It has not gained the same prominence as the ao dai, but the ao tu than is another dress that speaks to the elegant, graceful design and beautiful color combinations of Vietnamese traditional attires that complement the lissome grace of the Vietnamese woman.
And while the ao dai has undergone some modern interpretations, the four-panel ao tu than has retained its original shape, beauty and vivid rustic flavor.
Usually made of plain fabric (no floral or other prints) and mainly in dark colors, the ao tu than has for long been a dress worn on special occasions like weddings or festivals. The colors might be dark, but they are bright. The red, yellow, blue and pink of yem, one of the components of the dress that is simply sensual and erotic, accentuating the delicate swell of the woman's bosom and revealing her curves, is matched and contrasted by the colors of other part.
A woman wears a traditional yem while arranging a plate of lotus petal
No one knows for certain when people started wearing the ao tu than, but the four-panel dress has been carved on the thousand-year-old Ngoc Lu Drum.
The origin of the dress is also linked to several folk legends, of which the most famous involves the Hai Ba Trung sisters. Living in AD 40, the heroines are said to have worn a two-flap dress when riding elephants in the fight against China's Han Dynasty. As a tribute to the Trung sisters, local women have refrained from wearing two-flap-dress, the legend goes, and turned it into a four-flap one.
During the 17th and 19th centuries, it is said that urban women expanded this four-part dress to a five-part version to distinguish themselves from the "common" folks.
While the elder generation has expressed concern about the future of the ao tu than with no youngsters wearing them these days, it seems that there are still avenues to preserve this sartorial tradition, given that they are still used in cultural festivals in the north and can be obtained at custom-made tailoring shops in Ho Chi Minh City.
In fact, recent reports denote that the dress is gaining currency in the north of the country as a fashionable outfit among both young and old women.
It is also said that the ao tu than is more of a northern tradition than a pan-national one. It was mostly seen in the old villages of Hanoi and surrounding regions, most prominently in Bac Ninh Province, where the Lim festival celebrates the famous quan ho musical tradition.
In Duong Lam ancient village in Hanoi, many old ladies still keep their ao tu than that date back several decades. For 87-year-old Tran Thi Mui, wearing the dress is an honor and she is proud of her ao tu than collection. They are a symbol of her family's wealth and status.
"I had them since I was a young girl. I used to have many beautiful fits for several occasions, but now I just keep some of my most favorite," said Mui, showing a dress which is made of top-quality silk that she wore on her wedding day.
Besides the wedding dress, Mui also carefully preserves the bodice, tussah sash, kerchief and long skirt, considered indispensable accessories for an ao tu than.
Nguyen Thi Chac, 84, says the ao tu than then were made by the village women themselves.
"We did everything, weaving, dyeing and sowing. Most of the outfits were dyed in dark colors which were extracted from different kinds of seeds, roots or leaves. Although they cannot be compared to modern dresses, they are still our precious treasure," said Chac.
Chac is not aware that organic fabric and traditionally made clothes demand high premiums in today's market, especially among a growing group of environmentally conscientious consumers.
Despite the northern emphasis, it is not very hard to find an ao tu than in HCMC, with many tailors offering it as a "specialty." At the Minh Thu tailoring shop in Tan Binh District's Le Van Sy Street, the cost of a custom-made ao tu than begins at around US$50. According to dressmakers here, their customers are usually overseas Vietnamese and new brides
Model Chung Thuc Quyen wears the ao tu than that won her the Best National Dress prize at least year's Miss Supranational pageant in Poland.
Tuyet Phuong, an overseas Vietnamese who resides in Norway, said the dress was a great gift for her foreign friends and that she could hardly wait to wear it at her college festivities.
"˜True Vietnamese story'
After several years of relative obscurity, the ao tu than has caught the eye of many noted designers like Thuan Viet, Si Hoang and Kim Mai.
Si Hoang, who designed several ao tu thans as a part of a project making stage performance costumes last year, said the dress offered a way for him to renovate himself after more than 20 years of designing ao dais.
In fact, Thuan Viet and model Chung Thuc Quyen have been very successful in marketing the ao tu than to the world by winning the Best National Dress prize at last year's "Miss Supranational" pageant in Poland.
Kim Mai, a Vietnamese-Australian designer, has also turned to her cultural traditions while bringing out bold and modern garments. Among her favorite creations are the stylized ao tu than and ao dai for the youth at "most reasonable prices."
"...I think a designer's job is not to create a costume to be contemplated but to be worn in various times and spaces. Every costume tells a story and I want to tell foreigners and even local youngsters a true Vietnamese story."