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ETHNONYMS: Mi, Moai, Moal, Moi, Mol, Montagnard


Identification. In the last few decades, the word "Muong" has received recognition as the name for this ethnic collectivity, but it is not an autonym. Until the early twentieth century, the Vietnamese used to call all the forest/hill dwellers "Mi" or "Moi" (the savage). The French too used the same derogatory term, "les Mois," and only much later did the French refer to them as "Montagnards" (mountaineers). Now they are designated as ethnic minorities. The Vietnamese term "Muong" initially had no ethnic connotation. It simply referred to any neighboring area inhabited by non-Vietnamese, especially the Muong and the Thai, under the traditional authority of an aristocratic family. The Muong, on the other hand, called themselves "Mol," meaning "man." Through dialectal variations in different regions, "Mol" is also pronounced "Moal" or "Moai."

Location. The Muong inhabit a continuous stretch of about 300 kilometers of land from north to south, from Yen Bai Province to Nghe An Province, without passing through the territory of any other ethnic group. This territorial contiguity has contributed to the extraordinary cohesion and persistence of the Muong culture. In fact, there is very little variation in the material and spiritual life of the Muong in different regions. The Muong regard Hoa Binh Province in the north of Vietnam as the cradle of their culture. The Muong habitat is essentially mountainous, enclosing narrow valleys. The forest cover has been largely decimated. Most of their settlements are located at the foot of the limestone or earthen hillocks in narrow valleys. Usually there are Thai settlements to the west of theirs, and Vietnamese settlements to the east. This midland location has been a source of Muong economic and cultural strength for ages.

Demography. In 1960 the Muong numbered 415,658, and by the mid-1980s they had reached a population of nearly 500,000. They are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the Indochinese region, and the second-largest in Vietnam.

Linguistic Affiliation. Their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer Group of Austroasiatic languages. As yet there is no script, despite concerted efforts in the last few years.

History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the prehistory of the Muong. Archaeological evidence and local legends suggest that the various ethnic minorities of the regionthe Muong, Meo, Zao, Tay, Tho, Nung, Thai, Kmhmu, Coong, Sila, La Hu, and Bo Kho Pabelonged to a single cultural group (more or less). It was through subsequent geographical dispersion and cultural isolation that diverse ethnic identities emerged and consolidated. Similarly, ethnographic and linguistic research on the Muong and the Vietnamese indicate several crucial similarities between the two societies. Given that the Muong inhabit a region between those of the Vietnamese and the Thai, the presence of cultural and linguistic similarities is not surprising. The Muong nevertheless continue to have their own specific characteristics, often very much distinct from those of their neighbors.


The smallest unit of Muong habitation is the quel (hamlet), with about fifty households. Their housing design and architecture not only have remained unchanged for generations, but also reflect the structure of the household and the traditional social system in general. The houses are raised on 2-meter wood pilings, creating a rectangular space 6 to 13 meters long and 4 to 6 meters wide. The roof is thatched with elephant grass and the floor is made of both wood and bamboo. The house is then divided into two unequal parts by a shoulder-high bamboo screen. The smaller part is used as a bed-cum-store room and is where the women and unmarried girls spend most of their time. The larger compartment is used as a guest room as well as for cooking and dining. The ancestors' altar occupies the central place. Both the rooms have independent staircases but the front side is reserved for males and the back for females. There is also a conception of upper and lower parts, according to respective positions in the width of the house. The upper part is toward the windows overlooking the valley and the lower part leans towards the hillslope, without any window. The more social status one has, the greater the chance of being seated near the windows. Notables, male elders, and guests are assigned places in the upper side, whereas commoners, females, and children are assigned places in the lower side. Even while eating or gossiping, a similar positioning is still maintained between the males and females and the elders and youngsters in the family.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Muong economy is based on agriculture, although gathering, hunting, livestock breeding, and handicrafts together constitute an important component. Women gather edible tubers, leaves, vegetables, fruits, berries, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and, at times, breadfruit, whose flour is used for bread in periods of scarcity. Fuel wood, house-building material, pharmaceutical plants, and other forest products for trade are collected from what remains of the forest. Hunting with traps, crossbows, nets, snares, lime twigs, flintlocks, and rifles remains the prerogative of males. Communal hunting is organized on festive days and a successful expedition is seen as a good omen for the rice harvest. Women are allowed to participate only as support personnel, but a pregnant woman receives two shares, one for herself and the other for the child she is bearing. According to custom, individual hunters have to give some portions to the headman and elders. Fishing is done by dip, cast, or scoop net, and the Muong are experts in catching fish with bows as well as with knives. During floods, every family catches a large quantity of fish. Animal husbandry is limited to a few pigs, poultry, and a few buffalo for farming. Milking cows is still not popular.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Except for weaving cotton and silk clothes and making baskets for domestic use, handicrafts remain underdeveloped, necessitating dependence on Vietnamese traders and state cooperatives for all pottery, brass, and iron objects as well as other materials.

Division of Labor. The sexual division of labor is rigid and mechanical. Women are involved in transplantation, irrigation, weeding, parts of harvesting, rice husking, weaving, and food gathering. Children are often assigned the task of pasturing the buffalo. The male adults are engaged in plowing, digging, clearing bushes, threshing, hunting, making farm tools, and constructing and repairing the houses.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, the irrigated rice fields were communal and controlled by the hamlet/village headman with the support of a group of nobles belonging to their own clans. The headmen and nobility together occupied about two-thirds of the total irrigated-rice fields and redistributed the rest to the peasants, who were in turn obliged to pay certain dues in kind and to perform corvée in the fields reserved for the headmen and to maintain the local irrigation and drainage network. Whenever a commoner died without a male heir, his family automatically lost the right to land use, and even their cattle, cash, jewelry, and other precious belongings were seized and handed over to the aristocracy. Thus, the aristocracy consistently defended the principle of communal ownership of irrigated lands. The peasants, however, eked out a miserable existence.

In recent years slash-and-burn agriculture has been reduced greatly, but it was always subsidiary to farming maize, cotton, cassava, sweet potatoes, gourds, and pumpkins. Productivity is so low that a hectare of the best shifting land is inadequate to meet the minimum food needs of two adults. The corvées and dues imposed by the seigneurial administration of the past were shared equally by the concerned households. Now the peasants pay between 7 and 10 percent of their produce to the state. There are also bush-rice fields, constituting one-tenth of the total rice fields, which are individually reclaimed and owned by the peasants; but the yield is negligible and they not infrequently remain fallow. The terraced rice fields, sometimes prepared by taking soil from the valley, yield almost twice as much as the shifting lands. Small brooks irrigate these fields on the slopes of the low hillocks before flowing into a stream.

Following the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the last stretch of the Muong territory was liberated. Tribunals against headmen were instituted and the "land-to-the-tiller" campaign followed. Small mutual-aid teams were also established, wherein peasants retaining the individual lands helped one another by sharing the main agricultural tools, animals, and labor. By the mid-1960s, almost every Muong hamlet had formed an agricultural cooperative. This increased productivity through adoption of improved technologies. Soon the cooperatives got involved in animal breeding, tea growing, trading forest produce, rural credit systems, and small-scale industries, and they established schools, dispensaries, etc. Besides shifting lands, about 10 percent of land is left for private gardens where the peasants grow fruits, vegetables, etc., which have great free-market value. Since 1982, there has also been subcontracting of nearly half of agricultural tasks of cooperatives to production teams. According to this system, the households enjoy the right to sell in the free market any produce above the stipulated quota.


In traditional Muong society there was a strict hierarchical separation between the nobles and the commoners. Each village or hamlet headman belonged to one of the four dominant clans, namely, Dinh, Quach, Bach, and Hoang. They had the hereditary prerogative of ruling or administering the unit. Clan exogamy is followed strictly. The commoners, on the other hand, mostly carried the patronym "Bui." This is not a clan, but is something like a caste. Intermarriage among the Bui is common, as they are not necessarily relatives; intrahamlet marriages are frequent. Marriage is strictly forbidden in a patrilineage. Each lineage is divided into two branches, the elder and the younger. Lineage unity is maintained by a lineage head chosen from among those conversant with usage and custom. When any member of a lineage faces any difficulty, others tend to help without being asked. The beneficiary receives the assistance as a matter of right. During marriages, funerals, and other rites, gifts are made willingly to the household and the work is shared. Such reciprocal exchanges are more frequent among the commoners than among the nobility.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. A traditional Muong marriage was normally arranged by the parents, often contrary to the wishes of the partners concerned, and sometimes years before puberty. The groom's family supplied about 100 kilograms of pork, an equal quantity of alcohol, and a few silver coins. The only way to avoid such a system was the simulated elopement, which was, of course, rare and socially despised. It is of little wonder that most of the Muong tragic stories in verse concentrate on the theme of lovers being torn apart by arbitrary acts of the patriarchal and feudal system. Today, although arranged marriages still predominate, the consent of the partners is obtained before finalizing the marriage. Marriage for love is increasing and so also is intermarriage with the Thai, Vietnamese, Tay, and Meo. Bride-price has been reduced considerably. Divorce, though rare, is increasing. Widow remarriage is encouraged. Marriage between cross cousins is allowed while that between parallel cousins is forbidden. The levirate and sororate have fallen into disuse.

Muong are monogamous by tradition. A second marriage is performed only if the first wife has proved sterile. Of course the nobility and the headmen had more wives, as well as concubines, than did commoners.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is comprised of one couple and their unmarried offspring. The patriarchal and patrilineal family offered a privileged position to males; the women had to live in absolute submission without any right to family property. It was the prerogative of the eldest son to inherit at least two-thirds of his parents' property. Even the seating arrangements within the Muong house reflect gender, age, and social ranking. Children, irrespective of sex, are always pampered. The status of women has increased both within and outside the family. They neither have to lacquer their teeth nor wear a chignon before reaching the age of puberty; they still wear a rectangular white kerchief on their heads as a cultural sign. The traditionally timid, shy, and reserved Muong woman is now hard to find. In fact during the Vietnam War women effectively handled all agricultural tasks that were once the preserve of males and also participated actively in the guerrilla units. The political transformation, educational expansion, occupational diversification, and changed cultural ethos raised their status, albeit in a relative sense.

Sociopolitical Organization

The basic sociopolitical unit of the Muong was the quel. The long-established hamlets had boundaries defined not on the principle of consanguinity but on neighborhood ties, largely for joint exploitation of an ecological niche. Containing about fifty households, the hamlet had its own communal rice fields, hunting reserves, and shifting lands. For all local matters, the hamlet operated autonomously. Each hamlet was placed under the jurisdiction of a headman (tao ), who belonged to one of the four dominant clans. He held the hereditary right to redistribute communal rice fields and in turn received tributes and the unpaid labor of the commoners. With the help of the chosen nobility, he arbitrated quarrels that broke out between different family groups. A number of hamlets formed a village, whose headman was called long cun. A group of villages constituted a commune and was ruled by a subordinate chief, while a few communes together formed a canton under the control of a chief. Each of these political functionaries had several subordinate guards, servants, and notables. They were the administrators, tax collectors, judges, and military chiefs in their respective domains. A large number of myths indicate that the aristocracy originated from a different source than did the common man, and that every commoner should submit to his lord's authority and defend him in all circumstances in his own interest. This political system was maintained by the French colonial administration. It was only after the revolution of August 1945 that the system began to change. The authority of the headman was abolished and vestiges of the unpaid labor system liquidated.

In the past, greater age, superior clan, greater wealth, and male gender determined power and authority. Today the director of the cooperatives and the administrators of the communes are the key decision makers at the lower level. Muong peasants enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as do their former masters. Until 1975, they had their own administration in the autonomous regions. The administration of the communes is carried out by a committee elected by the people's council, which is elected once every two years, ensuring political equality.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Muong are mostly animists and believe in the existence of a multitude of spirits and in the transmigration of the soul. Spirits are thought to exert at will a benevolent or malevolent influence on human events. The religious universe is a vertical, three-tiered structure. The middle tier is the "flat land," which represents the terrestrial world. The upper tier is the "celestial land," the abode of the all-powerful ruler, the king of heaven. The spirits perform various functions under the king of heaven. The chief spirit maintains a register regarding that king's decisions on the fate of each soul leaving the earth. The influence of Taoism is obvious here. The lower tier is divided into two parts, one under the ground, which is in essence a miniature of the middle tier, and the other under water, the abode of snakes that can change their forms at will.

Ceremonies. The Muong have several cults, but the cult of ancestors is common. Almost all have a permanent altar dedicated to the souls of the dead members of the family. Food is offered on the death-anniversary days. An Earth Genius, who is supposed to ensure good health for family members and domestic animals, is worshiped. The cults of king, guardian spirit of the hamlet, and the spirit of the ancestor of the hamlet head are also worshiped. The cult of Buddha, a very rudimentary Buddhism, is contradictorily grafted on the archaic linga cult.

Religious Practitioners. The Muong also practice the occult through the shaman, who channels the reaction of the deceased soul. The sorcerer is still a healer and respected for his occult powers. Before treating the sick, he traces the malevolent spirit and performs a ceremony of exorcism. Muong also have a whole range of superstitions and taboos and a number of agrarian rites. Rice-planting season begins with the Khung Mua rites, entailing the sacrifice of a pig. The newrice harvest celebration is pompous; offerings of steamed fish are mandatory. The lunar New Year (Tet) is a great occasion for annual celebration, and so on.

With the dissemination of free and compulsory education, the relative improvement of living conditions, and the introduction of modern medicine, many superstitions have declined. The traditional roles of ong thuos and me thuoc (medicine man and woman) and priest-sorcerer are now insignificant. Sorcery and witchcraft have become things of the past. Accusations of being possessed by the devil are unknown. Feasting and religious rites organized during marriages as well as funeral and housewarming parties have been reduced to the minimum. Nonetheless, invocations to the genie, charms for treating illness, taboos concerning travel, absolute respect for superiors, and expensive marriages still prevail and constitute a serious impediment to sociocultural development.

Arts. The cultural policy of independent Vietnam has encouraged the aesthetic sense and manual dexterity. The unique house style, decoration and architecture, embroidery patterns, traditional costumes, delicious dishes, musical instruments, spicy popular songs, the famous sap dance, and the heritage of trust and cooperation are highly admired, renovated, and popularized across ethnic groups and in schools.

Death and Afterlife. Death is considered a passage of the soul of the deceased from this body to another. Every living person has ninety souls. Good souls transmigrate into the bodies of happy men, whereas bad souls enter into the bodies of the poor subjects and even those of animals. The Muong soul travels to the celestial land to hear the verdict of the king of heaven, and visits the ancestors with whom he or she will live and his or her hamlet to bid farewell. The notion of punishment is nowhere explicit, while affections for family and hamlet are reiterated.

In the past, the corpse was often left in the house for several days, up to twelve nights, until the near and distant relatives had arrived. The funeral required the sacrifice of an ox, buffalo, or pig, and feasting for several days by the relatives. The coffin carried the provisions for the dead man's journey into his new existence. The buffalo sacrifice was thought to send the draft animal to join the deceased and continue to plow for him. The funeral song, "The Creation of Earth and Water," recited by the shaman (po mo )a priest specializing in funeral liturgyrefers to the origin and evolution of the universe, to mythical ancestors, and to civilizing heroes. The long series of funeral rites only concludes after a few years. At present the rites are restricted and expenses are greatly curtailed.

See also Kmhmu; Vietnamese


Chi, Nguyen Tu (1972). "A Muong Sketch." Vietnamese Studies 32:49-142.

Coedès, Georges (1950). Ethnography of Indochina. Washington, D.C.: Joint Publications Research Service.

Cuisinier, Jeanne (1948). Les Muong: Géographie humaine et sociologie. Paris: Plon.

LeBar, Frank M., Gerald C. Hickey, and John K. Musgrave, eds. (1964). "Muong." In Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, 171-175. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Pathy, Jaganath (1985). "The Muong: A North Vietnamese Tribe in Transmutation." Eastern Anthropologist 38: 279-294.

Schrock, J. E., et al. (1966). Minority Groups in the Republic of Vietnam, 527-572. Washington, D.C.: Department of Army Headquarters.


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