In Hanoi, Sam and I came across plenty of wind chimes similar to the one that Alex bought in Saigon a month earlier. The chimes consisted of clay pieces shaped like the non la, the Vietnamese conical hat, in graduated sizes. Alex and I discovered it in a souvenir shop at the War Remnants Museum tucked behind a myriad of (presumably more popular) products.
Alex wanted to bring home a real non la to use for gardening at home but I was worried it would get squished in the luggage so the wind chimes had to suffice. That the hat wouldn’t have been able to withstand squishing proved correct.
On the flight home from Saigon, a huge percentage of the passengers consisted of Filipinos that were part of a tour group. It was obvious — they carried identical canvas bags on one hand and, on the other hand, adult-sized non la. These passengers had to hand carry the hats. And when I say “hand carry”, I mean hold the hats on their laps throughout the flight. Because, yes, the non la is quite fragile.
Looking at it, one would think it’s so rigid that it would hold its shape if pressed against clothes and whatnot inside a traveling bag. The non la is actually very light — so light that if you’re wearing one and you don’t tie the ribbon under your chin, a light wind can blow the hat off your head. I know because I wore one when we attended a cooking class in Cu Chi.
When we picked herbs and vegetables at the cooking school‘s farm, we were each handed a non la to protect our heads and faces from the sun. It was so hot and I felt claustrophobic with the ribbon tied under my chin. So I untied it and just left the hat on my head. I can’t remember anymore how many times it fell. A few times, I caught it; other times, it fell to the ground.
I’ve read though that there are conical hats that are thicker, firmer and more durable. I suppose how light or firm it is depends on how it is intended to be used.
According to legend, the non la was first worn by a goddess
Story has it that, long ago, it rained hard that floods were everywhere in rural Vietnam. A goddess descended from the sky (alternatively depicted as a giant woman) wearing a conical hat so large that she was able to shield the people and the crops from the downpour.
After the goddess had gone, the people started emulating her hat until wearing it became a way of life.
Another story tells of a princess who taught villagers how to make the conical hat by sewing together palm leaves.
Is non la a farmer’s hat?
Yes, but it is more than that.
While the non la will forever be associated with workers who toil under the sun and rain, it has also become a symbol for the women of Vietnam who pair it with the ao dai, their traditional costume.
Feudal soldiers of old wore a variation of the conical hat.
And there are conical hats painted with poems with the text only readable when sunlight hits the hat.