The iconic Non La, the conical hat of Vietnam

Áo dài (the long silk dress), the conical hat nón lá, and don ganh tre/quang ganh (the bamboo shoulder pole with baskets on either side) are the symbols of quintessential Vietnam. Non la is an integral part of the daily life of Vietnamese people, especially the hard working women. It is most commonly used by farmers,vendors, fishermen and so on. The conical hat serves an ideal protection from the blazing sun and the unexpected rains of this region. These leaf hats add a romantic charm to the graceful traditional attire Ao Dai which highlights the beautiful figure of the Vietnamese women.

On a rainy day

An attempt to recreate the above photograph on canvas

For the love of non la, a few painting attempts by yours truly

The conical hats are made of palm leaves treated by proper processing methods and sewn together by the fibre from the bark of mok tree in the past (nowadays replaced by cotton or nylon thread), bamboo or rattan for the rim and a silk chin strap. The hats are hand made with great dexterity and precision. Leaves are left overnight in the open to become soft and then the sun dried flattened leaves are sewn on a conical frame of 16 to 18 bamboo rims. There are different types of hats. Non bai tho or poem hats are made in Hue, with verses inserted in the leaf layers. There are hats with paintings on them as well.

16 rimmed non la


Lost in the past
The legend behind the hat is that, once when a deluge affected the country a goddess descended from the heavens and protected the people from the fury of the rains by holding four broad leaves stitched together with bamboo sticks. The goddess taught the people how to grow crops. One day she went back to the heavens and the people made a temple in honour of her. They started making headwear out of broad leaves of the palm trees stitched together with bamboo sticks. This later became the iconic conical hats of Vietnam.

When you travel through Vietnam you wouldn’t miss these conical hats. Whether in cities like Saigon or any other rural areas, conical hats define this country. Every tourist who visits Vietnam carries home a non la.

Different types of hats

A few clicks from different parts of Vietnam

Behold her single in the field yon solitary Highland lass! (From Da lat, the Central Highlands)

The hands that create (from the pottery village Hoi An)

 A salt field worker

Fruit sellers

Like the conical hats don ganh tre or the bamboo shoulder baskets are also a symbol of Vietnamese women. A set of quang ganh / don ganh tre consist of a bamboo pole with two flat baskets made of rattan, bamboo and ropes hung on either side. They balance the heavy baskets on bamboo poles on their shoulders with amazing ease. Even though it is seemingly effortless, balancing the pole on the shoulders is no easy task. Wherever you go you see the women, old or young, carrying these poles on their shoulders selling fruits, tender coconuts or noodle soup. These images are strong metaphors of the balancing act of life, the strength of the womenfolk here. Hats off to these industrious women; their grit and energy are admirable.

An early morning at the fishing village in Mui ne

The wait for the fresh catch of the day

Non la, especially those of of men with the broad-rimmed higher cones in the centre has a striking similarity to thoppikkuda, the traditional headgear of farmers in Kerala. The broad rimmed thoppikuda is made of palm leaves and men and women used to wear different shapes. I remember the comparatively big ‘umbrellas’ made of palm leaves that can cover the whole body of the women folk as they work bending in the paddy fields. Those umbrellas that almost resembled curved roofs were called ‘kundan kuda‘ . These were made from the leaves of corypha umbraculifera or Tailpot Palm/ kudappana . Those have vanished completely from the villages. I was elated when I came across an interesting article which says that our village Anakkara was the place where the thoppikudas were largely produced! That ancient art of traditional umbrella making is fast fading from Kerala. Palm leaf Thoppikudas are replaced by plastic ones.

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Courtesy Sudinam newspsper
Published On:Jun 13, 2014 | 12:47
തൊപ്പിക്കുടകളും ഓര്‍മ്മയിലേക്ക്”
പഴമയുടെ പ്രതീകമായിരുന്ന തൊപ്പിക്കുടകള്‍ നാടുനീങ്ങി. ഒരു കാലത്ത് നാട്ടിന്‍ പുറങ്ങളില്‍ തൊപ്പിക്കൂടകള്‍ സര്‍വ സാധാരണമായിരുന്നു. പാലക്കാട് ജില്ലയിലെ ആനക്കര തൊപ്പിക്കുട നിര്‍മ്മാണത്തിന് പ്രസിദ്ധമായിരുന്നു. കഴിഞ്ഞ കാലം വരെ തൊപ്പിക്കുട നിര്‍മ്മാണം നടന്നിരുന്നു. പഴയ തലമുറയില്‍പ്പെട്ട പലരും മണ്‍മറഞ്ഞതോടെ തൊപ്പിക്കുട നിര്‍മ്മാണവും ഇവര്‍ക്കൊപ്പം പോയി മറിഞ്ഞു. പണ്ട് കാലങ്ങളില്‍ കാര്‍ഷിക ജോലികളില്‍ ഏര്‍പ്പെടുന്ന തൊഴിലാളികള്‍ തൊപ്പിക്കുടകളും പാടത്ത് പണിയെടുക്കുന്ന കര്‍ഷകതൊഴിലാളികളായ സ്ത്രീകള്‍ കുണ്ടന്‍കുടകളുമാണ് ധരിക്കാറ്.. പനയോല, മുള എന്നിവ ഉപയോഗിച്ചാണ് കുട നിര്‍മ്മിച്ചിരുന്നത്….
മുണ്ട്രക്കോട്, പടിഞ്ഞാറങ്ങാടി, മുതൂര്‍ എന്നിവിടങ്ങളിലാണ് നേരത്തെ കുടനിര്‍മ്മാണം നടന്നിരുന്നത്. കുണ്ടന്‍കുടയും തൊപ്പികുടകളും നാടുനീങ്ങിയതോടെ ഇപ്പോള്‍ പ്ലാസ്റ്റിക് ഷീറ്റുകളും തൊപ്പികളുമാണ് ഉപയോഗിക്കുന്നത്.

[Thoppikudas, a symbol of antiquity, have become extinct. Anakkara in Palakkad district was well known for mass production of thoppikkuda. Most of the artisans skilled at this art are departed and the art too died with them. These umbrellas were made of palm leaves and bamboo and were used by farmers.]

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Krishnan, from our village Anakkara, probably one of those last few people who is skilled at this dying art says there is no demand for this signature headgear these days. He hasn’t made one for a very long time. His own thoppikkuda definitely has seen better days! I sincerely wish that inspired by the Vietnamese and the way they keep their tradional headwear alive, thoppikkudas would make a come back to Kerala.

3 thoughts on “The iconic Non La, the conical hat of Vietnam

  1. What a wonderful post! The photos are delightful, and the history and information about the hat is fascinating. Both styles of hats, actually.

    I’m sure you’ve solved a mystery for me, too. There is a fisherman who frequents the waters around a marina where I work. He sets up just at the edge of the channel in a little flat-bottomed boat, and hand fishes with only a line: no rod, reel, and so on. And, he wears the conical hat I now know as the non la. So, I think I know his nationality! There were many Vietnamese who moved here in the 70s, but most are shrimpers and fishermen farther down the coast now. But every now and them I bump into signs of their community, like traditional graves in cemeteries, and little restaurants advertising Vietnamese food. I need to do more exploring , and see if I can find more people wearing the non la!


    1. Thank you Linda! Your comments are always heart warming. Yes, in the 70s many Vietnamese migrated to your part of the world. Am sure the fisherman would be happy to hear a ‘xin chào’ (hello) from you the next time you see him😊. And it’d be a good idea to try out Vietnamese cuisine someday, if you’re upto it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We have a small but very good Thai restaurant not far from here, and I’ve been there a few times. They’re kind enough to mark the very spicy dishes on the menu, and will offer a taste of sauces and such if they’re not too busy. Each time we visit, I have a different dish. It’s quite good.

        Liked by 1 person

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