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Commonly known as 'hill tribes', a mosaic of ethnic minorities inhabits the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Encountering these hardy people in their mystical mountain homeland is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a visit to Vietnam. Many of the minorities wear incredible costumes and this isn't just a day job. So elaborate are some that it's easy to believe minority girls learn to embroider before they can walk. Even the architecture is individual and most minority houses are raised on stilts and finished in natural materials, in tune with their environment.
The French called these ethnic minorities Montagnards (highlanders or mountain people) and this term is still used today. The Vietnamese traditionally referred to them as moi, a derogatory term meaning savages, which reflects all too common attitudes among lowland majority Vietnamese. The current government prefers the term 'national minorities'. There are more than 15 separate groups.
The most colourful of these minorities live in the northwest of Vietnam, carving an existence out of the lush mountain landscapes along the Chinese and Lao borders. Many of the minorities in the central highlands and the south can he difficult to distinguish, at least by dress alone, from other Vietnamese.
While some of these minorities number as many as a million people, it is feared that other groups have dwindled to as few as 100. Some hill-tribe groups have lived is- Vietnam for thousands of years, others only migrated south in the past few hundred years from China. In some ways they are 'fourth world' people in that they belong neither to the first-world powers nor to the developing nations. Rather, they have crossed and continue to cross national borders, offen fleeing oppression by other cultures, without regard for recent nationhood. They inhabit a world that falls beyond the boundaries of moderm nation stales. The areas, inhabited by each group are often delineated by altitude, with more recent arrivals at a higher altitude. First come, first served even applies tothe remote mountains of the north.
Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs. Language and culture constitute the borders of their world. Some groups are caught between medieval and rnodern worlds, while others have already assimilated into moderm life.
Most groups share a rural, agricultural lifestyle with similar village architecture and traditional rituals, couple with a long history of intertribal warfare.Most hill tribe communities are seminomadic, cultivating crops such as rice and using slash and burn methods,which have taken a heavy toll on the environment.The government has been trying to encourage the hill tribest to adopt standard agriculture at lower altitudes, including wet rice agriculture and cash crops such as tea and coffee.Despite incentives such as subsidised irrigation, better education and health care,the long history of independence and a general distrust of the ethnic-Vietnamese majority keep many away from the lowlands.
As in other parts of Asia, the traditional culture of so many of Vietnam's ethnic minorities is gradually giving way to a variety of outside influences.Many no longers dress in traditional clothing and those who do are offen found only in the remote villages of the far north. Often it is the women of the community who keep the costume alive, weaving the traditional clothes and passing the knowledge on to their daughters.While factors such as the introduction of electricity, modern medicine and education improve the standard of living, they have also contributed to the abandonment of many age - old traditions.
A more recent, and equally threatening, outside influence is tourism. With growing numbers of people travelling to see the different ethnic minorities, increased exposure to business-savvy lowlanders and ever greater commercialism, it is a situation that could get worse before it gets better. It has resulted in some children, particularly in Sapa, expecting hand-outs of money or sweets. Worse, domestic tourism has created a market for karaoke, massage and sex, and in some areas unscrupulous ethnic-Vietnamese are luring minority women into this trade (see Prostitution). See Tread Lightly in the Hills, for tips on minimizing impact.
Vietnam's hill-tribe minorities have .substantial autonomy and, though the official national language is Vietnamese, children still learn their local languages, though this can vary from group to group (see Hill Tribe Languages, for useful phrases). Taxes are supposed to be paid, but Hanoi is far away and it seems that if the Montagnards don't interfere with the political agenda, they can live as they please. But if they choose to interfere it's a different story, as shown by the harsh suppression of demonstrations in the central highlands during 2001 and 2002 over language rights in schools and against the Vietnamisation of their culture,While there may be no official discrimination system, cultural prejudice against hill-tribe people helps ensure they remain at the bottom of the educational and economic ladder. Despite improvements in rural schooling and regional healthcare. many minority people marry young, have large families and die young. Put simply, life is a struggle for most of the minority people. Here we profile some of the better known minority groups in Vietnam, including those that many visitors will encounter on a journey into the mountains.
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The Hill Tribes