Vietnam wall hangings become snarling souvenirs

Wall hangings featuring finely detailed, snarling tigers were popular souvenirs during the Vietnam War. Entirely hand-sewn, these almost always had the word “Viet-Nam” on the obverse.

by Jeff Ashenfelter

Most Vietnam militaria collectors have seen one of these tiger head souvenir wall hangings. The vibrant color are certainly eye-catching. Have you ever really examined one closely and looked at the detail of the handwork involved or the time it must have taken to sew one of these?

Too often, these wall hangings are dismissed outright as just tourist junk without merit in the military collecting world. Basically, this is true. In this case, though, the “tourists” were U.S. service men and women who were probably out of the country for the first time in their lives.

To see one of these wall hangings in a tailor shop must have been quite a sight for many of the young soldiers. Imagine seeing an exotic hand-sewn tiger head made of silk and cotton with the word “Viet Nam”—the combat zone in which they were serving.  It’s no wonder so many soldiers purchased and sent them home to their loved ones back in the United States.

The level of craftsmanship that can be found on wall hangings can clearly be seen on this example. Most do not exhibit this much detail that includes a red tongue, long whiskers and a three-dimensional effect around the nose.

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TIGER

In Vietnamese folklore two powers ruled the world: The dragons and the tigers. The dragons ruled the sky while the tigers ruled the earth. This is one reason so many South Vietnamese  Air Force patches depict a dragon of some variety, and the ground forces, in many cases, have a tiger motif. At last count, there were 78 South Vietnamese patches with dragons on them, 69 with tigers and another 81 with other cats such as lions, panthers and leopards.

The Vietnamese have always had mixed feelings about tigers. They feared them because tigers often raided villages, so they began to worship them in hopes of warding them off. Many temples were adorned with tiger motifs as the worship expanded. Today, some Vietnamese believe that tiger motifs will ward off evil spirits, and that tigers represent a strong symbol of luck and an individual’s true character of strength.

Different wall hangings can be found on the market today. No reproductions of these have been encountered to date, so these are still a safe investment.

MADE WITH SKILL

Many Vietnam collectors like the hand-sewn patches used by the South Vietnamese forces, but they never appreciated these wall hangings, even though they were probably made by the same tailors. To many collectors, though, these are from the same mold and their craftsmanship should be given the same consideration.

Two of the driving forces for defining a true collectible are availability and variation. Both of these are attributes of these tiger head wall hangings. Reproductions of these have not yet flooded the market like many other Vietnam Era items have.

Some collectors refer to them as pillow covers. Actually these are not pillow covers at all. There is no slot to slip a pillow in, and so these are basically a wall hanging.

No two are alike, as they are all hand-sewn like many Vietnamese-made patches. Quality of the handwork depends on the skill of the sewer; they vary from crude to extremely well done. Some of these examples have a three dimensional appearance because the artists placed paper under the tiger’s nose to give it a puffy look. These can vary in height to almost an inch, while some are basically flat.

The wall hangings can be found with a large variety of silk backings, they range from orange, yellow, black, pink, red, and blue. Sizes are all about 13 inches tall and 16 inches wide. Most are adorned with a yellow fringe around the edge of the silk backing. This same fringe can be seen on many South Vietnamese-made flags of the time.

All of these wall hangings with the tiger head design also have the words “Viet Nam” hand-sewn somewhere on the silk backing. Some of these tiger head wall hangings can be found with the tiger head facing to the left, and others facing to the right.

These were very popular with US service men and women during the war, and it seems that just about every other one of them brought one of these souvenirs home with them or sent them home to loved-ones here in the states. Today, they can commonly be found at most military shows. They range in price from $15-$20. No two are the same, and they should be high on the list of entry-level Vietnam collectors.

Vietnam militaria enthusiasts often have these framed and will place a few unit patches or pictures along with them to provide an interesting visual display piece. They truly represent a difficult time in US history for its involvement in the Vietnam War. Whether you appreciate these wall hangings or not, you cannot dispute that these items were brought back by the thousands by returning G.I’s. Perhaps the belief that they brought good luck had some merit after all!

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