(No.2, Vol.7,Apr-May 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Some years ago, this magazine ran a cover story of Ho Chi Minh City’s Ao Dai Museum, which tells the history and displays the glorious diversity of designs and patterns of Vietnam’s iconic long dress — the ao dai. The museum is set around a lake with stunning gardens and atmospheric replicas of traditional buildings and is well worth the trouble of getting out to its far-flung location on an island in District Nine. The place is currently under renovation, so you will be able to visit again sometime in April. However you can still enjoy most of what it has to offer without the expense of a costly taxi ride or a time-consuming bus journey. Right in the heart of the city on Nguyen Hue Boulevard, occupying two floors of a building, an Ao Dai exhibition centre and workshop has been opened.
The shop is located at number 77. You will know you have got the right place, as there is a display of old Singer sewing machines in the open doorway. A friendly concierge will usher you into a lift to reception on the second floor. It was here that I was met by my guide Miss Nghi, who spoke beautiful English and who also, fittingly, was robed in a stunning bright red ao dai.
Our first stop was to admire the very large restored ao dai worn by the last Emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, at his coronation in 1926. He was only thirteen at the time and the size and in particular the voluminous sleeves would have made him appear grander than he actually was. The colours — brown and gold — have had their original vibrancy renewed after all these years. It is a reminder, too, that the ao dai is for both sexes though that is truer for the past. I myself possess a male ao dai. I only wear it once a year at Tet, though I have to say I find it a little cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear.
We moved on to a line the of ao dais on mannequins demonstrating the history and versatility of the garment. We started with its precursor, a four-piece dress of the seventeenth century from the North. The next on show is even more complicated, with five pieces. Here I learned an interesting fact. All ao dais have five buttons and they symbolise the five virtues of humility, civility, gratitude, intellect, and credibility. Soon we see a more familiar two-piece long dress and clearly we can see how the ao dai was modified and reinvented to appeal to successive generations. At one point there is a distinct French influence and in the seventies even a flamboyant hippie version with beads was in vogue. The final one takes care to include the weaving traditions of the ethnic minorities.
There is another line of around ten ao dais showing how the robe can be modified to absorb the characteristics of other countries. The Filipino ao dai with its long sleeves and the Korean and Japanese versions showing touches of the kimono and the Indian cross between an ao dai and a sari are all quite guessable. Other gowns such as the American and French are less obvious.
Then there is a display of children’s ao dais. It is not the style but the patterns here. They are all based on the prize winners of a painting competition for children. They are really very charming.
Be sure to go upstairs to the workshop. It is a beehive of activity with people engaged in the sewing, embroidery and painting stages of the production of bespoke designer ao dais. The finished gowns awaiting collection are on display mannequins. They cost from thirty million dongs-that is around $1,400.
If that figure is more than you are able or willing to pay why not buy a souvenir collector ao dai plastic or cloth doll. They are very attractive and there is a wide range of them for sale back in the exhibition. They come in a multitude of styles, including some blonde Barbie – like dolls in Vietnamese dress. They are priced at from VND800,000 to VND1,200,000 for the plastic dolls and from VND100,000 to VND250,000 for the cloth ones. There are also ties sporting the designs for VND1,500,000.
A few nights later, I returned to see the Si Hoang Ao Dai show, Mr Si Hoang being the greatest living designer of the dress. It takes place in a long hall just beyond the exhibition itself. It has been made to look like a performance hall in the Emperor’s ancient palace in Hue with a series of columns, a mock leaf pattern wooden roof and subdued lighting. You feel as if you are among a select group of royal courtiers invited to watch.
It is called a show but it mostly transcends this description to be an extremely colourful pageant. Do not imagine a boring series of processions along a catwalk. The models are shown in real life situations – in the street and at the market for example. Fashion models both male and female often look shallow and unintelligent, to me at least. The young folk displaying the splendorous outfits here are fresh-faced and bright! There is superb music played on traditional instruments and also a variety of Vietnamese dance. Everyone in the show including musicians wears some form of ao dai. This includes Si Hoang himself, who sports a very smart ao dai male suit. He introduces and explains the acts and scenes of which a brief summary of each now ensues.
1. A striking rumbustious opening by an ensemble of musicians playing large and small percussion instruments.
2. Further music – a duet between a flautist and the player of a traditional instrument of strings mounted vertically on a bamboo tube, the sounds evocative of woodland bird song.
3. Bamboo and stone xylophone music as various market sellers, one notably of areca nuts. show their wares and rustic ao dais.
4. A solo song performance accompanied by a mandolin by a seated male musician as his elegantly clad female muse wanders around him. Eventually the contented couple walk off hand in hand.
5. A musical quintet featuring two very richly dressed ladies playing ceramic cups to the effect of castanets finishing with a graceful dance.
6. A street scene of young people of both sexes all enjoying themselves out an evening promenade. They are from different historical times showing the evolution of the ao dai. Yes,even the footwear styles throughout the ages are shown. Particularly prominent for me were the French era couples and those in hippie ao dai wearing psychedelic sunglasses.
7. Next we see ao dai wearers in the context of a busy street market with sellers with bamboo poles and baskets and even s bicycle rider sailing by.
8. The next act though exciting seems a little out of place. A drunken man staggers on to stage, puts down his bottle and belts out a heartfelt song. He is soon accompanied by two half naked rough chaps who wrestle and dance about.
9. Then comes another percussion extravaganza with frenzied play on a large red drum at its centre. I imagined they were trying to drive out demons.
10. Subsequently Si Hoang announces he would like to pay homage to the fifty four country’s minority peoples and outcome players wearing the costumes of, as my companion counted twenty four of them – very picturesque indeed!
11. A final act has to leave you with something ringing in your ears and that is what certainly happens here. Under the eyes of actors dressed as Ancient Egyptians out comes a stone xylophone and a musician dressed in a shaman’s ao dai. His playing ranges from rallentando at times to downright absolutely frenetic. At times it is rivalled by a female playing the much more common upright bamboo xylophone in the background. The whole performance is a total tour- de-force! Then on comes the entire cast to bow and take the curtain call.
To sum up we now have in the centre of the country’s commercial capital a place to appreciate what has become the national dress of Vietnam. If you have the time available I would still urge you to trek out to the Ao Dai Museum to get a fuller explanation and experience in a beautiful clean air country setting. Si Hoang’s show will further allow you to enjoy the ao dai in all its social, cultural and historical settings.
The Ao Dai Exhibition, Workshop and Si Hoang Ao Dai Show are at 77 Nguyen Hue Street, District1, HCMC, Tel: (08) 6683-2740. Admission for the exhibition is VND100,000. Admission for the show is at VND700,000 and VND800,000. Show times 8.30 p.m. to 10p.m. Four shows weekly.
Áo Dài House: 107 Dong Khoi Str, Dist 1, HCMC . Áo Dài Exhibition/ Si Hoang Workshop: 75-77 Nguyen Hue Str, Dist 1, HCMC. Áo Dài Museum: 206/19/30 Long Thuan Str, Long Phuoc Ward, Dist 9, HCMC. Tel: (08) 66832740 – 0938391208