Back in 2014, amid the weekly cycle of news, a particular image was more striking than most: Doctor and Professor Ngo Bao Chau stood in the middle of a makeshift classroom in a rural village in Thai Nguyen Province while teaching local kids.
Chau is a Vietnamese-French mathematician who’s currently based at the University of Chicago, USA, and the first Vietnamese awarded with the Fields Medal for accomplished mathematicians. While Chau’s accolades are impressive, what tickled netizens the most upon setting eyes on the set of photos were his shoes — a pair of beige dép tổ ong, Vietnam’s unofficial national footwear.
Since his attainment of the Fields Medal, Chau has become something of a symbol of Vietnamese excellence on world stages, which was why some were surprised that someone of the doctor caliber could comfortably be seen with dép tổ ong, a humble icon that occupies the other extreme in the scale of glamor: hardship, poverty and difficult past eras.
This is not to say that Vietnam is ashamed of dép tổ ong. We wholeheartedly embrace them the way we would a long-lost relative, or a reminder of our relationship with childhood and economic austerity. In some ways, one might opine that the footwear could be seen as a symbol of Vietnamese excellence as well, what with its survival for almost four decades.
Dép tổ ong, which translates to “honeycomb slippers,” is neither fashionable nor imposing. It’s made of painfully beige rubber with a “thicker-than-life” sole and a strap featuring a hexagonal pattern that resembles a honeycomb. What the honeycomb slippers lack in style, they more than make up for in durability and functionality, as is the case with most goods produced during Vietnam’s Doi Moi years. This is also why nowadays the footwear is still a common item for children in the country’s less fortunate regions, like northern Vietnam’s mountainous provinces.
Read more about dép tổ ong on Saigoneer.
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