With around 1 mio people, the H’Mông are one of the largest ethnic minority groups represented in Vietnam. The H’Mông mainly reside in the northern mountainous areas of the country, largely living from swidden agriculture and livestock farming, but also from trading activities with their counterparts living in the region. In the Mid 19th century, many of the H’Mông were pushed south of China after a failed insurrection and can now also be found in northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and even Myanmar. Due to the Vietnam War, there is also a significant number of H’Mông living in the US today.
Six sub-groups of the H’Mông live in Vietnam, namely the ´H’Mông trắng‘ (White H’Mông), the ´H‘Mông Hoa´ (Flower H’Mông), the ´H‘Mông Đỏ´ (Red H’Mông), the ´H‘Mông Đen´ (Black or Blue H’Mông), the ´H‘Mông Xanh´(Green H’Mông), and the ´Na miẻo´. These sub-groups are easily recognisable by the colours of the women`s traditional clothing.
The H’Mông have a distinctive culture, with strong customs and traditions that are still kept alive today.
The H’Mông are well known for both their silverwork and their creation of fabrics (particularly of hemp and the drawing of the batik pattern). Especially the women spend much of their time spinning, weaving and embroidering. Skills are passed on from mother to daughter. When a girl reaches a marriageable age, she wears her most beautiful clothes to the market or to social gatherings to show potential suitors the quality of her sewing.
Many of the crafts that can be found at the Tree Hugger have been made by the H’Mông. These are easily recognisable by the patterns of the embroidery, the blue batik patterns or the fabric (in Vietnam, hemp is only made by the H´Mông). Interestingly, the different sub-groups may specialise in the making of e.g. either batik or embroidery.
Although the methods used in the making of clothes have changed over time, with cotton and synthetic fabrics often replacing the use of traditional hemp fabrics, the elaborate decoration of distinctive skirts and jackets in the remote villages of Northern Vietnam is still prevalent today.
Batik is often simply described as a ´resistant dyeing technique´, which means: a pattern is drawn on a fabric with bees wax which was warmed up in a metal pot and with a little bit of indigo paste. Once it has dried, the fabric will be dyed (most likely with the indigo plant resulting in a blueish, sometimes black color). After the dyeing, the fabric will be boiled, releasing the wax and revealing the pattern on the fabric (a white pattern against the dye).
Depending on the difficulty and the detail of the pattern, it needs time and skills to draw with the batik pen - a bamboo pen with a copper nib - on the fabric. Motifs can refer from traditional symbols to objects or animals found in the natural environment.
Traditionally, the batik drawings were done on hemp cloth. Given that the fabric is less and less being made, cotton fabrics (both machine or hand-made/hand-woven) are used as an alternative.
Batik is also practiced in many other cultures around the world; it probably originates from Indonesia. In Vietnam, only the H’Mông create batik fabrics.
The H’Mông women are well known for their cross-stiching, appliqué and brocade techniques, usually consisting of geomatric patterns in bright colors ;).
Appliqué simply means that a piece of fabric is decorated on top of another piece of fabric (there may also be more than two layers). This may then be used as a decorative pattern on other fabrics.
Common motifs are e.g. the snail, plants or seeds or mountains.
A cross-stitched version of the snail pattern can often be found on the sleeves of traditional H’Mông clothes. The centre of the coil of the shell symbolizes the ancestors and the outer spirals are the successive generations. The H’Mông consider the snail as a peaceful and laid back creature, similar to the H’Mông lifestyle.
Brocade is a weaving technique, often identifiable by the usage of colorful silk threads which are ´supplemented´ to the actual weft. In the end, it would appear as if the fabric was embroidered on.
Indigo is a plant native to the toprics and it is one of the rare natural dyes still widely employed amongst the different ethnic groups in Vietnam. It is appreciated for its variety of shades, ranging from blue to black.
The dye is exracted from the leaves once these have been fermented and oxidise. This is done in different ways, but one way is that the leaves are soaked in a bigger claypot (or nowadays also often in a bigger plastic barrel) and left to ferment for ~3-4 days. The leaves are then taken off and the remaining green liquid will be stirred once in a while, to agitate the liquid but also to add oxygen which will then slowly turn the green into a blue.
Leaving it further, the liquid is ready for dyeing the first fabric ;). The cloth is held into the pot for up to half an hour, then rinsed out with cold water and hung up to dry. Indigo does not need a mordant to keep the dye on the fabric. The oxidation process alone will make the colour permanent. Depending on how intense the color should be (e.g. between a light blue and black), the dyeing process is repeated for many times over a period of up to a month.
H’Mông women that are dyeing are easily recognisable by their blue hands ;).
Hemp is a fibre made from the cannabis sativa plant (not containing THC). It has been cultivated all over the world for many thousands of years, but nowadays, there are only few places left in which its production is still done by hand. And so, in Vietnam, it is only the H’Mông still engaging in the growing of the plant and in the making of hemp fabric.
…making the fibre…
Hemp is grown on hilly sides, taking around 2-3 months to reach a height of ~2m and to be ready for harvesting. The hemp stalk is then dried for up to two weeks before it is broken in the middle, and the bark peeled away from the core…resulting in the first strips of fibre.
The connection of these different fibres is a long process and demands for a lot of patience ;): one by one, each strip is split 10cm from one end and another strip is inserted into the split. The two ends are twisted tightly together. To make the fibre stronger, it is spun on a wooden spinning wheel. The wheel (´che tu´) which is turned by pedaling, draws and twists the fibre from four balls of wet hemp onto four wooden chopsticks which serve as spools. The thread of one spool is attached to one arm of a four-armed horizontal bamboo frame (´khau ly´). The thread winds around the four arms as the frame is rotated…then, the next spool is attached.
…preparing the fibre for weaving…
Next, the thread is put in a hole in the ground with boiling coal-ash water for one night, and then boiled for a number of times until the fibre turns white. In the final boiling round, beeswax is added to make the hemp smooth. Then, it is dried and pressed. The spinning frame is used once more to stretch the fibre and to organize it into skeins.
…the weaving can start…
Finally, the hemp fibre is wound onto a bobbin (short bamboo stick) and then, a warp is strung on the loom. Traditionally, the H’Mông weave on a so-called backstrap loom and use only one foot to pull a single heddle. The width of the cloth is about 30cm to 35cm. When taken off the loom, hemp cloth must be washed repeatedly until it becomes as white as possible. Finally, it is pressed between a stone and a log to further make the cloth smooth and flat.
Hemp is sometimes considered as the crop for the future for its comparatively low environmental impact. It can be grown and processed without any chemical treatments and yields three times more raw fibre than cotton.
You will often notice that the H’Mông, especially the women, wear a fair bit of jewellery, including earrings, bracelets and necklaces/torcs. While these used to be made from silver and/or copper, nowadays, more lighter versions are made, mostly from aluminium. These weigh less and are more readily wearable…and indeed more affordable ;). Some amulets that are worn may also be worn to ward off bad spirits.
Houses of the H’Mông are directly built on the ground. They are usually made from planks of wood that are bound together, while the rooftop is made from grass or tree leaves. What the houses look like depends also on the wealth of the respective family; poorer households may rather use simple, light materials such as bamboo for the construction. Villages are established on light mountain slopes, nearby arable land and water sources.
The layout of the house depends on each H’Mông sub-group. The Green H’Mông e.g. built rectangular houses with one entrance, while the White H’Mông have L-shaped houses with two entrances.
H’Mông society is organised in patrilineal ´clans´, easily distinguishable by the different surnames. There are probably not more than 18 clans living in Vietnam. Children automatically become members of their father’s clan, as women change to their husband’s clan after marriage. However, they still retain their clan born in, meaning that they still keep their maiden name. It is taboo to marry within the own clan.
H’Mông are traditionally animists, i.e. they belief that spirits inhabit animals and other (natural) objects. Spirits of their ancestors and the surrounding environment are an important part of daily life. Every village has shamans, both men and women, who are called upon to communicate with the spirits, seeking their advice in times of illness and village adversity. Every house has an ancestor spirit altar where food and water is placed to please the spirit of the deceased (because they are still thought to influence one´s own life).
The language of the H’Mông in Vietnam is considered part of the Miao-Dao linguistic family, though indeed the many sub-groups have different dialects.