less than royalty and there’s no way you’ll leave without making a few life-long friends.

Hungry in Hoi An? I very much doubt it. Pick up your chopsticks and indulge in their famous cuisine. A definite try is the noodle soup or mi quang in Vietnamese, which you’ll find all over South East Asia. After personally trying it in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, the Vietnamese have it down to a T. The best are usually found on small stalls that you’ll find scattered all over Asia. “Eat where the locals eat” certainly applies in Vietnam and you’ll find the cheapest dishes for the smallest amount on these street stalls. Mind you, I hope you’ve got a strong stomach…

Moving North from Hoi An, you arrive at Hue, recognized as a World Heritage City for its culture. Hue is the ancient capital and is where the conical hat originates from, In terms of its history and heritage, Hue is incredibly important in Vietnam and it is no surprise that this is the hat’s first home.

The town has a lot to offer for your architectural mind. The ancient pagoda and famous Citadel city brim with history and the Perfume River is worth a viewing for its tranquillity. The best way to get around here is by bicycle or cyclo. Make sure you haggle with the drivers for the best prices as their prices tend to rise sharply as they see a westerner approach!
Just after cycling along the back alleys of Hue, I was introduced to a young woman who makes the conical hat for a living. Day in and day out, she weaves the bamboo and makes the headwear for her fellow labourers. Her partner then sells them at the local market. Her skill is intricate and special for one main reason – She only has one arm. Despite her disability, I was met with a happy face and she welcomed me into her home.

Born this way, Binh was affected by the Agent Orange after-effects of the Vietnamese War. The Americans dropped the harmful gas Agent Orange on Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, causing abortions, malformations and cancers. Binh is one of many to be affected with such a large burden but has still managed to learn the skills she has. Her designs are detailed and delicate and her disability is not a hindrance but seems yet to have encouraged her to succeed.

It is meeting with Vietnam residents like Binh that makes people fall in love with this brilliant nation. Binh is a symbol of how a society can progress after such a tragic history.

The conical hat is an image that will always be associated with Vietnam but the stories of the people that adorn this garment are much more iconic. Beneath the hat is the story of a nation rebuilding, and overcoming a past which could have torn them apart.

Spending time in countries like Vietnam and speaking to the local people taught me that we all take life a little too seriously in Britain. I only wish I could succumb to the laid back attitude of the Vietnamese.

Meeting these people and visiting a country like this opens your mind to what really matters in life. These people live and love off of the simplest aspects of life and problems we have at home suddenly become so minor.

‘If there is nothing that you like, you must like the things you have’ is an inscription I saw in a home in Vietnam and despite its ambiguity, I think it draws on how much we should appreciate the littler things in life.

When should I go?
If you want to visit Northern Vietnam, the best time to go is between December and September. If you’d prefer the south, visit between December and April. A great time to visit is during their new year in late January/early February depending on the Lunar calendar.

How much do things cost?
Most of South East Asia have the great bonus of being very, very cheap. Vietnam is definitely one of those. It’s around 30,000 Dong to a £1 and a budget room will cost around 100,000D

What to watch out for?
The Vietnamese are incredibly friendly but will try and get as much money as possible out of Western tourists. Check websites for secure tour guides or hotels to ensure you’re not being scammed. If you get a cyclo or taxi, make sure you always set a price before you leave. Don’t drink the tap water, always buy bottled.

What not to miss?
Check out Halong Bay in the North and of course Hue and Hoi An in the middle. The New Year’s celebration is also not to be missed. Go off the beaten track as much as possible to meet the best people. Try the sugarcane juice – it’s like nothing you’d of ever tried and don’t miss out on a morning ice-coffee. It’s no Nescafé.

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