The village’s glory days are over, but many inhabitants of Chuong Have kept a traditional skill alive, producing the humble, durable, elegant and very, very conical hats.
In the past, the entire village in former Ha Tay province (since merged with the capital city) relied on the trade. It seemed that everyone, from the most senior citizens to the youngest, knew the ins and outs of making conical hats.
Conical hat making ran in their blood, so to speak.
Even today, the village bustles with residents pursuing the traditional vacation, whether it is buying and selling raw materials, picking out palm splints, stitching the conical ring, or selling them in the market.
The conical hats from Chuong were so famous that they were even presented as gifts to the members of the royal family.
Chuong residents used to make the “non quai thao” (a kind of conical hat with fringes hanging on both sides) or the “non ba tam” (flat palm hat with fringes). However, the market now demands only the normal conical hat.
One feature with which the conical hat made here can be distinguished from others is that it has 16 layers in the conical ring, making it elegant, rounded and durable.
Holding the simple hat in our hands, it is hard to imagine that making it is highly time – consuming process. The first task is picking out young and tender leaves and bamboo splints. The leaves have to be cleaned with sand and dried under the sun to achieve the light touch. They are then smoothed out with a hot iron to prevent them from wrinkling. The bamboo splints that are used to make the conical ring must be hung in the kitchen earlier to make them “termite proof.”
The next process requires a high level of skill. It is called “lop la” or “quay non”, shaping the stems into the “mould” into which treated bamboo leaves are arranged by layers. If this is not done carefully, the layers will bulge, crumple or tear and that hat will not achieve the right balance.
The sewing process is even more difficult. The work cannot be done with a machine and must be accomplished by hand, using silk threads to sew small, tight stitches. Even the most – skilled person can only finish sewing two hats per day. The conical hats made in Chuong village are so well stitched that the threads are hardly visible.
Later, it will go through the final touch as it is lightly exposed to sulfur to make it brighter.
Golden days of yore
The golden days of Chuong village were during the subsidized period when lives were much harder. Every household, both in the rural and urban areas, had to have conical hats because they were economical and useful in all seasons. Even during those days, the residents of Chuong village could not become wealthy from this trade alone – a conical hat, no matter how much effort hoes into its making, cannot be sold at a high price.
As the country becomes more developed people have shifted their preference to other types of modern hats, and obviously, helmets on bikes. Demand for the conical hat has decreased dramatically, and many residents are no longer interested in maintaining the trade. Some have left the village to find jobs in the city.
However, there are those for whom the conical hat is still a symbol of hat work – the farmers sweating in the rice fields, the itinerant vendors, the women who struggle to make ends meet by selling food in the markets, and even corkers on constructions sites. For them, this simple object is a treasure.
That is why the tradition in Chuong village has a reason to continue.
The market here has not lost its vibrant ambience despite the glory days being well behind.
Considered the biggest market if it’s kind in the northern region, the market in Chuong village gathers six times a month – on the fourth, 10th, 14th, 20th, 24th and 30th of the Lunar month. It is open only from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. as the sellers are in a hurry to transport their products to other regions. Thousands of conical hats are sold every market day at prices ranging from VND 20, 000 to 50, 000 each.
There are tourists who also come here to pick out a conical hat and experience the environment of the countryside, not to mention a famous traditional handcraft village. Every visitor is charmed by the residents’ friendliness and hospitality, and impressed by the skills of the local artisans making the conical hat.
In the hearts of many Vietnamese, especially those who have to live far away from home, nostalgia and homesickness. Along with the “ao dai”, the conical hat honors the unique beauty if the Vietnamese women, making them national icons.
Local authorities are looking at ways to further develop tourism in the village and find more markets for its main product. They have succeeded in getting orders from Japan, China, Australia and Korea, but are looking to expand this trade further. The conical hat markers deserve it not their diligence, commitment and perseverance.
If they succeed, the Chuong village could revisit its glory days again.
Travel tip shared by Lanh Nguyen