05/01/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
As North Vietnamese soldiers approached Minh Hanh's home in Da Nang in 1975, her family got ready to flee, grabbing whatever valuables they could. Minh Hanh, then 14, zeroed in on her most prized possession: a sewing machine. "At first my mother was so angry," recalls Minh Hanh's sister Dang Thi Bich Thuy, 32. "It was so heavy." But Minh Hanh held on to the machine, first aboard a boat, then on a U.S. military helicopter bound for Saigon.
Her mother has long since forgiven Minh Hanh, who, as the top designer in Vietnam's fledgling fashion industry, is hailed for bringing the ao dai (pronounced ow-zeye)—the traditional Vietnamese costume of long, form-fitting tunic over trousers—back into vogue. During the lean postwar years the style was rejected as extravagant. More recently it was considered old-fashioned. "But now they see how the ao dai can show a woman's elegance and simplicity," says Minh Hanh, 39. "And they're very sexy." Her creations, which cost between 560,000 and 1,400,000 dong ($40 to $100), are staples at Vietnam's glitziest events. At last November's Miss Vietnam pageant, five entrants wore Minh Hanh's designs. "I love her style," says Ngoc Thuy, 19, a contestant. "She knows how to bring out the beauty of Vietnamese women."
Minh Hanh grew up in Vietnam's Central Highlands, the fourth of seven children of Dang Van Chuong, 68, a captain in the South Vietnamese army, and Nguyen Thi Lai, 66, a housewife and avid seamstress. But when the war ended and Minh Hanh's father was sent to labor camps for nine years, sewing became a lifeline as she, her mother and five sisters found jobs doing piecemeal work for a Saigon bridal shop.
Still, a career in fashion never occurred to Minh Hanh. She majored in graphic design at the Fine Arts University of Ho Chi Minh City and, after graduating in 1983, took a job as a newspaper-layout designer. Even then, using the 6 yds. of low-grade cotton officially allotted each person every year, Minh Hanh managed to express her own style. "She wore no jewelry and little makeup but clearly understood beauty," says Huynh Son Phuoc, a former newspaper colleague. Her boldest creation at the time was her own wedding dress: a multitiered confection made of mosquito netting. "I thought it would be more special than what was in stores," Minh Hanh recalls. And it was, agrees her husband of 16 years, Le Van Nghia, 46, editor of a satire magazine. "Everyone was surprised," he says proudly.
The dress won raves from friends, but it wasn't until 1988, when Vietnam staged its first postwar fashion show, that the public took note after Minh Hanh showed 10 ao dai in unusual fabrics. "Young people started to think the ao dai was stylish," says her old colleague Phuoc. "It was no longer just for mothers and grandmothers."
In 1994, Minh Hanh quit her job and turned to fashion full-time. As head of the state-run Fashion Design Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, she puts in 14-hour days (at a monthly salary of $200) sketching, teaching class and editing the Institute's magazine. That's when she's not off buying fabrics from tribespeople in the highlands or silk and linen from China and India. "Once she decides on something she is like a locomotive," says her husband, who often wakes in the night to find Minh Hanh sketching.
Though she dreams of having a fashion show in New York City someday, Minh Hanh is in no rush to leave Vietnam. She once visited her youngest sister and father, now living in Santa Ana, Calif., but felt lonely there and missed the cozy five-room house she shares with her husband, their son, Le Dang Cong Huan, 11, and her mother-in-law.
While Minh Hanh regrets not having the time to make her family's clothes anymore, she relishes her current challenge. "Until a few years ago, people in Vietnam didn't know who Christian Lacroix or Donna Karan was. I have to teach them about fashion. But I love my job," she says. "I feel like a pioneer."