A dress for superwomen

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A foreign visitor contemplates the ao dai worn by former Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh when she represented the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam to sign Paris Peace Accords at the Paris Peace Conference in 1973 in France

Take off his costume and his cape, and Superman is just viewed an ordinary, struggling reporter for a local newspaper, incapable of stupendous feats. 

It is a similar "super empowerment" that Vietnamese female war veterans prisoners, politicians, soldiers or even students during the war decades from 1945 to 1975 experienced when putting on their traditional dress, enabling them to carry out high risk assignments like spying with great success, contributing to winning the nation's wars of resistance.

An exhibition called "Ao dai of Vietnamese Women in the Fire and Sword of War," is being held at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. On display are 30 ao dais worn by the veterans, 90 photos of the national dress, as well as 16 documents telling stories of veterans that reveal the secret, mysterious and magical power of the traditional costume of Vietnamese women.

The highlights of the show are three seminars held at the museum every Saturday morning in which the veterans are invited to tell their resistance stories what they did and how the ao dais made them strong to an audience of local college students, researchers and historians.

There is the ao dai worn by sculptor Nguyen Le Thuy when she participated a rally to listen to President Ho Chi Minh's speech at Lang Son Stadium in March 8, 1954; photos of Tong Thi Ba, wife of former political prisoner, artist Le Dieu, wearing her ao dai when visiting her husband in Con Dao Prison during 1966-1967; or black and white photos of female students of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities wearing yellow ao dais with a red rose on the chest, sympolizing the two colors of Vietnam's national flag.

Victory dress

Nguyen Thi Nam, born in 1946 in Binh Tri Dong, presently Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Chanh District, often put on ao dai to avoid being discovered when transporting arms for the revoluntionary force which she was a member since 1963 while being a student of Saigon's Gia Long Highschool (the current Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Highschool in District 3.) On an arms logistic trip from a suburb area to the dowtown, the 21-year-old Nam was in her white ao dai, driving motorbike loaded with five K54 guns and bullets which were hidden in the two trunks and the saddle. Unfortunately, on her way to a float bridge, the vehicle broke down, and was almost impossible to be pushed by a woman like her due to the heavy weapon it carried.

"I then asked a police guard near the bridge to help me pushing the bike," recalled Nam, who left her family to join the military base in the south after graduating from highschool, "despite my anticipation that the guard could sense what I was hiding, since weapons are always heavy, and in fact he did."

"The man told me that the bike was abnormally heavy, and that he thought I was not just carrying food, as I'd told him, but something else."

Thanks to her charm and tact, aided much by the "pure, naive look" that the ao dai bestowed on her,  Nam successfully won over the enemy and escape danger several times before they found out her identity some years later.

"The dress was not merely an endearing costume and a perfect cover to divert people's attention, but by wearing it, I gained more confidence. I believed that I could fulfill any task as long as I put on an ao dai," Nam told Vietweek on the sidelines of a seminar on December 7.

Unlike Nam, Nguyen Thi Yen Thao, 70, was born to a rich family that owned a big fabric shop in town, a never-ending supply source for her big collection of ao dai, which matched well her classic beauty. Thanks to her background, rather than enjoying a lavish life at home with family or looking for a good man to get married to, Thao, who was also called "Young lady My Nhung", chose to work as a translator for both the South Vietnam Government's Naval High Command and the US Navy to cover her real assignment as a secret agent of the resistance fighters in late 1960s.

Thao, who made people believe that her real purpose in working for the navy was to get married to one of its members, translated and stole confidental information for the resistance before she was exposed.

"Because of my family background and the charming, expensive ao dai I wore,  indicating my social status at that time as a member of upper class, they [the enemy] could never imagine that I was a communist soldier, though they knew for sure that I did not work for money," she said during a November 30 seminar.

And unlike Thao, who owned a fabric store that could satisfy her "craze" for the dress, which was originally invented more than 200 years ago, Trinh Thu Nga, a shorthand typist for the national assembly since early 1960s, wore her colorful ao dai whether she was working with other female guerillas in black ba ba (Southern Vietnamese pijamas) suit and black and white bandana or receiving foreign guests.

"I was not used to wearing a blouse with pants, just ao dai and high-heel shoes for these enhance my feminine beauty, so I asked my superior to let me wear it in any circumstances," said Nga, who learnt to use a handgun in 1963, and in order to bring carry the weapon with her all the time, made a bigger waistband for her ao dai to hide the weapon.

"I was most confident and proud only when I put on the dress, even though the heavy gun required me to frequently pull up the waist of my pants."

Dying in an ao dai

Dang Hong Nhut, Deputy President of the Ho Chi Minh City Association For Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, did not wear an ao dai to hide her real identity. This was not because she didn't like it but because she was too poor to afford one when she was in her late teens and even after she was instructed to learn making the ao dai to work in the south.

The former political prisoner, incarcerated in the infamous Con Dao prison, was assigned to carry out undercover activities in an enemy occupied zone in the South with two other female soldiers disguised as tailors at the Kim Sa Ao Dai shop.

"We were instructed to learn the craft for a living since the job allowed us to close the shop and go out whenever we were on mission," said Nhut, 77 years old.

"As a teenage soldier, my only wish was to see the day when the country was reunited so I could go back to school and enjoy the feeling of wearing a white ao dai like others of my age."

Heroines Nhat Chi Mai, Vo Thi Sau and Quach Thi Trang were luckier than Nhat since they had the chance to go to school in white ao dai, but this fact did not diminish their patriotism in any way.

Hoang Le Tuyet Ngoc, a close friend to both renowned musician Trinh Cong Son and Nhat Chi Mai, who wore her white ao dai in an act of self-immolation in Saigon on May 16, 1967 to protest the Vietnam War in front of the Tu Nghiem Pagoda (now in District 10), brought to the seminar a poem written by Mai. Ngoc found the poem near Mai's body together with other poems about her longing for the end of war. Mai died when she was 33 years old.

Ngoc gave the poem to Son and asked him to write a song based on it since "it was too touching and marverlous." Son wrote Hay noi gium toi (Speak for me), which was a hit at that time thanks to the performance of singer Khanh Ly. After it was introduced in Japan, the song was translated into several languages.

Unaware, unappreciated

Today, most highschool girls who wear ao dai as their daily uniform at school don't appreciate the dress as the heroines of yesteryear, and they also fail to understand its significance. Hence they transform it with what a veteran would call a "terrible design" or wear it in ways that do not highlight feminine beauty the way it originally did.

Huynh Thien Kim Tuyen, a former student of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in the city who participated in several student movements to protest the Vietnam War during 1960s, feels that Vietnamese people, especially women, don't really respect the national dress these days. They have "no idea" about its origins or historical significance, she feels.

"Vietnamese woman is most beautiful in an ao dai," said Tuyen, adding wistfully, "I hope it will gain more affection and respect from people in the future."

Agree with Tuyen, Le Tu Cam, President of The Cultural Heritage Association of HCMC, even suggested in a note for the seminar that the dress should be acknowledged as a national and world's cultutal intangible heritage in future.

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