Vietnamese Highlanders

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Vietnamese Highlanders

PRONUNCIATION: vee-et-nuh-MEEZ HI-land-erz
POPULATION: (Estimated) Tai, 1.4 million; Muong, 1.2 million; Thai, 800,000; Hmong Meo, 800,000; Nung, 700,000; Yao, 500,000; Jarai, 320,000; Rhade, 280,000; Bahnar, 180,000; others from 175,000 to 600 per ethnic group.
LANGUAGE: More than 12 languages
RELIGION: Animism; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 4: Vietnamese


At least 12% of the population of Vietnam is comprised of over 50 minority groups. Many of these (estimated 7%) are indigenous peoples who live in the highlands of Vietnam. These indigenous people are significantly different from the Vietnamese who occupy the lowlands.

The hill peoples of Vietnam have long been held in contempt by lowland Vietnamese. Their language, culture, and their appearance struck the lowland Vietnamese as strange and barbaric. The hill peoples had a reputation with the Vietnamese of being independent, nomadic, fierce warriors, and potent magicians. They were all so different from the Vietnamese, who viewed themselves as civilized and cultured.

Until the 20th century and even later, the Vietnamese referred to all highland people as "Moi." In the 19th century, French colonizers took over the same term. For both Vietnamese and French, the term "Moi" meant "savage." The ruggedness of the highlands only strengthened the reputation of the indigenous peoples as rough and strange, being a land that to the Vietnamese seemed to be inhabited not only by savages but by wild animals, strange diseases, and mysterious powers. Later, the French began referring to all upland people as Montagnards, meaning "mountaineers." This term was also used by the Americans to refer to the Central Highlands people, who fought alongside them in the 1960s and 70s. Some Central Highlands people refer to themselves collectively as "Degar."

The people of Vietnam's highlands consist of numerous ethnic groups, many with different languages and customs. They differ not only from the lowland Vietnamese but from one another, being distinguished by architecture types, color and design of dress and ornamentation, style of agricultural tools, social organization, and religion.

The origins of Vietnam's hill peoples are not clear. Some, like the Giay, Hmong, Lolo, Nung, San Chay, and Zao are probably descendants of peoples who migrated from southern China many centuries ago. Other groups are probably descendants of Malay lowlanders forced long ago into the Western hills by immigrants from China, or are related to the Th ai people of Thailand and Laos, who originated in southern China.

One group, the Muong, believe their people and culture originated in Hoa Binh Province in northern Vietnam. Other groups probably originated in the same area. Over time and with geographical dispersion and cultural isolation, these tribal groups gradually divided and became unique in many cultural and linguistic characteristics. Despite numerous similarities with their neighbors, the Thai to the west and the Vietnamese to the east, the Muong continue to exhibit many unique qualities.

In the 15th century and after, lowland Vietnamese moved south into Cham and Cambodian territory. To separate themselves from the highland peoples, their leaders, or Mandarins, established a military line along the frontier between the highlanders in the mountainous area to the west and the plains to the west and south. Except for some trade and tribute payments paid by the tribes to the Vietnamese, this military boundary restricted contact between the hill people and the Vietnamese lowlanders.

The coming of French colonizers to Vietnam affected the indigenous peoples in a limited way. Although the French administered the highlands separately from the rest of Vietnam, contact between the hill peoples and the Vietnamese increased. Along with French administrators came Christian missionaries to set up schools, hospitals, and sanitariums among the hill groups. Despite various French administrative attempts to govern the highlands, either directly through French officials or indirectly through tribal leaders, the net political effect of French rule was negligible. Most hill people remained isolated from the culture and institutions of lowland Vietnam. Th ose groups who did have contact with the French and their administrators resented exploitation by French administrators and farmers and wanted them gone.

The economic consequences of French rule were more deeply felt. The highlands of northern Vietnam were seen as a source of coal, while the central and southern highlands were suited to the introduction of cash crops. Entrepreneurs opened rubber plantations on land that had been used previously by the hill people to plant their rotating crops. These plantations of rubber and opium provided employment opportunities to highlanders as well as lowlanders. The French also set up extensive tea and coffee plantations, especially in the area inhabited by the Ede and Jarai. The introduction of new large-scale cash cropping led to increased trade with lowlanders for many hill people.

During the long Vietnamese war of independence against the French, indigenous ethnic minority people fought on both sides. The final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in the Northern Highlands came with the assistance of hill people who fought on the side of the rebelling Vietminh.

After French rule was concluded and Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel in 1954, administrative handling of the hill peoples changed. In the north, the Communist government recognized the desire of the minorities to be autonomous. To accommodate those sentiments, the government set up two independent zones for the highlanders and allowed them limited self-government. The government did so hoping the minority groups would eventually and without resentment be incorporated into Vietnamese society.

The South Vietnamese government, however, attempted to exert direct control of the minority highlanders, immediately angering them by taking some of their lands for the resettlement of Catholics, who had just migrated from the north. A number of highlanders were also moved from their traditional lands into strategic hamlets, fortified enclaves that were devised to deny food and assistance to the Communist soldiers in the south. Relationships continued with considerable conflict, with indigenous ethnic minority soldiers drawn into the war on both sides until the Communist conquest of South Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, American and Australian Special Forces troops joined with men from the Central Highlands to fight the Vietnamese Communists. These Montagnard troops were valuable allies, although they considered the South Vietnamese their enemies as well. After the Communists gained control of Vietnam in 1975, many indigenous ethnic groups of the Central Highlands suffered retribution for their support of the American war effort.

Since 1975, some highlanders continue their traditional lives, largely isolated from mainstream Vietnamese life. Most, however, are increasingly being incorporated into Vietnamese society. By 1986 over 40% of the hill people had adopted a sedentary lifestyle. That number has increased into the 21st century.

The hill people of the Central Highlands, feeling that their forest land was being encroached on by lowland Vietnamese loggers and plantation interests, held demonstrations in early 2001, calling for land rights protection and religious freedom. This was met with repressive measures by Vietnamese authorities, and in the years since human rights violations against the Central Highlanders, including imprisonment, torture, and executions, have been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international organizations.


Many indigenous peoples live in the highlands that cover two-thirds of Vietnam. The landscape in which Vietnam's hill peoples dwell is in startling contrast to the environment of the lowland Vietnamese, which is made up of vast cultivated deltas in the north and south joined by a narrow strip of cultivated flatland along the central coast. The irrigated rice fields, villages, and towns of the lowlanders are replaced by the forests and vegetation of central and northern Vietnam's plateaus and mountains, which stretch from the central coast plain inland to Cambodia and Laos. Here, the rugged hill country is interspersed with narrow deep valleys with luxuriant natural vegetation, many fertile soils, and a subtropical, monsoon climate.

In contrast to the densely populated flatlands of the lowland Vietnamese, the hill people are scattered sparsely through Vietnam's highlands. These highland areas include the Anna-mite Cordillera, a range of mountains and plateaus, and the Northern Highlands of northwest Vietnam.

In the Northern Highlands of Vietnam, the largest of the minority ethnic groups are the Tai, Thai, Nung, Hmong Meo, and Zao. This area, with a cooler climate than the rest of the country, has the market town of Sapa, which is a cultural center and tourist attraction. One of the larger groups in the Northern Highlands, the Muong, is located along a continuous area of land about 300 kilometers in length, stretching from Yen Bai Province to Nghe An Province. The area is comprised of narrow valleys lying in a mountainous area, with Vietnamese villages to the east and Thai settlements to the west. The area used to be covered with forest, but today much of this wooded cover is gone.

Over a million people live in Vietnam's Central Highlands. The largest number of Central Highlanders are the Jarai, the Ede (including the Rhade), and the Bahnar. Rhade subgroups include the Rhade Kpa, Rhade M'dur, Rhade A'dham, K'tul, Epan, Blo, K'ah, K'drao, and Hwing. The Monom or Bonom and the Hre live in the Central Highlands. The Rengao live in the Gia Lai-Cong Tum Province of the Central Highlands. They may be a sub-group of the Bahnar or Sedang.

Numerous other groups ranging in population from almost 100,000 to less than 100 inhabit either the Northern or Central Highlands. The Chrau are located in Dong Nai Province in Vietnam, and their subgroups include the Ro, Bajieng, Mru, Jre, Buham, Bu-Preng, and Bla. The Katu are located primarily in central Vietnam on the Vietnam-Laos border. The Bru in Vietnam are culturally and linguistically related to the nearby Kalo; in fact, the Kalo may be a sub-group of the Bru. The Ma, also known as the Cau Ma, are located in the highlands of Lam Dong, Dong Mai, and Thuan Hai Provinces in Vietnam. The Stieng are located in Song De Province.

Hill people, particularly those of the Central Highlands, have fled Vietnam as refugees, following the wars. Th ose who had aided the French were resettled in France. Other hill people who had fought alongside the Americans escaped to Th ailand and were then resettled in the United States or other Western countries. Many of those refugees, known as Montagnards or Degar people, live in North Carolina. In the early 20th century, hill people fleeing repression in the Central Highlands were forced back to Vietnam by Cambodia.


The languages of the hill peoples of Vietnam reflect the complexity of these ethnic groups. The hill ethnic groups speak more than 12 languages and many more dialects, divided into three major language groups. In northern Vietnam, for example, the language of the Tai is similar to the Thai language of Thailand, the Muong language bears resemblance to the Vietnamese language, and the Hmong Meo and Zao languages are dialects of Sino-Tibetan spoken in China. These languages reveal the various origins of the ethnic peoples of the hills.

Rhade subgroups, including the Rhade Kpa, Rhade M'dur, Rhade A'dham, K'tul, Epan, Blo, K'ah, K'drao, and Hwing, speak an Austronesian language. The Muong, on the other hand, speak an unwritten Mon-Khmer Austroasiatic language.

The hill groups were traditionally oral rather than literate societies, in which tradition and knowledge were passed on verbally rather than through writing. The Lahu language, for example, has no traditional script, and the Lahu people once used notched sticks, sometimes with chicken feathers attached, to communicate with one another. In the 20th century Protestant missionaries, Catholic missionaries, and Chinese linguists romanized the Lahu language, and the exposure of Lahu children to education has consequently increased.


The heroes and myths of the hill peoples are religious and familial in nature. Heroes are actual or fictional ancestors whose deeds and characteristics are passed down from generation to generation. Many of these heroes are considered to have originated particular clans and are respected, even worshipped, by their descendants not only as great people, but also as the founders of their tribal or descent group. The myths of particular groups relate to these founding ancestors. Other oral traditions relate stories of the spirits, landscape, animals, and plants of a group's environment and explain their surroundings, forming part of their traditional religious beliefs.


Most members of the highland peoples of Vietnam practice traditional beliefs, which they have followed for many centuries. These animist beliefs and practices, which vary significantly from group to group, center on worshipping natural phenomena. Highlanders believe that trees, lakes, storm clouds, forests, and thunder, among numerous other physical elements, have souls. They must be respected and appeased because, upset or irritated, they can cause enormous damage to human beings.

Most highland groups believe that spirits are basically capricious. Spirits are quick to take offense and to punish humans for the slights they perceive. Human beings must therefore take great care to propitiate the spirits, informing them of human activities, sharing with them information, food, and drink in the hope that the spirits will not take revenge on them, and quickly giving apologies and offerings if the spirits appear to have been upset. Other spirits, especially those of people who died unnaturally, are thought to be malicious. These spirits must be protected against, usually by purchasing the preventive or curative services of a shaman.

Among the Mnong, for instance, spirits rule everything in the world, including all domestic and wild animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. There are also the spirits of ancestors, heroes, and other legendary characters to be honored. An altar to the ancestors stands in the central living room of a Muong house. Shamans and other spirit-guides who preside over rituals and ceremonies that often include buffalo sacrifice, are extremely influential, acting as intermediaries between the multitude of spirits and human beings.

Many hill people have become Catholic or Protestant during their contact with Westerners. Catholic missionaries came to minister to the hill peoples of Vietnam in the 19th century and were quite successful in converting entire villages to Christianity. Catholic communities were known not only by their religious practices and the heath centers and schools established by the missionaries but by their prosperity. Evangelical Protestantism spread through the Central Highlands in the late 20th century. This was viewed as potentially subversive by the Vietnamese government and repression of the Christian churches in the hills took place in the early years of the 21st century.


Virtually all the holidays of hill people are religious celebrations. Rice-growing tribes celebrate annual agricultural rituals, especially the Festival of New Rice. Festivals are held to propitiate the spirits and exorcise evil spirits. The beginning of the lunar New Year is always an important festival. For hill people who have converted to Christianity, Christmas and Easter are major holidays.

Life-cycle events, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, are celebrated by families and villages. These are often major festivals involving multiple families and villages and considerable money and preparation.


Among most hill groups, infants and small children are greatly desired and are treated with great indulgence. Seldom reprimanded or hit, they are carried constantly by parents, siblings, or extended family members.

The children of most hill groups are socialized primarily by the immediate family, with assistance from extended family members and fellow villagers. By the time girls are five or six years of age, they are assisting their mother in the home and with younger siblings, and boys are assisting with garden duties and caring for the family's livestock. Among the Muong, for example, children often pasture the buffalo, spending their days with the buffalo and one another, returning with their animals to the village at night. By the age of eight or nine, both boys and girls are helping in the fields.

Many youth marry while they are still teenagers. Among the Lahu, for example, girls generally marry after puberty, when they reach 13 or 14. Boys marry a little later, at 16 or 17. Th is is the case because by the time most hill people have reached their early teens, they are fully socialized into adult life. By 13 and 14 years of age, boys and girls are acting as adults. After marriage, then, they have the skills to support their new family. The lives of adult hill people center on family, making a living, and dealing with the spirits or gods who rule the earth.

At death, ceremonies are held to help the soul of the deceased go to the afterlife. These consist for most people of prayers and ritual offerings held at regular intervals. For people who die unnatural deaths, special ceremonies must be conducted to exorcise their spirit to prevent it from doing similar harm to living relatives. Some tribal groups bury their dead, others cremate them.


For Vietnam's indigenous peoples, interpersonal relations are based on fairly strict rules of etiquette. Since most villagers have known one another since birth and will continue living with one another for years to come, people treat one another as extended family and try to avoid conflict in their everyday relations.

Greetings are important, for they assist villagers in acknowledging one another, keeping harmony, and preventing conflict. With strangers, most hill people are modest and reserved. With family and fellow villagers, they are more demonstrative. Always, however, there is an emphasis on getting along with one another. Men and women, even closely related, seldom display affection openly. Women, especially, must be respectful and cautious, particularly with strangers.

Visiting among hill peoples is a major activity and form of entertainment. Visiting between families within a village appears casual, but is less so than it appears. While neighbors go to one another's homes often and apparently without announcement, they are careful to go only at acceptable times. Visiting between villages is even more formal. While relatives may visit from one village to another fairly casually, visits by larger groups of people for ceremonies or festivals are arranged ahead of time as to place, time, and the obligations of both hosts and guests.

Young people usually do not date. Courtship may be brief and involve little contact between the future bride and groom in some groups, with parents or matchmakers doing most of the visiting and arranging. In other tribes, courtship may occur over years and involve relatively frequent contact between the couple. Usually, contact between young men and women is careful, supervised, and understood to be leading to marriage. In Christian villages, young couples may meet each other through church groups or activities.


Most hill groups live in areas remote from the lowland cities and towns and dense population of Vietnam. Their distance from the centers of Vietnamese life has isolated them also from many governmental services, including health and education. Tourism has brought more outside contact for the indigenous people of the Northern Highlands, but the Central Highlands are off-limits to foreign visitors, including most journalists and human rights investigators.

Health facilities remain much less available to hill people than to lowland Vietnamese and life expectancy is lower than among fellow countrymen. Most hill groups attribute illness and physical and mental misfortune to supernatural causes, especially spirits, and much health care centers on seeking to prevent and cure spirit action. Most illness and accidents continue to be dealt with through local healers rather than medical clinics. Most of the indigenous people have extensive knowledge of traditional medicinal plants and herbs, which are grown in backyard gardens or gathered in the nearby forest. Among some groups, in addition, community specialists are available to treat serious illness.

Highland villages have been traditionally the basic political unit of social life, autonomous and self-governing. Although the French installed an administrative system of districts and provinces, villages continued to be run as they had been. Today, Bahnar villages are governed by a headman, and neighboring villages are tied together into one administrative unit. Scholars speculate that traditional Bahnar village society may have displayed a class structure consisting of freemen, debtors, foreigners, and slaves. Other groups, such as the Stieng, traditionally have been more egalitarian. Each family constitutes the basic social and political unit, and there is no political organization at a higher level.

Everyday arrangements of space and activity reflected traditional hierarchy and continues to be the case for many groups. Among the Muong, the higher one's status, the closer he sits to the window and the portion of the house that looks to the upper valley. Lower status people sit on the opposite side, where the windows overlook the lower portion of the valley. Hierarchy is maintained even when eating, with men, elders, and those with higher status sitting in favored spots.

Many highlanders continue to live in housing modeled on the traditional and ancient styles of their ancestors. Most highlanders live in stilt houses. Muong houses, for example, stand on posts approximately 6 feet in height. A typical house is 5 to 15 yards in length, and 4 to 7 yards in width. The roof is thatched with elephant grass and the floor is made of wood and bamboo. The house is divided into two rooms by a shoulder-high bamboo screen. The larger room is a guest room, kitchen, and dining area. The smaller room is a bedroom and storage area where women spend much of their time. The rooms are reached by separate stairs. The front of the house is used by men, the back part by women.

The housing of the hill peoples reflects their social structure. Some groups live in longhouses with nuclear families each occupying a section with their own hearth. Rhade live in long-houses arranged along paths. Each nuclear family has its own apartment within the long house. In addition there are apartments also for older people and for women and their guests. Bahnar villages have large communal men's houses, well-built, and located in the center of the village.

In contrast, other hill groups live in single-family dwellings. The housing of the Lahu, a small group in northwest Vietnam, more closely reflects their emphasis on hunting and gathering. Their houses are temporary huts, sometimes just shelters from the wind, made of bamboo or wood and covered with wild banana or bamboo leaves. These huts must be rebuilt monthly.

Most hill people have few consumer items and live much as their ancestors did without the electricity, running water, cell phones, and appliances available to most lowland Vietnamese. The degree of contact with lowland Vietnamese determines the kind of transportation: the more contact, the greater the reliance of hill people on motor vehicles, motorbikes, and bicycles. For many groups still living in isolated villages, transportation is primarily by foot.


Families tend to be large, for most hill people continue to rely on their children to assist with household and subsistence activities. As their contacts with the lowland Vietnamese increases, along with the expense of educating their children and the availability of family planning and contraceptives, some highlanders are choosing to have smaller families.

Marriages tend to remain traditional. In many Muong marriages, for instance, the choice of a mate and wedding arrangements are made by parents, often before the youth reach puberty. The family of the groom gives large quantities of pork and alcohol and a few silver coins to the bride's family. Most Muong are monogamous, with second marriages allowed only if the first wife is unable to bear children. In the past, Muong nobles and headsmen often had more than one wife. As contact with lowlanders continues so does change in marriage and other patterns of family life. Intermarriage between the Muong and neighboring Vietnamese, Thai, and other ethnic groups is increasing, and more Muong parents today allow their children to decide on their choice of a husband or wife.

Many highlanders keep domesticated animals, such as buffalo, pigs, and chickens, but these are kept to trade, eat, or sacrifice on special ritual occasions. Dogs are kept by some for protection both from other humans and from wild animals. Some families keep cats as a countermeasure to rats.


The highland peoples of Vietnam weave their traditional clothing on homemade looms and often add colorful embroidery or appliqué work to the textiles. Each ethnic group has a different style of clothing and jewelry. Clothing is made of cotton woven with thousands of tiny patterns, with decorations such as silver hoops added. Just one outfit can take weeks to make. Some highland groups file their front teeth and practice tattooing just as their ancestors did. Men and women wear handmade jewelry of silver and brass, including bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.

The decrease in isolation from lowland Vietnam has resulted in the use of imported clothing, so that highlanders increasingly wear a combination of traditional and modern clothing. It is not unusual today to see a hill resident wearing a traditional loincloth, a European-style shirt, a Vietnamese conical hat, and a towel slung over his shoulders, or some other combination of the ancient and the new.


Some hill groups are primarily rice cultivators. Other groups primarily raise root crops, such as cassava, taro, and yams. Other important food crops include maize, eggplant, beans, sugar cane, and bananas. Rice and vegetable crops are supplemented by greatly valued meat either from domestic animals, such as pigs and poultry, or game and birds from the neighboring forests. Additional valued foods include fish and eggs. Every group has a method for making beer or rice wine from the products close to home. Rice wine and cassava beer are common and are consumed primarily on ritual or life-cycle occasions.

Because modern appliances are few and packaged goods a rarity, much time and energy goes into the growing, preservation, and preparing of a family's daily meals. Women are primarily responsible for everyday food preparation, while men often bear the responsibility for making alcoholic beverages and cooking ritual foods.

Food is vital among hill peoples, not only for sustenance but for ritual. Virtually every ritual includes an offering of food and drink to the spirits and a communal feast by the participants. A sacrifice of a valued animal, such as a buffalo or pig, marks an important ceremony. Buffalo are kept primarily for ritual sacrifices and become the central food at religious festivals.

Food taboos are common among the hill ethnic groups and vary considerably according to group, age, gender, and situation. Pregnant women, women after childbirth, or hunters may be required to consume or refrain from consuming particular foods for specific periods of time.


Schools and teachers from the lowlands are increasingly available for highland children. Government schools usually teach children in Vietnamese, rather than local languages. Few people from the highlands have gone on to university education.


The hill people play music for religious purposes, on life-cycle occasions, such as marriage and funerals, and for popular entertainment. Among the Mnong Gar, for instance, the people gather on the first day of the new year to assure the spirits that they will fulfill the promises they have made by sacrificing buffalo and pigs to honor the spirits of the soil. After blessing the musical instruments, an older man leads the young men playing instruments in and out of each village house, playing, praying, and conducting rituals to protect the villagers in the future. Music is a major form of entertainment. Instruments include flutes, mouth organs and harps, and percussion instruments, most made from bamboo, as well as modern guitars. Traditional bronze drums are not only musical instruments but a symbol of wealth and status used in important community ceremonies. Some of the old songs feature elaborate poetic verses.

The literature of the hill peoples has traditionally been oral, consisting of the myths, legends, stories, and entire body of group knowledge passed on from generation to generation. In the absence of writing and modern entertainment, youth learned the beliefs and events of their past from their elders, in turn passing them on to their children.


The hill people of Vietnam are either sedentary or nomadic. Sedentary groups, which are more populous, are primarily wet rice cultivators. Some are engaged in growing crops for outside sale.

Nomadic groups, on the other hand, are farmers growing their own crops with the swidden method of cultivation. After finding a good garden area, the men cut the trees down or cut them severely enough so that they die. They then set the fallen trees on fire until the trees and brush cover have been reduced to ash. The ashes help enrich the soil in which sticky rice, root crops, and other crops are then sown. The hill men tend their crops and harvest them over the next two to four years using hand implements. When the soil loses its nutrients, the group moves on to establish new garden areas, following the same slash-and-burn techniques. After a few decades, the original plot of soil has regained its nutrients and can again support crops. In that way, the hill people move through the forest over the years, stopping to build a village in which they live for several years, and moving on when the soils are exhausted to reestablish a village some miles away near their new gardens. Because of the small population groups this has usually had little impact on the forests. However, in recent years forest cover has decreased greatly in Vietnam, due to timber cutting and conversion of forest to large-scale agricultural use. Central Highlands groups have accused the lowland Vietnamese of forcing them off their ancestral lands in order to log the forests and convert the hills to massive coffee plantations for international export.

The Rhade primarily raise rice, which they cultivate in highland swidden gardens or rice fields. When they are fortunate enough to cultivate rice fields, the Rhade usually obtain two harvests each year. Among the Rhade, kitchen gardens are placed behind the house. There, Rhade women cultivate vegetables, spices, and medicinal plants. Their most important kitchen crop is corn. Each village has its own bamboo patch, which is considered sacred. The Mnong also have upland rice as their staple crop. In addition, they cultivate maize, eggplant, taro, yams, beans, sugar cane, bananas, and other fruits, vegetables, and tobacco.

In addition to horticulture, hill people also raise a few domestic animals, including pigs, poultry, and buffalo. Among the Lahu, for example, pigs are the most important domesticated animal, but chickens are everywhere. They also raise ducks and geese. The Mnong are noted for trading pigs and poultry for buffalo.

Men hunt game and birds in the surrounding forests. Muong men hunt with guns, crossbows, traps, snares, and nets. Men organize communal hunts on festival days. A successful hunt is seen as a good omen for the rice harvest. In addition, Muong men fish with scoop nets, lines, bows, and knives.

Women do most of the vegetable and herb gathering. Muong women collect edible tubers, leaves, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, vegetables, berries, and fruit. When food is scarce, they gather breadfruit and eat it as bread. They also collect wood for fuel, materials for building houses, medicinal plants, and other products such as feathers and skins for trade. As the forests decrease under pressure from plantations and timber cutting, these resources are decreasing for the highland peoples.


Children who attend school may also play competitive games, such as soccer or volleyball. This is increasingly the situation, as more and more children of the highlands are sent to Vietnamese public schools.


Children still spend many nighttime hours listening to the stories and legends of their people. As they sit around their homes in the evening, they may listen to a story from a grandmother, an ancient tale from an older man, or hear the hunters relate their hunting experiences.

The highland peoples rely on singing, dancing, and instrument playing for much of their entertainment, but radios and CD players now bring Vietnamese pop music to the hills, and market towns have movies to watch on disc, as well as Vietnamese television. Some highland folk music has been recorded to be sold in Vietnam and overseas.


Hill women weave clothing such as skirts and blouses for themselves, loincloths and jackets for their men, and blankets, and embroider or appliqué these items. Men weave mats and baskets and make jewelry, as well as agricultural, hunting, and gathering tools. Hill people make a number of musical instruments which include gourd flutes, mouth harps, guitars, and banjos. They buy most other domestic items, such as pottery and metal objects, from lowlanders. Textiles and baskets may be traded for such goods, or sold directly to tourists in northern market towns like Sapa.


The indigenous ethnic groups of the highlands continue to struggle for more autonomy from the lowland Vietnamese. They continue to be viewed by many lowlanders as inferior, with strange customs that are best abolished. The Vietnamese government remains suspicious of the loyalty of the Central Highlanders and their religious beliefs, which the government associates with efforts by exiles and dissidents to undermine the Communist state. Land rights remain tenuous for many of Vietnam's indigenous people and their forested mountains are being taken over by powerful economic interests, as Vietnam joins the global marketplace. Indigenous people in the Northern Highlands interact with the tourism industry, causing cultural changes, while those in the Central Highlands are isolated and have suffered persecution.


Hill people in Vietnam tend to observe a strict gender division of labor. Women have the primary responsibility for domestic chores, child care, carrying water, and looking after the domestic animals. They also gather food and weave. In agricultural villages, they are also involved in some rice cultivation chores such as transplantation, irrigating, weeding, harvesting, and husking. Men normally do the hunting and the heavy agricultural tasks. They clear the ground, plow, and thresh. They also make and repair tools and build and repair houses. Village leadership tends to be male, although women, especially elders, participate in decision making.

Among many groups, descent is matrilineal and by clans. While political power is held by men, women control family property and inheritance is passed through females. Residence patterns after marriage reflect kinship arrangements. For instance, among the Rhade in the Central Highlands, young couples live with the wife's family, reflecting a matrilineal emphasis.

The children spend much of their time assisting their parents in hunting, gathering, and cultivation. They follow traditional gender roles in those ways. Boys learn from an early age to help their fathers and their play centers on learning to do what their fathers do. Village boys practice with tiny bows, shooting small animals, trying to catch birds and fish, and in numerous ways imitating the activities of their elders. Girls, also, learn from their elders, assisting their mothers and other village women in caring for smaller children, looking after the house, and preparing food.

The indigenous cultures and pervasive Christian religious beliefs emphasize male/female marriage and tend to disapprove of gay, lesbian, or transgender relations and identities.


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— revised by E. Mirante

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Vietnamese Highlanders

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