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Letters from Vietnam: The Hmong People – Reclaiming Lost Skills


The Future of the Hmong People
Photos: Paid for by and Copyrighted to the PRI

It took a few moments for my eyes to adapt to the light. There was a single, clear incandescent bulb hanging just millimetres above my head – hanging from somewhere high in the blackness of the ceiling, from a cable so weathered it looked more like a vine than an electrical cord. But it wasn’t turned on. After all, it was daytime. Below my muddied boots was the hard, earth floor; cool to the touch, with just a hint of dampness. The lady of the house swept dirt outside, which, while necessary, almost seemed nonsensical, since the floor was dirt. The walls were thick, and windowless – also made with packed earth. And unlike most other minority tribes in Vietnam, who normally build their houses on poles, this one was built directly onto the ground.

This home was about as ‘earthy’ as they get.

Strong and straightish tree-poles, harvested from the surrounding cloud forest, supported the second level – a place where food is stored out of reach (one would hope, at least) of rodents and other creatures. A large provision of corn was stacked neatly and drying under the hefty rafters, and on the other side I could make out a very large and full basket of rice – all accessible via a sturdy bamboo ladder.

Aside from a tiny colour television in one even darker corner, and the picture-peppered newspaper and magazine pages that serve as a form of decorative wallpaper on one wall, there was very little of modernity to observe here.

The matriarch of this home, who I call Mrs. Sua, had a kind and friendly face, and expressive eyes, yet I knew talking to her was not going to be easy. The communication challenge was not only due to her culture and her life’s experiences being so vastly different than my own (I mean, do I even have a culture?), but the language barrier, in addition, was unusually robust.


Vang Thi Sua, seated in front of her residence,
Can Chu Su Village, Can Can Commune, Si Ma Cai, northern Vietnam

The village I was visiting was in the north of Si Ma Cai province, high in the beautiful, irregular mountains that litter the border regions – just a few kilometres from the southern Chinese border. Despite the location, the Hmong language is distinct from both Vietnamese and Chinese. However, thanks to SPERI (Social Policy Ecology Research Institute, the Vietnamese NGO I have been working with, a sister organisation to PRI), I came well armed – wielding two translators this time! One was Hmong himself – a ‘White’ Hmong from the far northeast – and able to translate to Vietnamese. The other was a Vietnamese who could translate to English.

At her invitation, we sat down outside Vang Thi Sua’s doorway – sitting/crouching on the low wooden seats that are typical all over Asia – and I wondered where to begin. Indeed, I was secretly fearful of playing a frustrating game of Chinese Whispers.


A Flower Hmong woman
in the town of Ba Cha, Si Ma Cai

I wanted to speak to Mrs. Sua, specifically, as, having begun in 2006 with only three other women, she now headed a twenty-strong grass-roots handicraft group in her village. Started, or should I say ‘restarted’, with the encouragement and support of SPERI, the group’s endeavours centre in making clothing. This is no sweatshop type industry, mind, but rather an effort to pick at the threads of such factories, and unravel them, by weaving a wholly sustainable and more functional and attractive replacement social fabric.

Mrs. Sua’s group make clothing completely from scratch – and I do mean completely. They grow hemp from seed, harvest it and process the hemp fibre into thread. They colour the thread with a rainbow of dyes they source in the seeds, leaves, roots, bark and wood of the trees and other plants around them, and they then weave the thread into cloth which is in turn used to produce the beautiful, colourful clothing for which the Hmong people are most famous.


Hmong women sell vegetables at a small roadside market in the Si Ma Cai Village

These skills have been utilised and honed by the Hmong people for centuries, and longer, yet 17 years ago this village, like others in the area, did what too many cultures have done over the last century – they suddenly discarded their immensely valuable and hard earned indigenous knowledge, trading it for factory produced goods made by cheap labour outside of their own locality. With this action these Hmong had stepped onto the path to vulnerability, that can ultimately lead to full integration into, and dependence on, the globalised market economy – and, in tandem, began that subtle, subversive detachment process where people begin to lose touch with the carrying capacity of the land, and how their purchasing decisions impact it.

Where they had been dependent on no one for their clothing needs, they now needed money to purchase them. Self-sufficiency thus gave way to the need to provide goods and/or services that could be exchanged for cash.

Historical Background of the Hmong

Ancient Hmong history is somewhat confusing, and uncertain – although historians have pegged their existence as a distinct race at several thousand years. Some point to their having ancient origins in distant places like Siberia, Mongolia, and even Mesopotamia upwards of 5,000 years ago, and modern studies have determined that the Hmong moved into China well before the Chinese – as early as 4,500 years ago. Even today the vast majority of Hmong live in southern China.

At different times through the centuries, as the Chinese population grew, Hmong were either forced to assimilate, or relocate. There were wars and persecutions, and Hmong settlements moved further and further south – eventually spilling over into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Hmong society traditionally ran without an obvious political hierarchy. A household usually contained three generations, and each village normally contained around twenty households. Each village was self-contained (self-sufficient), through the interactions, cooperation and skill sharing of those households. Order was preserved, it seems, through their strong dedication to family and their deep respect for their elders – and nothing binds a community together more than the realisation of their mutual need for one another.

It is clear that the Hmong did not wish to surrender their free life to Chinese rule, and this ambition caused them not a little grief. The word ‘Hmong’ itself was originally translated as ‘man’ or ‘people’, but came to be understood as “free people” – due to their determination to remain so.

Throughout history, if the Hmong people found any kind of peace, it never lasted long. They have been forced to emigrate from northeastern China into the country’s southwestern corner. During the Qing Dynasty, several major wars further pushed hundreds of thousands of Hmong into Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand.

The first major war during the Qing Dynasty erupted in 1735 in southeastern Guizhou province as a result of Chinese southward expansion and forced assimilation. Eight counties and 1,224 villages were said to be involved in this war. When the Hmong were suppressed in 1738, Professor Wu said 17,670 Hmong had been killed in combat, 11,130 were captured and executed and another 13,600 were forced into slavery. Half of the Hmong population were affected by the war.

The second war (1795-1806) was started in three provinces – southeast of Sichuan, east of Guizhou and west of Hunan. The Hmong were led by Ba-yue Wu, Liu-deng Shi, San-bao Shi and Tian-ban Shi. As in the past, this war was launched to resist the Chinese and the Qing government from taking over their land. The popular slogan at the time was, “Get back our fields. Drive the Han people and he Manchus out off our fields.”

The last war was the biggest and longest of the three. As a result of the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing government demanded more taxes and labor from the Hmong. The Hmong, led by Xiu-mei Zhang and other leaders, revolted in southeastern Guizhou in 1854 and fought until 1873. In excess of one million people were involved in this war, which spread to cover hundreds of cities and counties. According to Professor Wu, only 30 percent of the Hmong survived the war. Seventy percent of them were either killed or ran away. – Hmongnet.org

Under such pressures, the Hmong have done remarkably well to keep their culture and way of life intact. But where violent Chinese oppressors couldn’t convince the Hmong to give up their free and independent life, and submit to imperial rule, the modern day Hmong are willingly surrendering to Chinese economic rule instead. The warfare may be less bloody, and more discrete, but the results are essentially the same.

Note: An understanding of Hmong history is not complete without knowing of the Laos’ Hmong alignment with the U.S. against communism during the American (Vietnam) war, and the consequences that it brought them then, and since. You can read about this topic here, here, and here amongst many other places.

Reclaiming a Discarded Inheritance

It doesn’t take long for key skills to be forgotten, and a decade and a half had almost completely done the job. In 2006 SPERI took Mrs. Sua and three friends on a tour to Sa Pa, a tourist hot-spot about 70kms to the southwest, where handmade Hmong clothing are sold as souvenirs. This gave the women an idea of the real value of their work. They were also taken to visit ‘fair trade’ stores in the capital, Hanoi – where they learned just how unfair these stores really can be (they were shocked at the difference between what the villagers were paid for the product, and the retail price they were sold for).

The four subsequently returned to their village encouraged to again take up the craft of their ancestors.

They began by pooling skills from their collective memories, and visiting Hmong people in other regions to fill in the remaining gaps – painstakingly gathering and collating the knowledge that had been tossed aside almost two decades earlier. Even the foundational aspect of planting the right variety of hemp was somewhat of a mission – as years of neglect had seen the plants die off, and they had no seeds to sow a new crop. New seeds, and the knowledge of how to grow and process the plant, all had to be sourced at great expense from elsewhere.


Two other members of the handicraft group twist individual hemp threads
together, to make longer threads that can then be woven into cloth

Only being able to afford 15kg of seed for the first year, they determined to concentrate on seed saving for the initial harvest. Despite this, they still managed to produce 8-9 metres of cloth for each women (enough for two dresses each).

Finally, they were once again fully able to provide for the clothing needs of their families. It wasn’t long before word spread and the team grew to the 20-strong group it is today, only two years later.

Mrs. Sua expressed great pride that they were once more practicing the traditions of their ancestors. Aside from the aspect of independence and greater control over their own destinies, according to Hmong beliefs keeping the spirits of their ancestors happy is an important issue as well. Tradition states that Hmong dead should always be wrapped in hemp cloth.

The Hmong wear their hemp cloth not only in life, but also in death. When an elderly Hmong woman dies, her corpse must be dressed in a hemp jacket, hemp skirt and hemp leggings. The Hmong man must wear a long hemp robe. Both wear hemp shoes. The Hmong believe that when the dead person wears hemp shoes, they can “ford the caterpillar river and cross the green worm mountain safely, to reach their ancestor’s resting place”. – Hmongnet.org

By fulfilling these rituals the living avoid illness and other misfortunes that could otherwise be visited upon their households.

There is still one more skill that needs to be relearned, though, but this time it’s the men that need to lend a hand. (Men traditionally do the more physical work like ploughing, building and repairing houses, cutting wood, etc.) The weaving is done on a wooden weaving frame – and the looms they use today are more than thirty years old. Due to the previous lack of interest, the men must now relearn how to make the frames before the few working units in the village fall into disrepair.


Ly Thi Cha, one of the lead members of the handicraft group, stands next to her 30+
year old loom. The corn drying at her feet is used to create alcohol, as opposed
to the corn neatly stacked below (at left), which is used for eating

Above all, the Can Chu Su Village weaving group are now relieved they can pass their relearned skills on to their children.

What of the Future?

Of course, all these efforts can come to nothing in the long term if Hmong youth are chasing another dream.

As we spoke to the adults, the children were conspicuous by their absence – they were all at school. In previous generations, Hmong children didn’t go to school. Their classroom was at the feet and on the backs of their parents, where they learned about life and grew in practical skills alongside their family from the day they were born. Having them now in class alters the family and village economy considerably – with parents having less time to accomplish the same tasks, and greater expenses to cover. This economic shift is not insignificant, when you consider that the average Hmong family has six or seven children.


Hmong parents work, their daughter assists, and the infant son looks on

Understandably, Hmong parents feel it a duty to send their children to receive an education. Worldwide, an ‘education’ is perceived to offer better opportunities and an improved way of life. For me, though, I must always question the type and even the definition of ‘education’. Should not the central purpose of an education be to enable the community the youth belong to to better meet the challenges they face right where they are – to better enable them to live productive lives within their own specific situation and environment, and to do so in a way that doesn’t prevent neighbouring people, and future generations, from being able to do likewise?

I asked Mrs. Sua and her friends if they knew what their children were being taught. Their response was emphatic – they didn’t have a clue. They cannot understand or read Vietnamese, so are unable to read the books their children bring home. The schools in the region are run by the Kinh Vietnamese majority.

In recent years the Vietnamese government has begun trying to place an elementary school in every Hmong village. – UCLA International Institute

I cannot speak for these Vietnamese schools, as I don’t have a copy of their curriculum in my hands, but I do know of such schools in other cultures, where the ‘education’ is based on, if not wholly identical to, the standard instruction taught to majority students – which is today generally aimed at feeding the modern economic machine with a new generation of workers.

The single party socialist government has not kept the nation from joining the globalised market – indeed, the nation, like China, subscribes to a quasi-communist/free-market capitalist political combo that is bringing rapid change to the region. Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

With the modern economic machine now faltering, and the environment upon which it is intimately linked now standing on its last legs – are these Hmong youth being educated into unemployment and irrelevance?

It is true that capitalism can find these people work. For example, in other regions, like Sa Pa and Lao Cai, where tourism is doing its own work at dismantling communities with the short-term aim of generating profits, parents are often keeping their children out of school so they can shine shoes and sell cheap wares to tourists instead (after all, as any astute Vietnamese parent/capitalist will have observed – cute children make the best salesmen…).


Hmong children attend an elementary school in their village

Getting the youth of the Hmong, and other indigenous minority groups (and, indeed, the Vietnamese majority itself), to see the big picture – to understand what is coming in the world – and to give them a renewed, deep-seated appreciation for the wisdom and ways of their elders, may be almost as hard to accomplish here as it is to do the same for little Thomas and Stacy in the west, even though the latter have been detached from the land for at least two or three generations.


You can’t blame the youth for wanting a better standard of living – but it doesn’t
need to come at the cost of the health of themselves, their communities
and their environment

This is where Permaculture has such a potential to make a difference. Part of what Permaculture is about is getting the greatest productivity from the least land and labour. Traditional knowledge can be supplemented with proven, applied designs that can improve lifestyles whilst also building soil and natural habitats. Giving youth a vision in this regard, as well as educating them about the follies and pitfalls of a westward highway, could see lives being improved whilst maintaining culture and ecology. On that note, SPERI has a Farmers’ Field School close by, with Hmong and other minority students in attendance. But, that is a post for another day.

Navigating our way back to our motorcycles through the mud and buffalo dung, my mind wandered, full of thoughts about the past and possible futures of both the Hmong people, and my own western civilisation. I thought of the work involved in backtracking a mere 17 years to regain lost knowledge, and considered the many civilisations worldwide that are surrendering their own skills-store far too readily as well. For myself, several generations removed from any kind of ancestral sustainability, I could only feel great respect and admiration for these patient, kind-hearted people, and a deep loss for the skills my own race has passed up over the generations.

As I walked, an old woman sang as she worked, the bell around the neck of a cow tinkled gently as it chewed, little children laughed and hid shyly, and I ventured a hope that we might learn more from them, than they will from us.


Mrs. Sua (below left) and her husband (above right) share a meal with us


The surrounding region – click for full view, and then scroll sideways…


Two giant woks are used for cooking grains


The cloth above the door (Da ntaub lia) is present above
the threshold of every Hmong household. It protects the
occupants against bad spirits and misfortune

Further Reading:

 

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20 Comments

  1. Craig, amazing article, and great photos.

    “Should not the central purpose of an education be to enable the community the youth belong to to better meet the challenges they face right where they are – to better enable them to live productive lives within their own specific situation and environment, and to do so in a way that doesn’t prevent neighbouring people, and future generations, from being able to do likewise?”

    It definitely should.

  2. Great, thanks for your work there! IMHO, Cultural diversity is a resource for the entire human race.

    This comment of yours at the beginning, “do I even have a culture?” really struck me – yes, you have a culture. I presume from it that you come from the dominant culture wherever you grew up. It is common for those of us who grew up in a dominant culture to be unaware of our culture – it is just the background ‘of course things are this way’ and unlike minorities we do not have to be aware of the local majority culture – we are it! It consists of all of the same things that any culture does – language, basic assumptions about how the world works, history, music, etc. Awareness of this is part of the work that needs to happen for us to survive and thrive as a species.

  3. Agree totally Craig on yr comments re appropriate education. Giving the youth an education that ends up being irrelevant to them in their own environment is like shooting themselves in the foot. It often then forces the necessity for those educated to move to somewhere where they feel it would be better used, or even more so – make more money, leaving behind those with no ‘education’ the challenge of keeping their economy and survival thriving. No doubt there is the odd one that will return to share his new found knowledge and skills to benefit his people but probably not many.

  4. John, great point. The first world culture is definitely unique however, as it’s a big blend of tiny bits of other cultures as well. Heading out to Japanese food in the city, then to an Irish Pub, then grabbing dessert at an Italian Gelato shop. Totally random, but, what most city folk do on a daily basis.

    Our culture can be very media driven. It can consist of long car rides, and long flights on airplanes. It can consist of sitting in front of a computer for 10 hours a day, eating dinner, playing with your children. Routines that turn into culture if you will.

    Bizarre as it may seem… I looked up “Culture” in Dictionary/Wikipedia, and yeah, I guess we do have a culture. A very random one at that !

  5. Thanks for your comments all. Re my comment on culture, and my not having one, I guess it’s just from observing the current ‘first world’ way – which is based on consumerism, instead of conservation, and on competition, instead of cooperation. In this sense, our ‘culture’ is anti-culture, in that it is self-devouring.

    The culture of my ancestors was based, also, on the land and the sea, and a connection with it, and with the family around them. Now our families are fragmented, and ‘nature’ is something we see in a documentary.

  6. thank you. i loved reading this and hope that there is much positive to come for these people. very well written and the photographs show an exquisite land and people.

  7. Craig,
    Amazing story and photos.
    I live in Northern California, and many Hmong live here too. We often see them at Farmers Markets selling their vegies and strawberries.
    I have read about Hmong history on the web, but nothing like what you’ve put together.
    I was touched when you said they lost their traditional knowledge in 15 or so years. My family culture too was based on the land and by the sea. But that life has been gone for years.
    Thanks so much for a glimpse into the life of the Hmong.

  8. Hi Craig,

    I am now in Sapa and have had some very interesting experiences over the past few days.

    I would be very interested also to visit the SPERI field school here. On my way into SAPA, I saw what I believe read on the sign a “Temperate Agriculture Research center” about 6 kms before getting into town from Lao Cai. Is this the same? I have a feeling it might not be and would be very appreciative if you could point me in the direction of the SPERI center.

    Thanks.

  9. Hi Isaac. The “Temperate Agriculture Research center” is not the one. Also, the SPERI center in the Si Ma Cai district is inside the no-go zone for general tourists. This means you’re unable to go there without prior official authorisation, which can be difficult to get unless you have a valid reason for being there, and it would need to be done on your behalf by a sponsoring organisation within Vietnam.

    Sorry to disappoint, and safe travels.

  10. Craig, thanks for the info. It was kind of a shot in the dark anyway. However, I have had a really great experience the past few days helping out a Red Dao family take in thier rice harvest. I couldnt believe today when the dad of the family, who weighs about 40 kg, hauled 70kg bags of rice on his shoulders through the paddies to the road! I managed one, but had to rest a few times, and im not in bad shape. I think he was happy to see me persevere, hehe.

    Great people, very friendly and just trying to make it best they can. Not 100% organic as i believe they add a little fertilizer mixed in with the buffalo dung and stuff but the fields contain many other grasses and flowers and i saw quite a few different kinds of insects today along with several frogs. Cool to see that they didnt chop down a few rice stocks that contained a bird nest, which looked more like a spiders web, with a little egg in it, which they pointed out to me. A stream runs clear through the terraced paddies and there is some field corn here and there as well. I am going to go back in a couple of days and will try to find out a bit more about how the planting and after harvest takes place.

    Cheers

  11. Hi Craig,

    I am a “white” Hmong lives in Califonia and would like to thank you for sharing the Hmong in Vietnam’s story to all of us. I really enjoy reading your article. It makes me wanting to read more about the Hmong there. Great Story!

    Thanks.

  12. Wow great stuff. I’m in deed happy to see this post of my people and the life my parents were force to leave behind. I’m looking forward to going to Vietnam next year after I make my stop in China. I’ll be in search of Genealogy if possible. Thanks

  13. I love Vietnam and the food, music, culture vietnamese people are wonderful. I wish a day i come back to visit. Vietnam Dep.

  14. Thanks so much for this great article Craig. I really appreciate you and all journalist who often take the time to find distant, remote, and intriging stories to bring back and share. Stories like this always touches my heart because these are my people, even though I have never been to Vietnam. Talking bout where we really originated from? I hope someday we find out. Did you know that Hmong people are probably the only Southeast Asian group, perhaps the only asian group that have a recessive gene for Blond Hair and White Skin?(both parents with Asian feature, yellow skin, black hair) It’s not albino white, but normal white skin and blond hair. The feature is all Asian, but the skin and hair?…all eastern Eruopean blond and white. Even the siblings are like that. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your experience with my people.

  15. Craig, this was a beautifully written story. Not only did I learn more about where I came from, but I can walk away today knowing how proud I am to be Hmong.

  16. Heavens, you are on the ball regarding ‘Education’. It will not be until we stop seeing money as the GOD that people will understand what the cost has been. This you tube clip is demonstrates how modern education is flawed education. Anyone not on your wavelength might like an ‘education’ -check out-
    RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms.

  17. These pictures really hit home. Thank you so much for sharing these photos with us. It truly means a lot to us. Thank you.

  18. Thank you Craig, I visited North Vietnam this year (2018) and I got thrilled by all these tribes living there! it was like a travel back in time
    I am afraid that things have changed a bit since the year you wrote this though..everything is getting so touristic and I feel so guilty that I contribute to this :(

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