This is the last of six essays written by students in my third year writing class. Though another essay was written about the ao dai, this is sufficiently different to be interesting to readers.
I’ve added a few ao dai photos of my own. Reading about the ao dai is no substitute to looking at an ao dai. I hope you have the chance to see one of the lovely women of Việt Nam wearing one. As always, be sure to click on each photo to see the full sized version.
I have also created a new category titled "Student Work." All the essays have been moved into this category. I hope to post new essays to it in the fall.
I hope you have enjoyed these student essays.
“In the early 1930s, art lovers in Europe, particularly the French, came to know the painting ‘Young Lady by the Lily’ by renowned Vietnamese painter To Ngoc Van.”
That are some of the lines I read on a Sunday afternoon when getting access to the Internet. Immediately, it drew my attention. I wondered what the special point of this picture was. It must transfer an original idea, or message, or it may describe an excellent beauty. Then I continued reading: “In this picture, the ao dai worn by the young lady highlights her glamour and pure beauty.” Yes, it is the image of the Vietnamese ao dai. From ancient times, the ao dai has become the pride of Vietnamese women as well as the whole country of Vietnam. The image of Vietnamese women has been also associated with the image of ao dai. It is more interesting to know that there are various reasons why Vietnamese women wear the ao dai such as it being a traditional costume, a high school girl’s costume, a traditional dress for brides on wedding day, and a popular outfit for all women.
First of all, I would like to talk about its name. Vietnamese call this garment the ao dai (pronounced “ao yai” in the South and “ao zai” in the North). An ao dai means a long dress. You can call it the ao dai or the long dress. However, people not only in Vietnam but also from foreign countries like to name it the ao dai. They do not want to transfer its name into another language because there is not exact name which is the equivalent to its original name. If it is translated into another language, it will lose its typical features. It also seems that all visitors want to call it the ao dai rather than the long dress or other similar name.
My dear homeland – Vietnam – is just a small country but it is very beautiful. It has more than fifty-four ethnic groups. Each ethnic group has its own traditional costume with its own beauty. So why can the ao dai occupy the first position to become the traditional costume of the whole country? It is really an interesting question. To answer it, I would take you to turn back to the past for a while and to listen to some stories of the existence of the ao dai. According to some historical records, the ao dai was first worn by mandarins at their meetings with the Nguyen lords in the 18th century (In the old day, Vietnam was under the reign of the Nguyen Lords for a long time). Besides, I have another stories saying that “the ao dai was adapted from Cham ethnic clothing.” (Cham was an ethnic group of neighbor country of Vietnam at that time) or the ao dai was a combination of the four panels dress of the Kinh group (the most dominant ethnic group in Vietnam). No matter what is the exact reason, I like the explanation way of tourist guide from Hanoi Tourism Company – Nguyen Van Anh – she stated: “I love the ao dai and always feel it is exquisitely beautiful anywhere and any time. As a woman, I am impressed when I see other women in the ao dai. It is very special that women seem to be more gentle and yielding when they wear the ao dai I think that wearing accentuates a lady’s physical body and personality.” I completely share this opinion with Ms. Van Anh. This is really a persuasive reason.
If you are Vietnamese, or you have already set foot on Vietnam, I believe you can understand why the ao dai exposes the physical as well as the personal beauty of women. However, if you have never seen an ao dai, it is difficult for you to imagine. Therefore, I would like to give you a short description of the ao dai. In general, it has two main parts: an ao dai (a long dress) and a quan dai (a long pair of white or black silk trousers). A traditional ao dai has long sleeves, a high collar down along in front of the shoulders then reach to the underneath of the arm and then stretch down to at one side to the waist.” At the waists, the ao dai divides into two parts – a front flap and a back one. The two flaps have the same length down to the knees or longer. The long pair of trousers can be black or white, rather loose and brush the floor. The Ao dai almost covers every part on women’s body so that it makes them look reserved and serious. However, the ao dai “is made to fit the women’s body quite exactly and hangs down with a front and back panels slit up to the waist, therefore, it shows every beautiful lines on the women’s bodies. It is one of the most special feature of the Vietnamese ao dai – “it covers everything but hides nothing.”
With all the above features, the ao dai has entered into Vietnamese life and has played an important role. The first role I would like to introduce to all of you is that the ao dai is considered the traditional costume of Vietnam. Women wear it on important occasions. People say that the ao dai is a special dress because in this tight garment with its high collar, long sleeves as well as long flaps, Vietnamese women seem to look elegant and graceful. It also shows the “attractive secretiveness than any fashion no matter what color and material it is or who dress it.” Therefore, the ao dai gives them a polite, serious and noble style. In the old days Vietnamese women wore the ao dai all the time such as to go out, go to market, visit friends, go to work and so on. If you search for any website about Vietnamese culture or tourism, you can always catch the image of Vietnamese women wearing the ao dai. Nowadays, you can see on TV, the wife of important governmental officer, on the conference with foreign representatives, they appear beside their husbands on the traditional costume – the ao dai. Nguyen Thi Binh – famous politician in Vietnam – used to attend the Paris Conference to struggle for the peace of Vietnam in the early of 20th century wearing the traditional ao dai. With the blue ao dai (the blue reveals the desire of peace of all Vietnamese), she left in the minds of everybody the image of a Vietnamese woman – intelligent, clever, gentle and graceful. What is more, on the Miss Vietnam Contests, there is always a competition of wearing the traditional costume – the ao dai. We can say that the ao dai has rooted deeply in Vietnam society. It reflects as well as absorbs Vietnamese culture.
Besides the role of the traditional costume, the ao dai is also the uniform in many present-day domains like the post, the bank, the airline and for all high school girls. The image of the airhostess on the purple ao dai has become the familiar and unforgettable one for all visitors. The ao dai covers tightly the body, however, it still make women move easy and comfortable. The high school girl must wear the white ao dai. The white symbolizes innocence, naivety and loveliness. For every secondary school girl, wearing the white ao dai is for great significance, because it proves that they are becoming maidens. They are not youngsters anymore. The first day wearing the white ao dai is an important and fully meaningful day to all girls because they go to school with a combination of complex feelings in their minds – happy, worried, proud and eager. The image of a young girl wearing the white ao dai with black long hair and a white conical hat and riding a bicycle to school is a beautiful and unforgettable one for everyone. It has been the inspiration for many generations of poets. The poet usually compares the image of a group of white-ao-dai girls with a flock of butterflies. There are many fine poems praising this image. I would like to introduce to all of you some poems as follow:
TUU TRUONG (Going to school on the opening day) of NGUYEN BINH
Nuhng nang thieu nu song huong
(The maiden come from the land of Huong River)
Da thom la phan moi huong la son
(With fragrant skin and rosy lips)
Tuu truong san sat chan thon
(Going to school on the opening day in the crowded scenes)
Lao xao non moi mau son sang ngoi
(Holding new shining conical hats catching with other)
Gio thu cu mai true nguoi
(The wind of the autumn is so exciting in playing joke on them)
Doi than ao momg toi boi bay len
(The pair of thin flaps are gently blown up)
Diu dang doi ngon tay tien
(With clever and beautiful fingers like of fairy’s ones)
Gui ho mep ao lam duyen qua duong
(They gently touch the edge of the flap to cross the road)
Another poem is NU SINH DONG KHANH (Dong Khanh high school girl) of MAI VAN HOAN
Trong truong Dong Khanh vua tan
(A big sound from the drum of Dong Khanh School has just echoes to inform that school is over)
Tren duong LeLoi tung dan buom bay
(On Le Loi Street, there are many flying flocks of butterfly)
Gio von ta ao trang bay
(The wind makes the white ao dai flaps to rise up)
Nu sinh Dong Khanh to ngay mim cuio
(Dong Khanh high school girl smiles innocently)
The white ao dai is not only of great value to poets but also to all Vietnamese women. Just looking at any white ao dai, any women can immediately turn back to the past to remember their wonderful time at high school with their youthful dreams, their strong desires of career, their first genuine love, their old friends, their former teachers and so on. People say: “Since the dawn of Vietnamese literature and music, poets and musicians have expanded the beauty of the ao dai and the grace and beauty it brings to people who wear it.” It is the white ao dai where Vietnamese women keep their own memories.
If the white ao dai reveals innocent and purity, the red ao dai is the symbol of happiness and lucky. The bride wears it on wedding ceremony. The wedding ao dai is rather different from others. It has another layer of ao dai. We can call it a robe. It is loose rather than fixes exactly to the body as the ao dai. This robe is open from the collar down and has the similar pattern as the ao dai (the red). This ao dai is often made of brocades, woven silk. This kind of ao dai derived from the royal people. It is said to be worn by the royal lady of the Nguyen court and it is called “Ao menh phu” (ao min fu). This kind of ao dai is worn with a “khan dong vanh” – “a fabric crown like accessory made of starched brocaded woven silk.” This crown is called “khan hoang hau” – and is put on the head and look like a wide headband. This kind of ao dai has been considered as the traditional garment for brides on marriage ceremony. Because this is the costume of the queen when the bride wear this ao dai she also becomes a Queen – the Queen of one man’s heart – the groom. The groom may dress another kind of ao dai male on wedding days, but it is optional. He can put on a suit. However wearing the ao menh phu is compulsory for bride.
The role of the ao dai in Vietnamese life does not stop there. Women also wear ao dai when they go to pagodas for praying or on the occasion of worshiping their ancestor. The ao dai both makes women beautiful and arouses the solemn, sacred atmosphere. Therefore on the above occasions women wear the ao dai, the popular colour of ao dai is also important. They never go to pagodas for praying with a red ao dai. The popular colour is usually light, dull one such as grey, white or light brown. For this reason, it is true to say that every Vietnamese women has at least one ao dai.
The ao dai is the symbol of Vietnam in general and of Hue in particular, because Hue is the land where the ao dai come into being. Hue used to be the capital during the Nguyen dynasty for many centuries. It is the Nguyen lord who made a great contribution to creating, fulfilling and using this costume. The ao dai of King and Queen still exist. They are similar to Vietnamese ao dai nowadays, but have better decoration and ornate material. On the other hand, as I have already referred above, the colour of ao dai is meaningful. The typical ao dai of Hue city is violet. This colour is associated with faithfulness. There is a poem talking about the violet of the ao dai Hue like this:
Neu nhu chang co song Huong
(If there was no Perfume River)
Gui tinh cho Hue gui thuong noi nao
(Where can I send my love to you and to Hue)
Neu nhu Hue chang ngot ngao
(If water on Perfume River were not fresh)
ao em sao lai tim mau thuy chung
(Why does your ao dai have the colour of violet)
In comparison with other traditional costume such as kimono in Japan or hanbok in Korea, you can see that the ao dai is more popular with the citizens. It seems to be present in every facet of life in Vietnam. They are familiar to all Vietnamese but they still do not lack the noble and sacred meaning. It evokes the feeling of pride in every Vietnamese heart. In tradition the ao dai is suitable for every body, every age and “it reaches the life of people from on walk of life.” Some people say that there must be a marvelous and mysterious power inside the ao dai because it enhances the graceful and elegant beauty of women, it makes the women on the ao dai “not to walk but to float gently.”
In conclusion, it is undeniable to say that Vietnam is ao dai and ao dai is Vietnam. It makes women look more beautiful and play a vital role in their life. Nowadays, when Vietnam is not in the way of integrating with the world. There are many changes in the way of life of Vietnamese people. This trend also had a great influence on the model of ao dai. However, the basic feature of the traditional ao dai are still maintained and to some extent it is made more various and suitable to the active life of women at present. All visitors when leaving always put an ao dai in their suitcases. Wearing the ao dai, they have opportunity to understand more about Vietnamese people, culture and country.