Fish swim in the water,
Birds fly in the air,
The Hmong live in the mountains…
-A Vietnamese Folk song
Hmong women walk in single file on top of the embankments, looking like brightly coloured dots amid the rice terraces. With an indigo blue apron thrown over their red-bordered dresses, they dress in colours that contrast strikingly with the emerald green of the rice plants in the paddy fields.
In the high valleys of Miền Bắc (Northern Vietnam), the hill tribes of the Hmong, Yao and Tai cling to the mountainsides like the clouds and mists. Once horsemen who rode the forgotten steppes, they have exchanged their whips for walking sticks to help them climb the steep slopes and ploughs to make furrows in the paddy fields. They were once nomads, and it is here that they have settled down. Fleeing the humid plains and swamps inhabited by the Kinh (the Vietnamese ethnic majority), they ceased their wanderings. They gradually conquered and cultivated acre after acre, in the valleys of Miền Bắc, close to the Chinese frontier.
More than twenty hill tribes inhabited the northern mountainous part of Vietnam. The Hmong, Yao, Tai and Nung peoples live on the left bank of the Red River, while the Thai and Muong people are mostly to be found on the right bank, as far as the Ma and Ca rivers. Each community has its lifestyle and preferred dwelling place. Some villages are located high up on the steep slopes of the mountains, while others are to be found in the valleys. It is difficult to date the origin of these ethnic group of people. At Sa Pa, huge blocks of carefully engraved stone have been found, covered in decorative patterns that have been attributed to the early Stone Age period.
The Hmong people are divided into several subgroups that are found in around ten provinces in Miền Bắc, Laos, China and Myanmar, which were scattered throughout the Himalayan foothills. Green Hmong (Xanh), Red Hmong (ĐỎ), Flowered Hmong (Hoa), Black Hmong (Đen) and White Hmong (Trắng) settled more than two centuries ago in northern Tonkin. Their homes are very simple, consisting of the main room built around the hearth and one or two bedrooms with beaten earth floors. The upper level is used to store grains and as a place for farm tools and household equipment.
They carved the mountains into protective walls and fashioned their new kingdom into huge terraces of green fields, building up dykes, diverting streams, dredging the silt and bringing in freshwater to cultivate rice and maize. On the leeward sides of the mountains, by the river springs, they built their villages.
Their traditional garments are like miniature landscapes that record stories, it arouses curiosity and provokes questions. The long circular skirts of the Flowered Hmong women, edged with crimson borders are decorated with batik prints. Do these complicated patterns reproduce the secret plans of their ancestral strongholds? Are those genuine coins used as fastening on the women’s blouses? Were they once part of a treasure trove? What is the origin of their embroidery patterns, the brightly coloured waves that climb their necks and shoulders and encircle their wrists?
For these people without a nation, their clothing is their flag of distinction, a standard by which their identity is created and affirmed. Their colour is a proud part of their names: The Black Hmong and Flowered Hmong, the Black Tai and White Tai, and the Red Yao. The women, princesses of their mist-shrouded kingdom, deck themselves in these bright hues.
Linen, cotton, and wool are carded, spun and wound at communal evening gatherings. The thread is woven by women working at home. When they go to the hemp fields, the young girls break the stalks and roll the fibres into balls; once these have been softened, the strands will be woven and made into jackets and leggings to protect the calves against the leeches that live in the water. Dyes are extracted from fruit and roots. In front of each house, there are vats of indigo in which the hemp cloth is soaked.
In many communities, the embroidered cloth is part of the trousseau; a young girl’s skill is judged by how finely she embroiders. Girls of marriageable age, therefore, display their dexterity and creativity in their work, and future mothers-in-law will try to read the future of their sons in the embroidery, just as soothsayers look for omens.
Sa Pa still holds its famous Love Market, where young Hmong people come in search of a kindred spirit. This is an age-old tradition whereby girls and boys can meet and spend part of the night talking, singing and laughing. Some of them play a musical accompaniment to their courtship on a bamboo mouth-harp, a traditional Hmong instrument. At one time, the marriage rituals of the Hmong community were much cruder. During the night, the chosen women would be simply abducted by having a blanket thrown over her and she would take to the house of the suitor. During the weeks following this abduction, the families would cement the union through dowries and gifts negotiated according to custom.
In the Bắc Hà market, stalls are stacked with coloured braids and bright sewing threads. The Hmong girls cannot resist their allure, and the place becomes a huge and creative pageant of embroidery and batik, prints and plain cloth. Although the people of the plains, subjected to so many outside influences, have now abandoned their traditional costumes, these garments have found a refuge among the hill tribes.
Richly decorated umbrellas also serve as sunshades for the women as they walk across slopes and peaks to go gathering, hunting, shopping or visiting their families on festive occasions. With collars that rise high at the nape of the neck, even the fanciest costumes serve as protection from the curving bamboo stalks and the branches that arch over the forest paths.
As the shifting colours of their dresses disappear into the surrounding greenery, the women can still be heard as they move away, their metallic jewellery clicking with every step.