Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women's Museum - Part 2

Vietnam has a lot of museums.  They are of varying quality, but so far we have enjoyed every one we have visited.  A couple of weeks ago we went to the Southern Women's Museum in Saigon.  This museum was so good that I have at least one more post about it up my sleeve after this - so this one is a series!

In my last post, I talked about the looms and fabric production that is displayed on the first floor.  The second half of the first floor covers costume and dress.  After seeing the traditional fabrics being woven, we are also shown the dress made up.

You can still see the ethnic minorities who make these beautiful clothes dressed in the traditional garb in some places in Vietnam, and in other places around South East Asia too.  Traditionally, many of the hill tribe populations were nomadic, so their customs of dress and skills as weavers and embroiderers followed them throughout the region.

Large numbers of the Cham ethnic minority who were responsible for building the breath-taking towers at My Son and other sites, converted to Islam after their final defeat by the Viet.  They are not forgotten in the Women's Museum, and an example of their beautiful silk costume is on display.

There is also a really great example of a Chinese Wedding costume on display.  Vietnam has at various times been under Chinese occupation, and so wedding costumes like this were in use in parts of Vietnam as recently as 150 years ago.

It is an extremely elaborate costume with silk tassels, embroidery, sequins and a headdress that looks so heavy I don't know how the poor girl would be able to hold her head up!  I'm not sure about the exact provenance of this example, but given the expense and time that must have gone into one of these, I imagine that they would have been handed down between generations and added to or altered with each new bride.

The Vietnamese national costume that is still in use is the ao dai. In its current version it is a sleek, tight fitting tunic over loose-fitting trousers.  The tunic has split sides from just below the bust down, leaving a little triangular peek of flesh above the waistline of the trousers.  They are very commonly worn today - not just for special occasions at all. The girl who sits on reception in my apartment building wears one as part of her uniform.

I was really interested to learn about the history of the ao dai in the museum.  It is a relatively modern national costume - I think it began to be worn about 250 years ago. And it is had undergone many small changes in that time.  It is a fashion that changes rapidly, just as any other fashion does.  At times, the tunic has been loose fitting, at times a cross over style, some times short, and sometimes long.

 This example was made for a wedding in the early 20th century.  It is much more loose fitting than the modern ones which tend to have raglan sleeves and cling tightly to the  bust!  Like the Chinese wedding costume it is lucky red, and has a headdress and collar that reaches over the bust - though it's much less extravagant!

I was really interested in the belt and armband.  What are they made of?  It is a row of glistening metallic green curved plates, sewn on to a strip of leather.  This was made in a pre-plastic era, and while it's possible that it could be some kind of brilliant paint on metal moulded thingies - I think they look like wingcases of some kind of metallic insect. There is nothing written about it on display information, and there was no one around to ask.  What do you think?


  1. The ao dai is a relatively recent dress, developed in the 20th century if memory serves. As for South Vietnam's hill tribes, they most definitely were not nomadic, though the Vietnamese insist that they were. They did practice swidden agriculture, which required moving from one field to another every five to seven years, but generally the villages often remained in the same area as clans rotated through their fields according to the season or year. Within the Matriarchal matrilineal tribes (the Rhade, and Jarai), ownership of land was vested in the female head of the clans, called the Po Lan. This lady was required to walk the clan's lands every year, and could not claim any more land than the could 'walk'. The new government that came in in 1975 desired to break up those lands, and established laws that forbid multi-family longhouses that broke down the powers of the matiarchs, and their clan land claims which had even been recognized by French colonial courts. The sheer numbers of Vietnamese settlers who have moved into the Highlands has definitely pushed the tribes into insignifncant minorities. Ban Me Thuot, the Rhade tribal capital, was in 1968 a town of about 30,000, mostly Rhade, with some Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indian merchants, and several thousand Vietnamese military personnel. Today, as the capital of the VN coffee industry, it has over 300,000 inhabitants, the great majority of them newcomer Vietnamese. Occasionally, one does find a Rhade or two, but you have to look. I found both the Pleiku and BMT museums to be a total waste of time in 2009, with the same basic Ho Chi Minh history, etc. The Lam Dong provincial museum in Dalat was far better, and included not only fairly good displays on local tribes (the Koho and Ma), but also some artifacts from a 7th century Hindu temple unearthed near Bao Loc.


  2. Hi Lirelou!

    Thanks for the information about Vietnamese Hill Tribes. I admit that I know very little about these interesting cultures. I was told when I lived in Thailand that hill tribe people moved around the region in times past, but that information could easily be wrong. It is interesting all the same to me how similar the Vietnamese costumes on display in the museum are to the costumes worn by people as far away as Thailand. It sounds like you have done a lot of research on this topic!

    As for the ao dai - it's true that the way the garment is worn today is a lot different from how it was in the 18th century - but the museum and wikipedia both talk about its evolution from similar garments of the same name during that era. Check it out:

    We haven't been to Dalat yet - will be sure to check out the museum there when we do.