The Ao Dai is the most recognizable traditional dress seen in Vietnam, and though western-style clothes are popular, this beautifully styled outfit is still worn throughout the country during Tet, at work, to weddings, and other national celebrations. Ao Dai mean “Long Dress” and is a two-piece garment. The bottom part consists of loose pants that reach the ankles. The top is a tight-fitting tunic with long sleeves and a high collar with two panels that float loosely down the front and back.
The Ao Dai is famously known to “cover everything, but hide nothing,” and it perfectly accentuates the long, lithe body possessed by Vietnamese women. On board Heritage Cruises, our in-house guests have the opportunity to try on a 1930s-stye Ao Dai, a memorable experience.
The Ao Dai has a long history which evolved over time; it can even be seen as a motif on the drums of the Dong Son, a Red River culture. Since then, both men and women have worn different variations of the Ao Dai. It has never been an official ceremonial dress but has always been used as an everyday outfit.
Now, with western fashions popular in Vietnam, the once “everyday” Ao Dai is now only worn on special occasions and by office staff in companies that require it. It has experienced a revival in recent years, and it’s extremely common now to see women navigating traffic on bicycles and motorbikes, expertly lifting the long panels away from greasy spokes and gears. Men no longer wear the garment as much as women do, confining it to traditional weddings and for photo shoots, popular with Vietnamese all over the country.
The variations in color of this unique national costume is striking: high-school girls wear white, female cabin crew on Vietnam Airlines wear red, and bank employees wear ones matching their company’s logo. It’s also quite common for older women to wear Ao Dais made of a velvety material and accentuated with a rope of pearls. The style of today’s Ao Dai remains close to the original, having changed very little in the last 100 years. However, in the last thirty years subtle changes have been made to the pleating and the length of the collar.
Many Vietnamese designers are now reinterpreting the Ao Dai, experimenting with new materials, decorations, and adornments. Many of their studios can be found in Saigon and Hanoi with prices ranging up to several hundred dollars for one of their creations. For foreign women traveling in Vietnam, Ao Dais make excellent handmade souvenirs. Shopping for material in Saigon’s Ben Thanh market is a good excursion, and you will make friends along the way by asking for suggestions and recommendations for tailors.
Numerous tailors can be found in Saigon, Hoi An and Hanoi that specialize in making excellent Ao Dais. Most of them can make the outfit in 24 hours or less. What better way is there to remember your fantastic trip to Vietnam? You’ll be reminded of this beautiful country every time you put on your Ao Dai.