The Ao Dai that Reveals Everything and Nothing at the Same Time

It was early evening in late summer, and there was a light breeze coming up off the Perfume River, carrying with it a scent of something fragrant. Or maybe the scent was coming off the outside terrace at Le Gouverneur where two Asian women of remarkable elegance and farflung origins were having a drink before dinner.

One woman was Indian, and wore an embroidered sky-blue saree that may indeed have come off a Bollywood set. The other woman was Japanese, and was wearing a black kimono with lovely cloud motifs in red and gold, sprinkled with flower petals.

“Is there an event happening at the hotel?” an Australian woman asked me in a low-tone.

“I wondered the same thing myself,” I said. “Such elegance this evening.”

“Not everywhere,” the man sitting with her said, looking at his casually dressed wife.

“Thank you, Nigel,” she said. “That will be all.”

“They’re so lovely,” the woman said. “And we’ve been waiting here to see if anyone else would emerge in such fashion from your elegant hotel.”

“There is always the possibility of an ao dai making an appearance,” I said, referring to the traditional Vietnamese long dress, and looking around the terrace. Because we were a luxury hotel in Vietnam, our guests sometimes felt licensed to indulge a bit of luxury in their dress.

“I love that dress!” the woman exclaimed. “We’ve been seeing them everywhere. Nigel can’t stop ogling the models.”

The Indian woman lifted from her chair, and draped a length of her garment over one forearm, then floated off toward Le Parfum, our fine-dining restaurant. We watched her go, as indeed there was theater in her movement.

“The ao dai is more revealing,” Nigel said.

‘Yes, I would agree,” I said. “The saree, or that one, did reveal a bare shoulder, and one of the things about the ao dai is that everything is covered, all the way down to the wrists and ankles, and all the way up to the tunic collar. So it’s very modest that way.”

“But form-fitting,” Nigel said, and whistled.

“I’ll take you home right now,” his wife said. Nigel made a show of pouting, and lifted his cocktail glass to one of the wait staff, calling for another.

“The ao dai reveals everything and nothing at the same time.” I said. “There is a great balance. A harmony of opposites.”

“Ancient and honorable,” Nigel said.

“But not so ancient,” I said.

I told them that the ao dai only dated to the 1930s when women in Hanoi rebelled against the strictures of Confucianism, and cultivated the development of a garment that flattered the physique, that molded to the arms, bosom and waist. It was high time, these women said, to put beauty before virtue. At the same time, these pioneering women indulged makeup and heels and elaborate hairstyles.

“I should also say that the basic idea of the ao dai -- long, close fitting robes -- goes all the way back to the roots of Vietnamese culture,” I said. “It’s been with us a long time.”

My Australian guest leaned forward over the table and leaning on her elbows, cupped her face between her palms. “It’s a beautiful dress, and I would buy one tomorrow if I didn’t also notice that you really need a willowy figure to make the ao dai work.”

There was nothing I could say to that, but I saw that Nigel was moistening his lips, preparing something for consideration. But then his wife flashed her eyes at him, and said in a tone that would allow no wiggle room. “That will be all, Nigel.”

By Phan Trong Minh, General Manager La Residence Hotel & Spa