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The Asian Conical Hat

Young woman in a conical hat workshop

An Asian conical hat is an accessory that runs by many names across both Asian and Western culture. The Vietnamese name is nón lá (which translates to leaf hat), whilst countries such as China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines all have their own individual names for these amazing items. There are multiple English names for the hat, which you may be slightly more familiar with including rice hat, bamboo hat, and even coolie hat.

As you are traveling through Vietnam or neighboring countries, you will see the hats in daily use and will be tempted to use them as well. Go for it! Not only will they protect you from the sun, but will help blend in with the crowd, and become a lovely souvenir afterward.

Where Do Conical Hats Come From?

Conical hats are believed to have originated in Vietnam, despite their common use all around Asian countries. The first materialization of this hat was over 3000 years ago. There is a deep story tied to the origin of this wonderful piece from the history of growing rice in Vietnam. Rumored that a giant woman from the sky wanted to protect mankind from a flood of rain, she sported a hat made of four round shaped leaves to protect her from the downpour. The Vietnamese attempted to mimic her efforts using palm leaves. Stitched together to create a hat, they built a model which is now famously known as nón lá. Since the first model, the design of size and shape has differed greatly, with now more than 50 different versions found in the world. Traditionally, women wore higher cones with smaller rims whilst men wore hats with larger rims up to 1 meter in diameter!

A Vietnamese woman making hats by hand on the porch

You can observe hats-making in the streets and markets

How Are Conical Hats Produced?

Nón Lá hats are produced using simple and readily available materials, palm leaves from palm trees. The leaves are first beaten and left to dry under the scorching sun, making them more durable and stronger. The second step is to iron the leaves. This step could be considered an art form, as it has to be just right every time. Too much heat and the leaves will burn, too little heat and the leaves will not be straightened. The main frame is created by bending shaved and treated bamboo sticks. Different-sized rings are layered to form varying diameters. Vertical stripes are then attached to rings, creating a net structure.

Experienced weavers will then sew palm leaves to this structure with near-invisible threads. It takes amateurs up to a full day to create just one hat! Threads of silk will be attached from either side under the base, which is then used as a neck strap for the wearer. The conical hat is finally pressed with heat and coated with turpentine oil, which gives a protective film to the hat. These final steps allow the wearer to happily utilize the garment without it producing mold or deteriorating naturally.

Lamps made from conical hats

The Vietnamese get creative about their traditional hats

What Are Their Uses?

Conical hats have been used around Vietnam for centuries, particularly in the Mekong Delta region, to serve as protection from rain or sunlight. These accessories are neither gender nor age biased, as you will see many men, women, and children wear these around Asia. Women use these hats as baskets in the market when purchasing food and other local items – it can even be used as a cooling device when made from straw or matting. This is achieved by the wearer dipping the hat in water, which will evaporate and refreshingly cool their temperature in the often relentless Vietnamese heat. A powerful symbol of Vietnamese culture, special nón lás have even been designed for kids, monks, and troops.

Vietnamese man in conical hat in from of the temple

Conical hats are in daily use

More delicate designs will find lines from poems woven between the layers of leaves. These beautiful interpretations are typically sought out by young women to appear more elegant and delicate, with brightly colored hats used in festivals and national events. Available to purchase them in most spots, it is hard to deny these conical hats are one of the biggest and best keepsakes for traveling Asia.


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This entry was posted May 21, 2019
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