The Montagnards (meaning highlanders or mountain people) are the hill tribes of central and northern Vietnam. Vietnam is home to over 54 ethnic minorities, the term Montagnards was coined by the French and is still widely used today. They were also known as, Moi (savages) in precolonial times before educated classes traveled into the interior.

During the American War the Montagnards were widely recruited as fighters by both North and South Vietnamese and much of their land was destroyed. Consequently, their autonomous existence ended after the war.

The Muong, K'ho or Koho, Hmong, Ede (Rhade), Chill, Maa, Mnong, Ba Na, Chinh, Tai and Jarai are just a few of the tribes found in these highlands.

Tribes in the highlands scratch a living from farming (growing rice, coffee, black beans and sweet potatoes), as well as produce charcoal, which is seen as an undesirable occupation by the Vietnamese. Many of these groups are semi-nomadic, practicing slash and burn methods of farming. Unfortunately, this has caused considerable damage to the environment. Presently only 21% of Vietnam's land remains forested after the unchecked gathering of fire wood and routine clearing of land.

Most Montagnards indulge in a tipple of rice wine, which consists of a jar with multiple straws protruding from every side, that can be shared simultaneously by many drinkers. It is considered an insult not to join them when asked.

Many of these tribes sacrifice cattle for almost any special occasion (such as funerals).

 

Two tribes, the Koho or K'ho and Chinh live together in Chicken Village just outside Dalat.

The old woman on the left wears the distinctive clothing of her tribe.

Each tribe has its own unique style of dress, although nowdays many tribes have assimilated into Vietnamese society and no longer wear traditional dress.

 

The K'ho here are extremely poor, as is evidenced by their ragged clothing. 

Note: You can see by their western style dress that many Montagnards are continuing the process of assimilation being forced on them by the dominate culture that surrounds them.

Cultural differences are not always tolerated.

 
The tribes people in this village only came back after having fled the collective lifestyle pushed on them by the communists after the war. Many of the men illegally cut down timber in the highlands. For a while they practiced nomadic slash and burn agriculture in the surrounding hills until they were encouraged by the government to return to this permanent site.

K'ho woman stands in front of her modern house. In the old days they would have lived in huts with bamboo walls and thatched roofs raised on pilings.

Some still do, but you have to look harder to find them in remote areas.



Dr. Poremba demonstrates the diminutive stature of the K'ho (or Koho), one of Vietnam's minority groups.
Dr. Poremba is only 5'5" tall.

The Koho live quiet, separate lives away from the main stream, Vietnamese society.

 
These tribes are fiercely independent and are generally mistrustful of the Vietnamese, consequently few venture to the lowlands.

 
There is a K'ho language, but Vietnamese is spoken in the schools due largely to the government's policy of assimilation. However, most minorities still speak their native dialect. 

 
The tribes people selling the tapestries don't actually live in Chicken Village but come from outside the village. The weavings sold here are mostly K'ho and Cham. These skilled weavers were very proud of their craft and were pleased when I bought several blankets and scarfs.

 
Unfortunately, the income generated didn't contribute to the surrounding village economy. To conclude our transaction, we shared tea under their canopy, then took a tour of the village given cheerfully by one of the vendors.  



Mnong, Muong, Ede and Jarai


The Mnong belong to an Austroasiatic group and speak Mon-Khmer languages. The Jarai belong to an Austronesian racial group and speak Malayo-Polynesian dialect.

The Jarai are known for their "stringed gongs" and indigenous musical instruments like bamboo tubes. The Jarai practice animism where they pay respect to ancestors and nature through genies (yang), who take the form of carved animal spirit sculptures. Jarai women propose marriage through a matchmaker, offering a potential groom a copper bracelet. The Ede women also make marriage proposals in the same way, the husband then lives with the wife's clan and the children take the wife's family name. They live communally in large boat-shaped long houses.

The Mnong and Ede are matriarchal societies. Each household is actually controlled by a woman elder who is responsible for community affairs. Husbands are purchased by mothers for their daughters, and a dowry is usually offered. In the old days, the dowry would have consisted of gongs and jars which are prized by the hill tribes and regarded as their wealth.

The Muong's rich culture is known to write folk literature, poems and songs. Each muong (or village) and its lands is overseen by a noble family (via its lineage), who extracts labor and taxes through usage from the rest of the villagers. Unlike the Mnong, Ede and Jarai, their society is male-dominated.

 

 
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For more information you may contact us at the following addresses:

rwalsh@salemstate.edu
bporemba@salemstate.edu

This page and its contents copyrighted © 1999 by Richard T. Walsh and Dr. Barbara Poremba



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