by Peter Suciu
Thanks in a large part to numerous Vietnam War films that were produced from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, there is now an iconic perception of pro-communist guerrillas, Vietcong supporters, and even regular North Vietnamese soldiers wearing large, conical hats. As a result, it is possible to find such hats offered for sale at militaria shows. Most are represented as “vet bring-backs.”
The truth is,many that this author has seen were more likely to have been brought back from Pier 1 Imports or from a trip to a large city’s “China Town” district. Pearl River Mart in New York City, for example, has sold the distinctive conical hats for decades. Thus, while the conical hats are not exactly “fakes,” there remains plenty of confusion over exactly from where these particular hats came and when each was produced. The most important thing to note is that not all of these hats are even Vietnamese!
The conical Asian hat, known as a “rice hat,” “paddy hat,” or even pejoratively as a “coolie hat” originated in East and Southeast Asia, particularly China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Throughout Asia, from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, Burma in the west to the Philippines, the conical hat has been widely used. It was often made of local materials, and seemed to be an ideal hat for protecting the wearer from the sun as well as the rain.
While numerous examples were brought back as “war souvenirs” from Vietnam in particular, apart from movies and TV shows, there is little evidence that the conical hat was widely used by Viet Cong forces — at least in combat. Similar headgear, however,had been used by the Black Flag Army, a bandit group that fought against the French forces some 70 years earlier in the Tonkin region of what is today Vietnam.
In fact, since the 18th century, various patterns of the conical hat were also used alongside the traditional military headdress by Chinese and other native units. However, in many cases the line between “civilian” and “military” is blurred, especially in times of insurrections and uprisings. In these cases the conical hat worn by so-called peasants in the fields, became a headgear of war.
The Chinese Doˇulì
In China, the conical hat has been associated with farmers, but a smaller version was adopted by the Mandarins, the bureaucrat scholars in the government of Imperial China. It was called the doˇulì, literally meaning a “one-doˇu bamboo hat.”
The hat evolved into something more sturdy and rugged in design. These wicker/straw hats/helmets were in widespread use during the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century and even into the early 20th century when these were used by China’s Imperial Army. Throughout most of the 19th century, these hats were the de factoheaddress for the Imperial Chinese Army Infantry until it took on a more western-influenced appearance. This style of hat was used by Imperial Chinese Army forces in the Taiping Rebellion, the First Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion.
This particular style of conical hat could accurately be called a “helmet” as it is produced in a way that would provide some protection from blows the head. It is constructed via a weave pattern that provides strength and rigidity – unlike other conical hats that merely provide protection from the sun and weather. In this regard it is close in design and structure to the salacots of the Philippines.
These hats remained an interesting item from the late Qing Dynasty as it sought to maintain its independence from outside invasions by clinging too much to the past. Sadly, having suffered under a brutal civil war, invasion during World War II, and then the so-called “cultural revolution,” few of these rare and unique Chinese hats/helmets have survived.
The doˇulì was also used by the Chinese members of the British Hong Kong Police, which was established in 1844. What is unique about this unit is that the official headdress varied according to ethnicity. British officers and NCOs wore kepis or sun helmets, Indian Sikhs wore red turbans, and the Chinese wore the conical hat. Based on photographic evidence and what little has been documented about the hats, these were traditionally made doˇulì, round in shape, but were notable in that they featured a large crown on the front — likely the Queen Victoria Crown prior to 1902 and the King’s Crown thereafter.
This tradition also carried over to the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) who wore uniforms that were basically British or British colonial in style. Chinese members of the force wore the conical hat until about 1919. After that time, Chinese and European police wore the same dark blue peaked cap with the coat of arms of the International Settlement as a badge. Chinese and Europeans alike wore sun/pith helmets in hot weather.
The Japanese Jingasa
One notable variation of the conical hat is the jingasa of Japan. These evolved from the traditional peasant hats — the “gasa.”
Originally used by Samurai as a peacetime helmet, the Jingasa (samurai hats) were used from the middle to late Edo Period (1700-1860). The word “kasa” means hat, but it also shares it etymology with the Japanese word for “umbrella” and the word “jin” for military. This has led to some collector confusion, but in the Japanese language, when preceded by a word specifying the type of hat, the word “kasa” becomes “gasa.”
Unlike other samurai helmets the jingasa helmets were not limited to use by true samurai. The samurai class of feudal Japan as well as their retainers and foot soldiers — the ashigaru — used various types of jingasa made from iron, copper, wood, paper, bamboo, and leather.
The Aizu Rifle Corps wore Jingasa helmets when it fought in the Boshin War (1868–1869). As Japan quickly westernized in the latter part of the 19th century, the use of conical hats — even in the fields — quickly disappeared.
The Filipino Salacot
Another variation of the conical hat that is often misidentified as being a Vietnam War bring-back actually was used in an earlier conflict across the Pacific. It is the Filipino “salacot.”
Farmers as well as by nobles wore salacot versions crafted with jewels or made of turtle shells. These often had a spike on top, likely inspired by Muslim traders who had armor based on that of the Mughal Empire (suggesting, once again, that the Prussians weren’t the sole innovators of all things spikey!).
According to Frederic H. Sawyer, in his book, The Inhabitants of the Philippines, “The salacots, or native hats, are beautifully woven by hand from narrow strips of a cane called nito (lygodium), and the headmen have them ornamented with many pieces of repoussé silver.”
The salacot was also worn by native soldiers, particularly Tagalogs, Kapampangans, and Ilocanos of the Spanish Colonial Army during the later years of Spanish colonial period. American soldiers faced an enemy wearing salacots during the Philippine Insurrection and Moro War.
Vietnamese Leaf Hat
As previously noted the conical hat – known as the nónlá or leaf hat — was, in fact, widely used in the Vietnam and neighboring regions throughout the 19th century by farmers and soldiers (including bandits) alike.
The Vietnamese nón lá has its own origin — based on a legend — to the rice growing in the region. The legend tells of a giant woman from the sky who protected humanity from a deluge of rain. She wore a hat made of four round shaped leaves to protect herself from the rain — and that inspired farmers to stitch together their own style of helmet. This has evolved over the centuries and various styles have become common in the different parts of Vietnam.
When the region came under French control, indigenous troops in South East Asiadid wear a unique version of the nónlá. Just as the Chinese serving under British officers had worn a conical hat with a crown, the French version typically featured the French Marine Infantry anchor. Thishas led to some collector confusion as to whether they were “naval” troops. They were not.
Known in French as the “salacco,” this style of headgear, which is was used by the Tirailleurs Indochinois (Lính tâp), which included several regiments of local ethnic Indochinese infantry organized as Tirailleurs (Light Infantry) by the French colonial authorities. Based on photos and reports, the salacco was worn in conflicts including the Boxer Rebellion, but its use as combat headgear was short-lived. No photographic evidence has come to light that the French colonial forces ever used the nón lá / salacco in combat, even during the First World War. Following the war, this style conical hat was relegated to the parade ground.
COLLECTING CONICAL HATS
The conical hat continues to evoke another time with exotic ties, but for the collector it is important to note that styles varied across the Far East. The true military ones — including those of French Tirailleurs Indochinois as well as the Imperial Chinese Army doˇulì have become sought-after by collectors. Fortunately, fakes haven’t shown up (yet).
The bigger challenge is still telling a “Vietnam vet bring-back” from the hat found at the Chinese grocer and left to “age” in the yard. As with everything militaria, it is best to buy the item and not the story that goes with it.