There is no doubt that Vietnam is jam-packed with iconic landmarks, architecture from another era, war history, motorbikes, hawkers hocking all sorts of things, exotic cuisine, superb beaches and the nicest people you will ever meet. While Vietnam is known for all of these things, the 'conical hat' - or 'non-la' to locals - is what encapsulates Vietnam to me personally. Whether you're living in Vietnam or just visiting, you can't possibly miss them, they're everywhere.
Images of the 'non-la' can be seen on ancient relics from when the Dong Son people were living in Vietnam over 2,500 years ago. The 'non-la' more than anything else in my view, tells the story of this ancient land, the people who lived here before and the people who live here today.
The simplicity of the 'non-la' is indicative of the kind of life most Vietnamese people lead, especially in rural and regional areas. Family, food and shelter are the key motivators and if you reflect for a moment or two you'll see there is a 'non-la' connection to all of them. Your 'non-la' is my 'non-la' and vice-versa among family members. We've all seen images of a pyjama-clad Vietnamese farmer wearing a 'non-la', toiling in the rice fields - the staple food of people living in Vietnam. In the rice fields and elsewhere in Vietnam the 'non-la' provides at least a bit of shelter from the harsh, tropical climate - hot one day, very hot the next and even hotter the next day, but very wet at the same time.
You might think I'm drawing a long bow with the suggestion that the humble 'non-la' is indicative of life itself in Vietnam. Work the idea through in your mind and you might just be a convert. Certainly folk-lore is on my side.
According to folk-lore, there was a time when Vietnam was subjected to on-going torrential rain. When people living in Vietnam at the time had just about given up, a giant woman wearing a hat made of 4 large leaves and held together by bamboo sticks appeared in the sky. The giant woman (and presumably her hat) protected everyone from the downpour.
Folk-lore has it, this giant woman in the sky told stories until everyone living in Vietnam fell asleep. When the people of Vietnam woke from their slumber, they noticed the rain had stopped and the mysterious woman had disappeared. This super-natural event supposedly compelled the then citizens of Vietnam to build a temple to honour the giant woman in the sky who protected them from the downpour. The legend of the Rain-shielding Goddess was born.
The Rain-shielding Goddess apparently had such a profound impact on those who encountered her during the torrential downpour, people started gathering palm leaves and making them into a hat, similar to the one the Goddess was wearing. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but to me, this has what we know today as the 'non-la' - 'written all over it'.
While donning a 'non-la' might be quirky and a bit of fun for visitors to this country, those of us who have the privilege of living in Vietnam know that it's an integral part of everyday life in this truly fascinating land. We're talking about apparel with a lot of history - supposedly dating back to the time of Rain-shielding Goddess - and as they say, 'if the hat fits...'