Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, lies in Southeast Asia. It has an estimated 90.5 million inhabitants (2014), with the dominant Viet or Kinh ethnic group constituting nearly 85.8% of the population (2009). The Kinh population is concentrated mainly in the alluvial deltas and coastal plains of the country. However, Vietnam is also home to 54 ethnic minority groups, including the Dao, Degar, Hmong (see Thailand: Blue Hmong woman), Hoa (ethnic Chinese), Khmer Krom, Lahu (see Thailand: Lahu woman), Muong, Nùng, Tay, and Thai (see Thailand). Each of these groups have their own traditions and traditional costumes, which differ from those of the Kinh (Viet).
Humans have been living in the region now known as Vietnam from as early as the Palaeolithic age (from 2.6 million years ago). Homo erectus fossils dating to around 500,000 BC have been found in caves in northern Vietnam. By about 1000 BCE, the development of wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting in the Ma River and Red River floodplains — the homeland of the ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh people) — led to the flourishing of the Đông Sơn and the Phung Nguyen cultures. At this time, the early Vietnamese kingdoms of Văn Lang and Âu Lạc appeared, and the Vietnamese influence spread to other parts of Southeast Asia throughout the first millennium BCE in a process known as ‘Advancing South’ (Nam Tiến).
In contrast, Central Vietnam was home to the Cham people, a Malayo-Polynesian ethnic group who founded their distinct Indianised Kingdom over the Central Coast before being subdued by the Vietnamese during the 14th century CE. Their predecessors, people who are now known as the Sa Huynh culture, dated back from 1000 BCE. Furthermore, the Mekong Delta in southernmost Vietnam was part of Funan, Chenla, and then the Angkor Empire. Chinese and Vietnamese started migrating en masse to this region during the 16th to 17th century.
The first Vietnamese state, Văn Lang, was defeated by in 257 BCE by Thục Phán, who consolidated the Lạc Việt and Âu Việt tribes to form the Âu Lạc. In 207 BCE, a Chinese general named Zhao Tuo defeated the Âu Lạc and consolidated it into Nanyue. However, Nanyue was itself incorporated into the empire of the Chinese Han dynasty in 111 BCE after the Han–Nanyue War. Vietnam was then part of Imperial China for over a millennium, from 111 BC to AD 939.
An independent Vietnamese state was formed in 939, following a Vietnamese victory in the Battle of Bạch Đằng River. Successive Vietnamese royal dynasties flourished as the nation expanded geographically and politically into Southeast Asia. In the 16th century, when the country was separated into Dang Trong (the South) and Dang Ngoai (the North), the Lords of Dang Trong instituted a cultural reform, including a costume reform to differentiate local people’s costumes from those in in the North (Dang Ngoai).
In the mid-19th century, the Indochina Peninsula (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) was colonised by the French. Following a Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the Vietnamese fought French rule in the First Indochina War, eventually expelling the French in 1954. Thereafter, Vietnam was divided politically into two rival states, North and South Vietnam as it had been in the 16th century. The conflict between the two sides intensified in what is known as the Vietnam War. The war ended with a North Vietnamese victory in 1975. Vietnam was then unified under a communist government.
In 1986, the government initiated a series of economic and political reforms which began Vietnam’s path towards integration into the world economy. By 2000, it had established diplomatic relations with all the world’s nations. Since 2000, Vietnam’s economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world and it joined the World Trade Organisation in 2007. Vietnam remains one of the world’s five remaining one-party socialist states officially espousing communism.
Non-Kinh traditional clothing
Apart from the Kinh (Viet) ethnicity, about 54 different native groups live in Vietnam. Every ethnic group in Vietnam has its own style of clothing, which are radically different in some cases.
For example, the citizens of communities that live in the mountainous areas or on the plateaux have very colourful costumes with design motifs imitating wild flowers and beasts. A mix of contrasting colours is used frequently: black and red, blue and red, or blue and white. The clothing styles tend to be convenient for farm work in terraced fields and for travelling in the hilly or mountainous regions. In contrast, the plains peoples (Mekong basin) wear simple, modest outfits.
In Vietnam, the various ethnicities wear their favourite traditional clothes for the different festivals celebrated in the country. However, for a very long time now, the clothing of Vietnamese ethnic groups has been influenced by foreign dress. Some traditional clothes have been lost, having been substituted by more modern interpretations.
Kinh (Viet) women’s wear
Colour is very important for the Vietnamese people. Traditionally, men used to wear clothes of a particular colour according to their status; for example, yellow for kings, brown and black for civilian men, red for high-grade mandarins, green and blue for low-grade mandarins. Nowadays, such colour standards are no longer in place for men any more.
Nevertheless, women still use standard colour schemes, especially in big cities. White is for young girls, pastel colours are for young unmarried women, while married women wear brightly-coloured tunics over white or black trousers.
As there was a class division in feudal Vietnamese society, common women wore long black shirts made from coarse materials, whereas upper class women wore shirts made from fine materials and cloths with brighter colours such as yellow, blue, red and purple. However, dark hues were considered more suitable for women living in wet areas. Upper-class women usually wore long shirts in blue or violet, curved shoes and flat palm hats with fringes (nón quai thao) with their hair in a bun.
Áo tứ thân
Initially, the women’s costume in the North of Vietnam was the áo tứ thân (four-piece blouse) with a bodice, a skirt and a headscarf of the ancient Vietnamese women. The áo tứ thân is open at the front, like a jacket, and at the waist the tunic is split into three flaps: a full flap in the back (made up of two flaps sewn together) and the two flaps in the front which are not sewn together but can be tied together or left dangling. The áo tứ thân comes in many fabrics and colours. A long skirt was worn under the tunic and an yếm, which is an ancient piece of clothing worn as an undergarment by women to cover the chest area (see below). A silk sash is tied round at the waist as a belt. The áo tứ thân is nowadays no longer used as day-to-day clothing but it has become the official costume for traditional occasions such as festivals and events, especially in northern Vietnam.
An yếm is a traditional Vietnamese bodice (looks a little like a halter neck) used primarily as an undergarment that was once worn by Vietnamese women of all classes. There exists a modern variant called the áo yếm, but the historical garment was simply called an yếm. It was usually worn underneath a blouse or overcoat. It is a simple garment with many variations from its basic form, which is a simple, usually diamond or square-cut piece of cloth draped over a woman’s chest with strings to tie at the neck and back. In the 19th century, the yếm was a square piece of cloth with one corner cut away to fit under the woman’s throat. This scrap of fabric was secured across the chest and stomach with thin strings. The yếm used by the poor whilst working was brown or beige and made of coarsely woven material. Urban women favoured white, pink or red yếm. On special occasions, like the Lunar New Year or other festivals, rural women would also wear brightly coloured yếm. The skirt which is worn with the yếm is called váy đụp.
There is one kind of yếm which was often wore by ancient ladies called yếm deo bua, because it had a small pocket containing musk. In the olden days, when a girl had a date with her beloved, she usually put a piece of betel inside her yếm as this was supposed to have special powers.
The yếm originated from the Chinese dudou, a variant of similar undergarments used in China since antiquity. It became popular in northern Vietnam. Unlike other Vietnamese clothing that helped to segregate the classes, the unseen yếm were worn as an undergarment by Vietnamese women of all walks of life, from peasant women toiling in the fields to imperial consorts. It is an integral part of the áo tứ thân costume as it is often worn underneath it.
In the 18th century, Chinese style clothing was forced on Vietnamese people by the Nguyen dynasty, so that the typical tunic and trousers of the Han Chinese replaced the yếm and skirt (váy đụp). This was because the Chinese thought skirts were immodest and immoral. In addition, they also prohibited the Vietnamese women from showing their feet.
The ao ba (loose-fitting blouse) also entered Vietnam from China with Chinese traders. This type of blouse has been redesigned several times and is now the distinctive costume of southern women. Initially, the ao ba was black and tailored with pockets and split flaps at the hip. It was worn along with a bandana, suitable to the life of women in watery areas. Later, designers made it tighter with a Raglan shoulder, and in light and bright hues that make the modern ao ba more feminine and beautiful.
In the 18th century, southern Vietnamese women wore long five-flap shirts (ao mo ba mo bay, shirt of several flaps) with black loose trousers. This five-piece shirt was considered as the forerunner to the current áo dài of southern women. Áo classifies the item as a piece of clothing on the upper part of the body, while dài means “long”. The word áo dài was originally applied to the outfit worn at the court of the Nguyễn Lords at Huế in the 18th century. This outfit evolved into the áo ngũ thân, a five-panelled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, due to the influence of the French culture, the áo dài was made tighter, clinging to the body and more colourful, from thin materials and worn with loose white trousers. Madame Nhu, first lady of South Vietnam, popularized a collarless version beginning in 1958. The dress was extremely popular in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1970s, Southern designers renovated the costume making it cling to the body with narrowed flaps. They especially made use of the Raglan shoulder to avoid creases and give the dress a softer, more flowing appearance. The communists, who gained power in the North in 1954 and in the South in the 1975, had conflicting feelings about the áo dài and it was apparently banned. The áo dài experienced a revival beginning in late 1980s, when state enterprises and schools began adopting the dress as a uniform again. It is the required uniform for female teachers (mostly from primary to secondary school, with no constraints on colour, etc.) and female students (white with only small patterns e.g. flowers). Companies often require their female staff to wear uniforms that include the áo dài, so flight attendants, receptionists, bank female staff, restaurant staff, and hotel workers in Vietnam may be seen wearing it. The áo dài is now also standard for weddings and for celebrating Tết (Lunar New Year) and for other formal occasions. Usually, the áo dài is custom made so that it fits snuggly, though mass production techniques are also used nowadays.
The modern áo dài is made of printed cotton for daily use, especially in the summer; in winter, it is made of wool. However, plain or embroidred silk is used for special occaisions.
The traditional costumes of the lower class Vietnamese men tended to be very simple and modest. It included brown tunics/shirts with long sleeves and wide white trousers. Their headgear was simply a piece of cloth wrapped around the head or a conical hat and their footwear consisted of a pair of plain wooden shoes or sandals. Formal dress consisted of a white and black combination with two additional items: a long gown with slits on either side, and a turban, usually in black or brown made of cotton or silk. These colours were regulated as in feudal times ordinary people were not allowed to wear clothes with dyes other than black, brown or white.
Men’s dress has gradually changed along with social development and time. The traditional set of a long gown and turban has given way to more modern looking suits, while business shirts and trousers have replaced the traditional long-sleeved shirts and wide trousers. Traditional costumes still exist and efforts are increasingly being made to restore traditional festivals and entertainment which incorporate traditional costumes.
Nowadays, one of the traditional men’s costumes still used in Vietnam is the áo dài, but it differs from women’s áo dài as it tends to be much shorter and fuller. Men wear the áo dài with trousers. The everyday version of áo dài for men is usually brown, but a festive one can be of any colour and is usually ornate.
On Tết (Lunar New Year) and other occasions, Vietnamese men may wear a version of the áo dài made of thicker fabric, the áo gấm (gấm means brocade, so brocade robe).
Vietnamese conical hats
People in Vietnam wear conical hats (nón lá) which protect them from the elements and help them in ordinary life. Both men and women use them, but the design and look of such hats vary a lot as there are more than 50 different types of conical hats in Vietnam: made for men, women, children, Buddhists, army, rich people and so on. The style is very old: images of nón lá hats were embossed on Ngoc Lu drums about 2500 to 3000 years ago.
Among Asian conical hats, the nón lá of the Vietnamese people forms a perfect right circular cone which tapers smoothly from the base to the apex. The men’s conical hat has a higher cone and smaller rims. The women’s hat is low, broad-rimmed and often beautifully decorated and have pretty ribbons to tie the hat on. Women often use their conical hat not only as a piece of clothing but also to carry things such as fruit and vegetables. Also they can scoop up water from a well with their hat and drink.
Special conical hats in Vietnam contain colourful hand-stitch depictions or words (Hán tự) while the Huế varieties are famous for their nón bài thơ (literally: poem conical hats). These contain random poetic verses and hán tự which can be revealed when the hat is directed above one’s head in the sunlight. Today, it has become part of Vietnam’s national costume.
Vietnamese conical hats are always handmade. Materials such as bamboo, young palm leaves and reed are used. Palm leaves and a special kind of bamboo are used to weave a hat and the threads for sewing are made from the leaves of a special kind of reed. The hats are rather hard to make to ensure everything is perfect.
Due to Vietnam’s hot and humid climate and wading days in wet rice paddies or fishing, Vietnamese people usually went barefoot. Indeed, up until the Tran Dynasty (1225—1400 CE), most Vietnamese people went barefoot though clogs (guoc) were not unknown. Those people who had such shoes used them only for holidays or visiting friends, not in everyday life. The clogs were made from bamboo roots, ivory, coconut shells or other natural materials. At home people wore wooden clogs with vertical straps to protect the toes.
In south-central Vietnam, people generally made their own clogs. They favoured thick soles with slightly turned-up tips. The straps, which attached through a hole in the front and a pair of holes on the sides, were braided from soft cloth. Because the sole was curved at the front, the knot of the front strap did not rub on the ground. The soles of women’s clogs were shaped like hour-glasses, while men’s clogs — known as ‘sampan clogs’ — had straight soles. Made of white wood, Phu Yen clogs were left unpainted, while those from the central city of Hue were often painted in black and brown with a pale coloured triangle on the side of the sole. Only well-to-do men wore painted clogs. Some areas called clogs don, hence the Vietnamese saying “a foot with a shoe, a foot with a don” to indicate rich people who put on airs.
Guoc have a symbolic meaning for Vietnamese people. There are even different legends about the appearance of wooden clogs. Ancient Chinese books record that in the third century, the leader of a Vietnamese resistance movement, Ba Trieu, wore a pair of ivory clogs. Another popular legend tells of a pair of stone clogs passed down for generations by a family in Cao Bang, high in Vietnam’s northern mountains. Although modern Vietnamese clogs are usually made of plastic and rubber, but traditional wooden clogs are still used for festivals and ceremonies to honour the past.
Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 2. ISBN 978-0313-37635-8
3) Khmer Krom – http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2301/2112069553_8744fd514d.jpg
4) Núng women – http://www.focusindochina.com/images/products/201478633321.jpg
7) Ao ba ba – http://vietnamesestudies.tdt.edu.vn/images/aobaba.jpg
9) Ao dai – By Tran The Vinh – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5547200
10) Áo dài for men – http://heavenaodai.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/M-26.jpg
11) World leaders in áo gấm – By White House photo by Eric Draper – http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/11/images/20061119_d-0425-1-515h.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1386504
13) Ngoc Lu drum – http://asemus.museum/files/Ngoc_Lu_Drum-Vietnam.png
14) Nón lá with designs to be seen when looking through the hat at the sun – http://vnsplorer.com/upload/NL02_1292015_53314.jpg
17) Woman in áo tứ thân with flat palm hat (nón quai thao) – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4041258