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Ao Dai

Ao Dai

Vietnamese Women And The Charm Of The Ao Dai


By Andrew Forbes

Over the centuries many male visitors to Vietnam have noticed and commented on the elegance and beauty of Vietnamese women. Nearly two thousand years ago, when Nam Viet was under Chinese rule, Han Dynasty writers and poets addressed this theme. The culture of the Chinese heartland, centred on the Yellow River in the north, was strongly patriarchal, but further south women wielded more influence and authority – a phenomenon both appealing and worrying to the men of Han, who desired yet felt threatened by such confident and assertive females.

The American Sinologist Edward Schafer believed that ‘respectable Chinese opinion' saw something unnatural in the prevalence of the female spirit in Nam Viet, citing the 1st century AD Han Shu: ‘The land of Viet abounds in women. Male and female share the same river. The wanton female is dominant'. Perhaps the writer had in mind the Trung Sisters, who led the famous rising against Chinese occupation in 40AD. Or perhaps it was Lady Trieu, who similarly rebelled against Chinese domination in 248AD, declaring she would ‘never bow to become anyone's concubine'. Then again, it may have been Chao, a Female Viet warrior of the 3rd century AD. According to the Nan Yue Zhi, this prodigy had breasts five foot around and rode into battle – against the Chinese, of course – in a golden dress, seated on the head of an elephant and attended by a bodyguard of virile young men.

Not that Viet women had to be warriors to present a mortal threat. A legend popular in China for many centuries tells how the King of Viet educated a beautiful country girl, Xi Shi, in the ‘feminine arts' then sent her north to corrupt his rival, the (Chinese) King of Wu. The 8th century poet Li Po celebrates her as: “Xi Shi, a woman of the streams of Viet, luminous, ravishing, a light on the sea of clouds.” Given such precedents and viewed from the perspective of Chinese men of the time, Viet women seemed dangerous and wanton creatures indeed.

And yet this very lustfulness clearly exercised a strong appeal. By Tang times (6th-9th century) Nam Viet, still occupied by the Chinese, was generally represented as a land of seductive women and gorgeous landscapes where it was never cold and flowers were always in bloom. Chinese men who had visited or lived there waxed lyrical about the beauty of the women. One Tang poet, Wang Changling, links the ‘enchantress of Viet' with ‘a playful tussle in the lotus boat, water dampening her dress'. Just as evocative, but less predatory, is his near contemporary Han Yu: ”a Viet woman's single laugh – a three year stay.” But my personal favourite is a tribute to these women of the south by Tang poet Ouyang Jiong, which Schafer translates literally as:

Twice eight flower filigree

Breast front like snow face like lotus

Ear pendant gold ring pierce lapis lazuli

Aurora dress tight

Laugh reliant river head beckon far visitor

With consummate skill he then renders this comprehensible in English:

She is sweet sixteen, wearing floral hair-ornaments of gold;

Her bosom is snow white, her face like a pink lotus.

Golden rings hang from her ears, pierced for lapis lazuli studs;

Her rose-tinted dress clings tightly.

She laughs confidently by the riverbank, and beckons to the stranger from afar.

And all this was before the fetching ao dai was designed! This garment, which manages to be both chaste and yet sensual, first came into vogue in the 19th century, and was worn on formal occasions by both men and women, the male ao dai being shorter and looser than the female. It is a close-fitting knee-length gown – ao dai means “long dress” – split up the sides to the waist and worn over flowing white or black satin pants. The gown features a high collar and tight sleeves. By the mid-20th century Vietnamese men had, by and large, stopped wearing ao dai except at the royal court and sometimes at weddings. Among women it was considered appropriate for students and office workers, and was especially popular in the south where it became, effectively, the national dress and a powerful symbol of Vietnamese femininity. Graham Greene, no doubt seated drinking vermouth cassis by the Rue Catinat in the 1950s, saw them and admired them: ”Up the street came the lovely flat figures – the white silk trousers, the long tight jackets in pink and mauve patterns slit up the thigh. I watched them with the nostalgia I knew I would feel when I had left these regions for ever.”

My own first sighting of an ao dai was in the unlikely setting of Djibouti, then the Territoire Français des Afars et des Issas, a dust-blown French colonial outpost in the Horn of Africa. It was hellishly hot, and I was sweating my way across the Place Lagarde wishing myself elsewhere – just about anywhere else. Then, quite unexpectedly, a Vietnamese woman in a pale blue ao dai walked out of the Banque Indosuez. I was transfixed, and knew immediately where it was I wished to be. Unfortunately this was in 1975, the year of the communist seizure of power in Saigon. The ao dai had long since been deemed unacceptably frivolous and bourgeois in the north, and after reunification this political incorrectness was extended nationwide, so the lovely garment all but disappeared. Since doi moi, however, the tables have turned. Ao dai (pronounced ao yai in the south and ao zai in the north) are once again commonplace in the cities of the south, especially in Saigon and Hue, and have even begun a slow conquest of the north. Today hotel receptionists and shop attendants in Hanoi regularly sport this national dress, while the air hostesses of Vietnam Airlines are dressed exquisitely in close-fitting sky blue or pink tunics over loose, white silk trousers.

Greene would have been pleased, and so am I.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media