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One of Hue City's most endearing images is that of the beautiful girl wearing an ao dai (traditional robe) and a conical hat, singing folk songs while floating down the Huong (Perfume) River on a wooden rowing boat.

For many people, Hue 's conical hats have long been treasured symbols of the once imperial city (situated in Thua Thien-Hue province), shields against sun and rain, and, for one particular woman, a personal "weapon' in times of distress.

Tourists visiting Hue City often prefer the conical hats made by disabled Tran Thi Thuy for her incredible handiwork.

Born into a conical hat making family, Thuy's future has always seemed inevitably connected to the tradition despite being born with a crippled hand.

Still young, Thuy would often help her mother make hats, her passion fuelled on a daily basis. Little Thuy soon turned hat making into a veritable game, completing her first hat by the age of 10 to her family's surprise.

Starting out, hat making was a cheap business affording little profit, but Thuy never gave up the work that she grew to love and excel in, even though working with only one hand brought immense challenges. "Thuy learnt the process of hat making on a step by step basis until completely fluent," according to her mother, who added that, "to compensate for her disability, she worked extra hard and diligently".

"My daughter is currently the most skilful artisan in the family. Because of my age I can now only assist her in some occasions," she said.

Making hats using palm leaves (the traditional way), Thuy embroiders each one with a poem as well as with images of the Hue landscape.

When the former royal city was recognised as a World Cultural Heritage site by the UN cultural agency UNESCO in 1993, tourists began flocking to the city in drones, turning conical hats into favourable souvenirs.

Once, upon visiting Thuy's workshop, an extremely impressed Australian tourist asked her to make him a hat with her name embroidered inside. Not long after, another group of Aussie tourists requested their own hats with her name inside as well.

Since then, Thuy's conical hats have become a trademark with thousands carrying her name across the globe.

"Thuy, famous for making hats with only one hand, is known as one of the best hat makers in Vietnam due to the extraordinary quality and craftsmanship of her work," Kevin Towles, a tourist from the US, said, adding that he could not wait to wear his new hat back home in the States.

In 2004, Thuy got an opportunity to promote her conical hats and handiwork in Japan on the occasion of a Vietnamese Culture and Tourism Festival.

Having brought 200 hats along with her on the trip, she managed to sell out during the first day of the festival, 300 additional hats having to be shipped over to sate demand.

During her time in Japan , Thuy made a lot of efforts in learning the language as well as English and French, in order to better communicate with her customers, before heading back to Vietnam .

"Apart from making the hats, I like to introduce visitors to the ins and outs of the trade, sometimes, using little more than expressions," Thuy said. (Source: VNA)

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