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 actively worn throughout the country during Tet, at work, to weddings, and other national celebrations.
The word Ao Dai means ‘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. When choosing to wear the Ao Dai it pays to have a similarly shaped figure.
Historically the Ao Dai is believed to come from China, when the newly crowned king Nguyen Phuc Khoat decreed in 1744 that the Ming Chinese style of dress would be adopted by all his subjects. Since then, both men and women have worn different variations of the Ao Dai. It has never been an official ceremonial dress, and has always been used an everyday outfit.
Now, with western fashions popular in Vietnam, the once ‘everyday’ Ao Dai are now only worn at special occasions and by office staff in companies that require it. It has experienced a revival in recent years, and its 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 the normal photo shoots popular with Vietnamese all over the country.
The variations in colors of this unique national costume is amazing: high school girls wear white ones, female cabin crew on Vietnam Airlines wear red ones, and bank employees wear ones matching their company’s logo. It’s also common for older women to wear Ao Dai to be made of a velvety material and accented with a rope of pearls.
The style of today’s Ao Dai remains close to the antique originals, and hasn’t changed very much in the last 100 years; however in the last thirty years changes have been made to the pleating and the lengths 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 Dai makes 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 tailors to recommend. 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 the beautiful country every time you put your Ao Dai on.