Carved in between misty mountains in the north of Vietnam right at the border with China, rests the rustic town of Sapa. It’s roughly a 6 hours bus ride from Hanoi, including pit stops.
I came here to meet the Hmong community. An ethnicity spread mostly in Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. I was very eager to finally meet them as their culture has longed echoed in my mind.
The Hmong are an ethnic group currently native to several countries, coming from the Yangtze River basin area in southern China. In China, this ethnic group are called Miao, a name that embraces several different ethnic groups and some even believe it be derogatory. In Vietnam, the Hmong people are one of the largest ethnic minorities, being almost one million of them. You will normally find them concentrated in the mountainous north of the country and usually live at high altitudes. They dress colourfully, in fact, their different ethnic categories can be easily identified by the colours they wear and their traditions.
From Nomad to Settled
The Hmong have always been historically pushed away, starting by Chinese. The late 18th century saw the advancement of the Han dynasty, thus forcing the minority Hmong to leave the Yangtze Basin and move southwards. Those who made it to Vietnam, had soon to face the arrival of communism. As communism swept through the region, the Hmong people were forced to pick sides, which often resulted in large groups being forced to migrate to new areas, like Laos and Thailand. By the end of the 20th century, there wasn’t enough uninhabited land remaining in the region for the traditional type of agriculture used by the Hmong. As a result, local governments enacted programs to force the Hmong people to change the very nature of their communities. Instead of continually moving to new areas, they had to switch to permanent cultivation on a single plot of land. As a result, what we see today in the Hmong villages is the result of this deep transition as they adapt to a new lifestyle.
As Vietnam has opened its borders to the surge of global travel, the Hmong people in Vietnam have shifted to getting used to tourists wanting to learn more about their traditions, culture and lifestyle. I saw lots of Hmong markets in Sa Pa, Láo Cai and Há Giang where I could purchase traditional garments, hand-made jewelry, and many Hmong open their home to host tourists looking for a genuine local experience. a large part of their economy from agriculture to tourism. Once again, the Hmong people are simply adapting to life as they always had in the past.
They can be incredibly open and friendly. In two days, I was taken around learning how to make rice, how to do embroidery, how to clean rice grains and make metal handcrafts.
Few curiosities about the Hmong
They retain a strong sense of their culture and traditions. Girls are expected to marry very young, though these days more subsersive women are a common sight.
Hmong people maintain spiritual practices that include shamanism, animism and ancestors veneration.
They have no political structure.
They live on shifting cultivation of rice paddies and cattle products, as well as handcrafts.
Upon married, women become members of the husband’s clan but retain their father’s name.
Hmong are distinguished in several groups, all easily identified by the coloured garments they wear: Black, White, and Flower Hmong.