Have you ever wondered why we associate certain items with certain cultures? Where do these items come from? Why does a floral lei make us think about Hawaii? Why does a double decker red bus bring up images of London, and why does a triangle shaped hat make us think of the rice fields of Vietnam?
I couldn’t help but ask these questions while walking down a quiet street in Hoi An, Vietnam while watching a women, wearing a stereotypical triangle shaped hat, as she pushed her bike, laden with pineapples, slowly down the street. Determined to discover the story behind the hat, I started asking around about its origin.
I didn’t have much luck.
A man selling hats on a street corner looked at me like I was nuts and told me that he made them, while the women at the front desk of my hotel said that the goddess made them through her people’s hands. I even asked a bartender later that night, but his response was that he would tell me only if I came home with him… I passed.
Realizing that I was getting nowhere, I decided it was time to do some research of my own.
This is what I’ve discovered:
The triangle shaped hat of Vietnam, also called the Non la or palm-leaf conical hat, made its first appearance over 3000 years ago. Its origin comes from a legend related to the history of growing rice in the country:
There had been non-stop, monsoon rains and the countryside was being washed away when suddenly a giant woman came down from the sky. She wore a hat made of four, huge, round shaped leaves that were stitched together with bamboo sticks to guard her from the rain. She stood tall, twirled the hat back and forth and dispersed the clouds and rain. She then taught the people how to grow rice in their rain soaked fields before disappearing back into the sky.
The people built a temple to her, The Rain-Shielding Goddess, and tried to mimic her hat by stitching together palm leaves in order to honour her.
The conical hat is made out of palm leaves, bamboo, or bark from a Moc tree and was once different shapes depending on a person’s sex and ranking. Now, it is mostly worn by farmers, boating people or tourists and is mainly made in the standard shape seen in most tourist photos. In some rural areas like Sapa, north of Hanoi, locals still make high quality hats with designs and poems sunk into them that are only visible under direct sunlight.
Not only great sun protection, these hats can be used as baskets, fans and are great shields to hide kisses behind. They are not as easy to find in the big cities anymore, because they can’t be worn on motorcycles, the main mode of transport in the country, but you should have no problem finding hundreds of them for sale at one of the many smaller towns and villages throughout the country (just remember that they are a difficult souvenir to take on a plane).
It’s interesting to me that even those that wear the traditional symbol associated with their culture couldn’t tell me anything about it.
Though, I guess I couldn’t tell someone where the North American baseball cap came from…. could you?