Hitchhiking Vietnam
life in vietnam
  • In Vietnam there are some 80 tribes speaking 36 languages.
  • The French called them "Montagnards" - highland people. The ethnic Vietnamese still often refer to them as "Moi" (often pronounced "meo") - savages. The government now officially labels them "national minorities". They call themselves by their ancient names - Hmong, Zao, Tay, Ming, Cua, Hre, M'nong...
  • Languages: The minorities are traditionally separated into their three main linguistic family groups - Austro-Asian, the Malay-Polynesian and the Sino-Tibetan.
  • Religion: ancestor worship, animism, a sprinkling of Protestantism and Catholicism.
  • Formal education: Not much. The Hmong, for example, didn't get a written language until 1963. Most Hmong girls don't go to school and only a few boys do. Most minority groups are largely illiterate. Particularly in the remoter regions they suffer from poor health, poorer nutrition, and lousy soul for cultivation.
  • In 1959 two regions in the northern mountains were established as autonomous ethnic minority areas. The privilege was taken away in 1980. The minorities are still largely left alone up north provided they yield to the sovereignty of the Vietnamese government and pay taxes (on a per capita average income of less than $50).

I have chosen to elaborate on the Hmong because I spent the most time with them. What follows is only a glimpse of the diversity and depth of these extraordinary mountain peoples.

The Hmong are thought to have migrated from their ancient homeland in Siberia and Southeast Asia. They have settled in the mountainous areas of Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. "Hmong" means "free people". This is the only name they call themselves. They do not see themselves as Vietnamese.

By some estimates, over half of the south Vietnamese Hmong population died during the war and subsequent flight to Thailand to escape genocide.

The Hmong are basically animist, believing that ponds, streams, rivers, hills, valley, and wind have individual spirits. They also worship their ancestors.

The Hmong believe that the body has three souls.

    In life...
    One stays with the body
    One wanders during sleep and causes dreams
    One protects the body from harm

    In death...
    One stays with the body in the grave
    The second goes to live with the descendants
    The third goes back to the spirit world and may be reincarnated

In death, the Hmong dress the deceased in their finest stitchery so that they will be recognized as Hmong of standing among the ancestors.

" That evening the sky flickered and glowed with the repeated flashes of a lightning storm behind the mountain, an unusual enough event to bring the local population out into the street to stare. The power blinked out and we were each issued the three-inch stub of a candle to help us to our rooms. By the end of the second day we still had no electricity and rumors were running rampant. The Chinese had launched a major attack on Lao Cai, and we were cut off and surrounded. Someone had gotten electrocuted stealing electricity from the high-voltage wires, and his fried body was twisting slowly in the breeze halfway down the mountain. The government was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon and had turned of the power to remind everyone of the privations of the war.

Most people in Sapa had never been to Ho Chi Minh city, and knew little of the circumstances surrounding its fall. They were well versed, however, in the art of the triumphal parade. The endless centuries of occupation and warfare had provided them with a smorgasbord of victories to celebrate, and they expertly twirled the three-inch communist flags between their fingers and bowed to the beribboned old men. Only the minorities had no idea what was going on, and stood off to one side with bewildered faces, or used the flags as hankies for the infants on their backs. As the grim-faced soldiers marched through the streets, it did indeed look like a conquering army, coming to claim its spoils."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam
Hmong folklore tells that during the time when the Hmong were enslaved by the Chinese they were forced to wear large circular locks around their necks for identification. The silver or tin necklaces they wear today are a remembrance of those times of hardship.
If a bird flies into the house and roosts - bad omen

If a snake enters - someone will die soon

The souls of the dead may appear as butterflies

Elephants lead dead spirits into the otherworld.

Without the protection of a hat, a child's spirit will escape from his head.

The bangles on the scull cap symbolize the rooster, a feisty protector from evil.

The children's caps are brightly colored so that a spirit looking down will mistake the child for a flower.

The Hmong do not like to travel alone - they believe that evil spirits populate uninhabited areas. A spirit of the road may cause a sprained ankle - or worse.

Sickness results when evil spirits lure the soul from the body. Strings are often tied around the wrist in a healing ceremony to confine the spirit inside one's body. Blessings are chanted as the string is tied.

It is considered unwise to fuss over a child since this will draw attention to it. Its spirit may be stolen as a result.
Touching a baby's head draws out the spirit, making it sick.

When a farmer chooses a new field, he waits for a sign to indicate that the site is a good one.
If he sees either a barking deer or wild pig then he abandons the site.

In planting, the first seed is "for the birds"

The second is "for the squirrels"

The third is "for the dead"

The fourth is for the farmer.


In the south you will be much more likely to see minorities dressed in old t-shirts and western pants. They have, through the government policies of "Vietnamization", lost a great deal of their culture.

In areas around Dalat in particular, you will be forced to pay large amounts of money for permission to see "model" minority villages. You are much better off visiting the minority cultures in the northwest of Vietnam.

In truly remote areas the minority population will be exceedingly shy.

The minorities are at the bottom of the ladder financially. They make almost everything they need to live and have virtually no spare cash. I often ran into women who thought a 50,000 Dong note ($4.80) was fake because they had never seen one before.

Many of the minority tribes make stunningly beautiful embroideries. They are now beginning to sell them to tourists. While this brings in sorely needed money for medicine and metal tools, it is also turning the village social structure on its head.

Opium is increasingly a problem among the poor Hmong.



Hanoi has a long-standing policy of pacification and integration of the minorities. They do this by:

  1. resettling ethnic Vietnamese in traditional Montagnard areas to dilute the local population.
  2. discouraging traditional slash-and-burn agriculture.
  3. forcibly promoting Vietnamese culture and language among ethnic minorities...


"The train to Hanoi filled up quickly; four and five passengers layered like canned sardines on seats meant for two. Just as the final whistle blew a dozen Hmong clambered on board. They squatted in the aisles, holding hands and chattering breathlessly amongst themselves.

All went well until the conductor came through, loudly demanding tickets. Every Hmong turned to look at the patriarch, who carefully loosened an animal-hide pouch and pulled out the flimsy tickets. The conductor snatched them away and examined them with an evil eye, then tossed them back and demanded an additional eight cents. I held my breath as the old man unfolded a pitifully small wad of bills and slowly counted out four fuzzy two-cent notes.

The conductor stomped off and the Hmong let out a collective sigh of relief. It was short-lived. The food cart appeared, piled high with exorbitantly priced candies and fruit and pushed by a Vietnamese boy. He used the metal-edged cart as a battering ram, shouting obscenities as he prodded the Hmong out of the way. I watched him conduct business up and down the aisle. With Vietnamese passengers he was polite, with Westerners obsequious and with the minorities imperious and rude. I began to understand why Vietnam's ethnic population kept themselves apart, refusing to learn the national language and customs, or even to use the public transportation system. Apparently the minorities saw foreigners as an extension of the Vietnamese; when I offered a Hmong woman with two infants my seat, she refused with a quick, grateful jerk of her head and stayed squatting on the floor."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam