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Vignette: How Bình Định's Nón Ngựa Gave Me Hope for the Tourism Industry

In 1964, when Đỗ Văn Lan was only 14 years old, a group of American soldiers spent six months at his family’s Bình Định home learning how to make nón ngựa. Once he learned that I am American, he told me this story. More than once.

The name nón ngựa (horse hat) is in reference to the claim that the hat is sturdy enough to be worn while riding a horse. This led them to be worn by soldiers and aristocrats, while the labor required to produce them made them too expensive for everyday use. 

Nón ngựa has been a specialty of Phú Gia Hamlet in Phù Cát District, Bình Định for 300 years. Đỗ Văn Lan walked us through the 10-step process with great enthusiasm while offering interesting asides: ethnic minorities gather some of the necessary leaves from the highlands; the most elaborate hats can require six days of work and fetch VND1.5 million; his four daughters will take over the family trade from him as his sons have deemed it “women’s work.” I think he could talk to us all day.

Alas, we could not stay long. Our visit had only been a small diversion scheduled as part of a paid assignment at a local resort. Truthfully, when told about the “craft village visit,” I had low expectations. I assumed that it would be a tourist-catering operation aimed at commodifying the death rattles of a tradition akin to watching a water puppet show at Hoàn Kiếm Lake or strolling through Bến Thành Market. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was an invitation to a simple home where a small family lived and bent back to their craft whether anyone was there to watch or not.

The beauty and complexity of the hats with flowers and text stitched into their undersides? Đỗ Văn Lan’s enthusiastic pride? Ponderings of the future of the craft? I’m not sure what compelled me to scour the internet for more information. I didn’t expect to find much to write an article with. Again, how wrong I was. Long-form news articles, videos, and governmental press releases: nón ngựa Phú Gia has been covered extensively in the local media. Certainly, I was in no place to add anything after my brief trip.

We all want to be the first to unearth a valuable gem, but maybe it’s better to learn that others are already appreciating something wonderful without exploiting it. That thought gives me hope for Vietnam’s tourism industry as a whole. The visit also gives me hope for the sustained future of artisanal traditions, because in the words of Đỗ Văn Lan: “I only make enough to get by, but I love my craft.”

Vignettes are little stories from our writers.

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