Ao dai battle

By Phuong Anh, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 14 issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

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Nation's first ao dai museum seeks to highlight past glory of national dress to ensure it stays in fashion all the time
Ao dais designed by Si Hoang are displayed in an open-air wooden building in Long Thuan Garden in HCMC’s District 9
Designer Si Hoang is all animated and excited as he asks his staff to prepare gift souvenirs for two unexpected visitors to his ao dai museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
“It [the gifts] should be a two-side fabric doll wearing a colorful ao dai and two key chains with images of the dress,” Hoang, 46, tells his assistant.

“You know what, I’m talking to a very special couple at the gazebo. It’s amazing! The wife is indeed an ao dai tailor who still remembers how to make the “bullet” design that we have been looking so long for!”

The reason the renowned designer was overjoyed last Friday was that tailor Nguyen Thi Hong Nhan, 60, who owns an ao dai shop in Hoa Hung Market, District 10, had agreed to make a bullet dress, popular among local women in the 1960s – 1970s, to be displayed at the museum.

Apart from its pointed bust formed by pointed bras called “bullet” then, the dress stands out for its tiny fabric string that serves as a hidden belt inside the dress made for hourglass figures. Today, it is hard to find this dress as local women prefer either the modern ao dai or the Korean style promoted in TV shows from that country.

Hoang, who has been teaching fine arts and fashion design at several local universities since 1989, said it was “almost impossible” to find original dresses destroyed during the wars.

The tradition of burying all the belongings of the dead with them instead of keeping them as memoirs added to the difficulty, he explained. 

“It has taken years to find a tailor like Nhan, who has both experience and knowledge of the national dress of those times.”

The bullet dress, once done, will be the latest addition to his collection of 500 or so tunics that have become a national symbol. The collection includes both original and newly-made dresses of various materials including pottery and brocade, dating back to 1930s. Of particular interest are ao dais worn by famous Vietnamese women in many fields including artists, politicians and soldiers. For instance, among the dresses in his collection is one worn by Ton Nu Thi Ninh, former ambassador of Vietnam to the EU and former vice chairwoman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee.

Other highlights include a dress called phuong bao (phoenix dress) worn by empresses of yore and sets of ao dai owned by Nguyen Thi Dinh, Vietnam’s first female major general to serve in the Vietnam People's Army, former vice president Nguyen Thi Binh, and famous senior stage artists Bay Nam and Kim Cuong.

The collection is on display at the museum in Hoang’s two-hectare Long Thuan Garden in District 9.

Nhan and her husband Long Do said they were more than happy and felt honored to contribute to the museum, although they weren’t sure they would be able to find a plastic bullet bra that was used to make the dress.

The couple enjoyed their ao dai tour, and their expert comments would help him perfect his museum, which is the first of its kind in the country, Hoang said.

“My favorite one is the ao dai of doctor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, former director of the leading Tu Du Obstetrics Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. For me, it’s sophisticated decoration is enhanced by doctor’s love for children as well as her great talent,” Nhan told Vietweek.

Ao dais for foreigners

Since the museum also features ao dais of Filipino, American, and Chinese styles Hoang made for his international friends, Nhan had some important advice for Hoang’s many foreign customers flocking to his ao dai shop in the downtown.

“Petite Vietnamese women look beautiful and feminine in ao dai of any style. However, when it comes to foreigners, tailors should advise them not to pick up those with raglan sleeves, but the assembled ones that narrow their shoulders.”
The first Ao dai Festival at the Dam Sen Park in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 11 last weekend attracted not just women, but also teenagers who competed in a painting contest featuring the traditional dress

Hoang, who served as both advisor and designer at the 1st Ao dai Festival held in Ho Chi Minh City on March 8-9 in Dam Sen Theme Park, said he takes Nhan’s advice seriously as his goal to opening the museum is not only to promote the dress among locals, but also among foreigners.

“It’s like killing two birds with one stone as my dream is to turn back to the time when the dress was dominant in the fashion industry. Also, the museum unexpectedly serves as Vietnam’s first move to claim the copyrights to its dress.”

The fashion designer said he still remembers how shocked he was when he attended an exhibition of China’s 5,000-year history of costumes at the Kimono Museum in Tokyo, Japan in 2006, where he found his country’s national dress introduced and displayed as the last category.

“It might be too late if we do nothing now. As a zealous lover of ao dai, what I can do best is to open this museum and call for support from people I know, especially those who are interested.”

National mission

Hoang, who held a seminar on the ao dai, its history and how to wear it properly as part of the festival last Sunday, said he often travels around the country to look for rare or important specimens. 

Renowned veteran cai luong artist Kim Cuong, best known for her performances in La Sau Rieng (Durian Leaf), Duoi Hai Mau Ao (Twin with different destiny), Tra Hoa Nu (Camelia), and Huyen Thoai Me (Mother’s Legend), rummaged through hundreds of ao dais she’d worn since she was a young actress to make her contribution the minute she heard about his project.
A set of two ao dais worn by actress Kim Cuong and her mother, actress Bay Nam, in the play La Sau Rieng (Durian Leaf) on display at the first private museum dedicated to Vietnamese traditional dress
Hoang picked up eight, each representing different periods in Cuong’s career. Among them was one worn by Kim Cuong’s mother, actress Bay Nam, in La Sau Rieng more than three decades ago.

“Actually, it is not Hoang but the government or related agencies that should open such a museum, but since no one else has done it, he has taken the initiative. As an ao dai lover, what I can do is to give him my full support.”

So Cuong was very happy to see the government organizing the festival last weekend, attracting several fashion designers, local researchers, entrepreneurs and thousands of models and women wearing ao dais. She was also pleased with the announcement that the government will fund construction of a road from Long Thuan Street to the museum main gate, enabling more tourists to visit it.

Hoang said that the ao dai collection will not stop at 500, but expanded to be displayed both indoors and outdoors in his garden.

He said he is also planning a monthly exhibition based on different themes, with one highlighting underwear that match the ao dais. This would help wearers of the national tunic look even more beautiful, he said.

The museum, therefore, is not just about reliving the past glory of ao dai, but ensuring its creative success in the future, he said.

The Ao Dai Museum is located in Long Thuan Garden, 205/19/30 Long Thuan Street, Long Phuoc Ward, District 9, some 20 kilometers from downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

From Ben Thanh Market, takes bus No. 88, which stops at an alley off Long Thuan Street that leads to the Long Thuan Garden. It takes five minutes walking from the alley to the main gate of the garden.

For detailed direction to the museum, visit the museum website at

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