Hmong Images from Lonely Planet Vietnam travel guide

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Photograph by Mason Florence

Until recently there was no written Hmong language, but a strong oral tradition of folk songs, riddles and proverbs flourishes. Perhaps the Hmong are best known, however, for their handicrafts, particularly weaving hemp and cotton cloth which is then coloured with indigo dyes. To achieve the right intensity of blue, the cloth may be dyed up to thirty times, and then beaten until the surface takes on a lustrous, almost metallic sheen.

Many Hmong people still wear traditional indigo apparel: men wear baggy, tubular trousers with a loose shirt, a long waistcoat of burnished cloth and silver or bronze necklaces; female attire is generally a knee-length skirt, an apron, leggings and a waistcoat. Hmong women often adorn their shirt sleeves with embroidered bands, while the skirts of some groups may also be highly decorated. Hmong women typically wear large chunky silver necklaces and clusters of several bracelets and earrings.

Photograph by Mark Kirby

Since the end of the eighteenth century groups of Miao people have been fleeing southern China, heading for Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.

Their spoken tongue resembles Mandarin Chinese, and the people fall into various sub-classifications, including the Black, White, Red, Green and Flower Hmong, each bearing subtle variations on traditional dress, especially among the women, and marked differences in dialect and social customs.

The Hmong reside at high altitudes and cultivate dry rice, vegetables and fruit, in addition to medicinal plants (including opium), and also raise pigs, cows, chickens and horses. Hmong houses are built flat on the ground, rather than raised on stilts.

Photograph by Emma Miller

The Hmong are found in many parts of South-East Asia. Many fled Vietnam to western countries as refugees (and are said to have a considerably more difficult time adjusting than the ethnic-Vietnamese due to being undereducated and coming from very large families). Miao meant "barbarian", whereas their new name, Hmong, means "free people".

In Vietnam the Hmong population now stands at around 600,000, living in the high areas of all the northern provinces down to Nghe An. The poor farming land, geographical isolation and their traditional seclusion from other people has left the Hmong one of the most impoverished groups in Vietnam; standards of health and education are low, while infant mortality is exceptionally high.

Hmong farmers grow maize, rice and vegetables on burnt-over land, irrigated fields and terraced hillsides. Traditionally they also grow poppies, though this is now being discouraged by the government. Hmong people raise cattle, buffalo and horses, and have recently started growing fruit trees, such as peach, plum and apple. They are also skilled hunters and gather forest products, including honey, medicinal herbs, roots and bark, either for their own consumption or to trade at weekly markets.

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