An ao dai wake up call

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Humble market vendors knock common sense into high priests of fashion

Miss Vietnam 2010 Ngoc Han (1st row, L) and models present ao dai collections by top local designers nationwide at a show on April 9 as part of the several attractions at this year's Hue Festival

Nguyen Thi Thanh Ngoc, a vendor of ceramic and glass products at the Dong Ba Market in the central town of Hue, has nothing against the ao dai, the iconic Vietnamese dress that turns heads at fashion shows and beauty contests everywhere.

But she flat out refuses to wear them.

As part of a campaign to promote the ao dai, authorities have asked businesswomen in the Dong Ba Market, Hue's biggest commercial center and major tourism spot, to wear the dress to work.

"We have been asked recently to wear the ao dai while working in the market," said 29-year-old Ngoc.

"The idea is good, and I like wearing the ao dai because it is our tradition and culture, but like others here, I refuse," said Ngoc, who wears an old, worn, light-yellow short-sleeved blouse and trousers of the same color.

The reason, Ngoc explained, is that they (the market's administration board and the organizers of the ongoing Hue Festival) announced the campaign through loudspeakers in the market, not bothering to find out first if the women liked the idea or not.

"They should first listen to our opinion about what kind of ao dai we really want to wear and if it is comfortable to wear while working in the market."

Ngoc's refreshing candor came against the backdrop of two grand ao dai shows, held on

April 9 and 11, to which thousands of locals and foreign tourists flocked as part of the several attractions at this year's Hue Festival, the nation's top cultural extravaganza.

Themed "Lotus in the fine arts," the shows were a combination of two national symbols, the lotus, the national flower, and the ao dai, traditional dress of Vietnamese women. They were backed traditional music and songs of Hue.

As many as 150 top local models, including Miss Vietnam 2008 Thuy Dung, Miss Vietnam 2010 Ngoc Han and former students of Dong Khanh - the renowned high school for female students in Hue before 1975 (now called the Hai Ba Trung High School) - presented 16 ao dai collections by 17 top local designers nationwide.

The designers, including Minh Hanh, Sy Hoang, Cong Khanh, Xuan Hao, Thuong Huyen, Duc Hai and Quynh Paris, showed more than 300 elegant, beautiful dresses made of different materials and colors with lotus as the main motif. Calligraphy, embroidery and drawings were used to show the pure beauty of the flower, symbolizing the elegant beauty of local women.

Ngoc Han not only attended the show as a model, but also presented her own ao dai collection - classic designs with lotuses painted on either sides of the silk dresses' laps and half-short sleeves.

"It is not easy to feature the beauty of the lotus in an ao dai for the flower itself embraces all the spiritual hallmarks and purity of the Vietnamese people," designer Hanh told the newswire Vietnamplus this week.

Amidst all the hullabaloo and lyrical waxing, however, Ngoc and her fellow vendors, stayed down to earth and showed what needs to be done for the ao dai to take its rightful and natural place in Vietnamese daily life.

In the past, at the Dong Ba Market, which was originally built in 1885, both buyers and sellers wore ao dai, especially in violet color, everyday.

Xuan Ty, a 42-year-old trader at the market in all kinds of oil, including coconut and cajeput, said: "In the past, my mothers and aunts always wore ao dai while doing business here. The loosely designed dress including a pair of guoc (wooden shoes) at that time was convenient for them to move, to climb up and down to get the goods for customers. Nowadays, however, the dress has a figure-hugging style, and the trousers are so long that we have to wear high-heeled shoes.

"We do not want to put on the old-style dress, because it is old fashioned. We do not want the modern style either, for it is not convenient for us to work here wearing it."

If the local government wants to promote the ao dai tradition, they "should send a designer to make a new style of ao dai that suits us."

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