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Viet Nam’s Ethnic Groups Weave Color through the Country

by Tran Thai Thu Thuy

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Viet Nam is the home of fifty-four different ethnic groups, the larges being the Kinh (Viet). If you have seen Vietnamese wearing clothing vividly spun with color and stitched from corners of head scarves to the hems of skirts, you have probably seen the work of one of the ethnic minority groups. The art of decoration plays a significant role in defining each ethnic culture.

Viet Nam’s various ethnic groups use a variety of techniques to decorate fabric. Among the most common are weaving, appliqué (cutting fabric into different fragments and re-piecing them to form intricate geometric patterns), embroidery, batik and applying metal and beads. The choice depends on the ethnicity and sometimes involves several methods. Woven and embroidered designs are consistently popular; many artisans in each ethnic group display very high levels of skill.

Linguist describe Viet Nam’s ethnic groups by language family. For example, eight major ethnic groups (Tay, Thai, Nung, Lao, Lu, San Chay, Giay, Bo Y) belong to the Thai language family. Five major groups (Cham, Chu Ru, E De, Gia, Rai, Ra Glai) belong to the Austro-Polynexian language family. Four ethnic groups belong to the Viet-Muong group, and twenty-one to the Mon-Khmer group. Theses groups all tend toward weaving, whereas groups belonging to the Tibetan-Burmese and Hmong-Dao language families employ embroidery, appliqué and batick.

The Dao, an ethnic group in the northern highlands, use cotton for garments. The women fist dye plain fabric with indigo and embroider it before tailoring. They work on the “wrong” side of the fabric to create a design visible on the “right” side. Dao women learn patterns by heart because the designs are not drawn on the fabric. Each stitch requires precision to maintain a symmetrical composition and harmonious colors, and each design is unique. Designs may include geometrical figures, such as variations of an eight-pointed star, jagged lines, animals (dogs and birds) and plants (in particular, pines). The Dao also embroider human figures, which is rare among other northern groups. They often use the image of dogs and dogs’ legs because the dog god, Ban Ho is considered a totem.

The Hmoung, who also inhabit the north, use silk thread for embroidery and linen instead of cotton for material. The Hmong begin by weaving plain fabric, which they decorate, using three techniques: appliqué, batik and embroidery. The Hmong may be the only ethnic group consistently using a wide variety of techniques. Hmong women employ three common embroidering methods: cheo mui, a technique similar to cross-stitching; chain stitching, and luon soi (satin).

The most common method is cheo mui, The embroiderer may use one to three methods on various parts of the costume. Artisans use the cheo mui technique to embroider skirts, shirts, belts and aprons. Principal Hmong designs tend to be snails, S-shapes, buffalo footprints, silkworms or spinning wheels.

Lo Lo and Phy Law, two groups of Tibetan-Burmese language family, weave particularly rich designs. The Phu La embroidery patterns similar to those of the Dao, but the decorations are more complex. The Phu La is the only group to use natural beads – tree seeds – to decorate women’s shirts. Threads in red, white and blue created colorful motifs of striped patterns, geometrical figures, human figures and dogs’ legs. The Lo Lo mainly use appliqué. Embroidered figures may be alternated with appliqué, but this is only popular on women’s head scarves.

The Thai, Tay, and Nung, who also inhabit northern Viet Nam, are partieal to embroidered designs on bags or headscarves rather than on clothing. These groups also apply the luon soi technique but in designs simpler than those of the Hmong, Dao and Xa Pho. The Thai groups in Son La and Lai Chau Provines avoid decorating motifs on their garments; those in Hao Binh Province weave designs onto waist bands and skirt hems, while those in Nghe An decorate the lower halves of their skirts.

In general Thai women embroider designs on handkerchiefs, and especially on khan pieu, a long head scarf. Motifs in the shape of fish bones usually pattern the scarf ends. The Thai consider fish bone similar to the guot, a tree common in their area. They trim the head scarves with embroidery or with small round buttons called cut pieu. A normal Thai head scarf has only three cut pieu, but may have five if the head scaf is presented as a gift to an elder. Legend has it that the cut pieu trace back to ancient warfare between Thai women and men. Because the men were the presumed victors, a Thai woman traditionally presents the head scarf to a Thai man as her acceptance of this love; thus Thai women will spend a great deal of labor to create an exceptionally beautiful scarf.

The Viets decoration is different from other ethnic groups. They employ colors from across the spectrum in hues that are usually independent and rarely mixed. Formerly, embroidered designs decorated the clothing of the kings, mandarins and upper class families as well as the handkerchiefs of young women. Artisans drew designs before embroidering motifs linked to philosophical concepts.Common are four sacred animals – the dragon, tortoise, phoenix and unicorn – as well as four plants – the orchid, chrysanthemum, apricot, and truc (a type of bamboo). Chinese ideograms such as that for “longevity” frequently appear, as do geometrical figures including squares, diamonds, S-shapes and circles.

Most ethnic groups in Viet Nam rely heavily on embroidery and weaving as a means of cultural enrichment. Ethnic groups living in mountainous regions generally use more elaborate techniques and color than those living in the plains, showing that ethnic dress is clearly more than just body covering.

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