Home Feature Side Story Shopping About Us

A girl wearing an aizome (indigo dyed) dress. In the basket are textile dyed deep natural blue.
Standing in the middle of the paddy field where the river flows, a girl stands making hademade paper.
Visit to the Minority Mountain Tribes
in Northern Vietnam

In December 1999, the “Research Study on Traditional Arts and Crafts of the Northern Mountain Vietnamese Tribes” was conducted as one of United Nations Industrial Development Organization’s, (UNIDO) project. The research party was composed of 6 members. Together with cultural anthropologists and NGO (Non-governmental Organization) research scholars, the writer, Yokoyama visited number of hill tribe villages in the Northern Mountains in Vietnam. The main objective of the research study was to find out what traditional handmade works, especially craft works were still being made, and remained a part of their daily lives.

Heading north from Hanoi, travelling for approximately 300 km in a jeep on a bumpy unpaved rough road for 8 hours, we finally reached a little village called Cao Bang. The scenery gradually changed as we traveled further into the mountain. We were soon surrounded by paddy-fields on what looks like giant steps on the side of the mountains. The beautiful nature stretching before our eyes seemed like something from hidden paradise. (photo 1)

It was very encouraging to have Dr. Lan, who was very familiar with the local villages, guide us through the country side. My mission was to see what variety of handcraft and arts are being made today, and to find a system with these handcraft products as a source of income into the village. Their houses are formed as clusters here and there. Their dwelling is upstairs, and the ground floor is where they raised and kept their pigs. Many of the houses did not have any electricity and any running water. The average annual income is approximately 20,000 to 30,000 Japanese yen, coming mostly from farming, and finding another means of earning other than from their fields is imperative. The merchandise development and sales of handcraft works is one means of stable income that is being seriously considered.



The population of Vietnam can be divided into a major group called The Kinh and 53 ethnic minority groups. The majority of these ethnic groups, 50 of the ethnic group live in the mountains near the Chinese border in the North. We visited some of the ethnic people, The Tay, The Nung, and The Nung An. By visiting their villages, we were able to see handcrafts such as woven tapestries, bamboo works, dye works, handmade paper, incense, and ceramic being made. The people were very friendly, and at the Na Gian market, we met young women dressed in traditional ethnic costumes, who although bashful at first agreed to take a picture with us. (photo 4)

The market was an extremely lively place. Pigs and chicken, riches of the soil, tea leaves, plant roots for herbal medicine, knives, fabric, and bright colored daily utensils brought in from China were displayed, one on top of each other, and allowed us to take a glimpse into their lifestyle. (photo 5)


We had our meals in the small cafeterias in the villages. Food were mostly fried (braised) in Chinese woks, and the tasty soup with numerous different ingredients, and noodles very much suited our palates. Although the unaccustomed way in which meals were being prepared does restrain us a little from being too adventurous, the dishes were seasoned with soy sauce, and did not make us homesick, longing for food from home. (photo 6).




The history behind traditional craft works was very much influenced by the history of Vietnam. Vietnam was dominated by China, controlled by the French colony and also suffered from the history of many wars. Consequently, although handicrafts continue to be a part of their daily lives, many of the traditions, the techniques and materials could not be strictly handed down through the generations. In addition, the high quality traditional arts were hindered greatly by the absence of hierarchies or conglomerates or other influential persons from high class society, who could support them as patrons, and encourage these traditional skills to be carefully passed down through the generations. Today, they face another challenging issue concerning procurement of materials. One of them is related to the forests which today, is threatened as timber continue to be cut down, as wood is essential fuel for living, and strict measures to manage and preserve forests are not being taken. Harvesting of Kozo trees (low deciduous tree of the mulberry family) necessary for handmade paper, cultivating cotton for textile weaving, the ability to secure material for the preservation and development of these art crafts is a critical issue. We also observed that the silk and cotton used to dye with natural dye in the past, were replaced today by moderately priced, easily available synthetic fabric from China. A woman in her 60’s showed us her “futon cover”, which she prepared long ago when she got married. From the dimly lit corner of the house, she brought out the cover, and the colors were faded and soiled, however, the detailed weaving and the tones of natural vegetable dye colors were beautiful, expressing the passion in which she prepared this cover in her younger years. (photo 9)


In these local villages, the custom for the woman to weave futon covers when preparing for her wedding still remains. Today, however, these precious weaving are being replaced with bright fabric woven with bright red, yellow, and green colored yarn, dyed with synthetic dye from China. In our eyes, although the colors may be faded, the old traditional style was more beautiful. We do understand, however, how it can not be helped that the people found the covers decorated with combination of vivid colors much more attractive, especially in rooms where one had to strain his eyes to see even during the daytime.



The bamboo weaving that we saw were remarkable both in techniques and form. They can be seen in these photographs (photo 10,11,12). During our research visit we were not able to see the baskets actually being fabricated by the skillful hands. With our limited time, the study on how these magnificent bamboo baskets are being made and sold could not be conducted, and was left as one of our issues for our next research visit. The long distance of 300 km, of over 8 hours by car, isolating the village people living under harsh circumstances, separating them from the consumer place, is a great obstacle to the possibility of sales outside the villages. The sales within the local villages are also a difficult task, as the people make only a small earning.


The village disappeared into the cloud of sand dust formed by the jeep carrying us away from the village. As we passed by little children walking on the endless road, carrying fuel wood tied with ropes around their forehead, I strongly felt the need to do something. While preserving their culture, find the means to provide a reasonable, sanitary, and convenient environment for food, clothing, and shelter for these ethnic village people. I returned from this trip, with a strong feeling that the continuation of the research study and realization of project goals conducted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), calls for the aide of numerous other people willing to share their wisdom and expert knowledge.

(by: Yuko Yokoyama)



(C)Copyright 2000 Johmon-sha Inc, All rights reserved.


(C)Copyright 2000 Johmon-sha Inc, All rights reserved.
Back to Index