There are many different names being used to describe the H’mong people in Vietnam, such as Meo, H’mong, Mieu and so on…. But the H’mong people, from the past to now, and in wherever, call themselves as “Mong” – without pronouncing the “H”.
The early history of the H’mong is said to date back to the end of the ice age, as the H’mong legend says that they came from an extremely cold land, where darkness lasted for 6 months and the light lasted for 6 months. One day, there was a H’mong hunter and his dog pursuing the prey in the snow, he ran out of food and so he returned home to get more food without his dog.
Coming back to the snow with more food, the hunter met his dog on his way. He kisses the dog and discovered that there were strange seeds on his fur. At that time, though the H'mong people believed that the whole world was explored, strange particles led them to China.
In their burial "directions" ceremony today in northern Vietnam, the dead is instructed to return to their ancestors. It is believed that the dead leave this world to return to their roots, which is an extremely cold place. The ice age finally ended about 10,000 years ago and it happened at the same time as the birth of modern people.
In Vietnam, H'mong people have a population of around 1 millions people, ranking sixth in the list of our 54 ethnic groups. They first migrated to Vietnam about 300 years ago, here they have been known with 5 sub-groups: Black H’mong, White H’mong, Blue H’mong, Red H’mong, and Flower H’mong, accordingly to the color of their daily costumes. Each group has its own nuances, such as dialects, customs and women’s clothing. Most of them can be found in their villages in Sapa, a famous destination in northern Vietnam.
The Black H'mong group is identified by the deep black indigo-dyed base fabric of their costumes, which is usually made of natural hemp. They are often embroidered with red, purple, blue, white, green trims and hand embroidery with knotted motifs. Elements of their look include leg wraps, coat, an embroidered apron type piece at the front and back, embroidered arm embellishments and tied back hair or hat.
The H’mong language is a set of mutually understandable dialects of the H’mong-Dao linguistic family, which are spoken in mountainous areas of southern China. It is unknown whether a H’mong writing system existed in history or not, but their stories say that they lost their scripts during their wars against the Han people.
The H’mong people are living on steep and high mountains, where soil and water for planting is limited so they have only one crop of rice each year. Beside forming gorgeous rice terraces, H’mong people also grow maize, vegetables, legumes, hemp, and cotton. H’mong handicrafts are highly developed, particularly their weaving and metal works.
The vast majority of dishes that make up the H’mong cuisine today are not actually unique to H’mong people, but rather blends of culinary dishes found in hosting states of H’mong migration. While remaining stateless after their expulsion by the Chinese, the H’mong have adopted staple dishes from various cuisines during their migration as their own, such as dishes of the Lao, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines.
As the H’mong language was not widely written until the 1950s (H’mong language did not become alphabetized until 1950), H’mong cuisine has been, until recently, passed on by elders of the community. Any actual H’mong dishes are purely of oral tradition, and can vary from clan to clan or family to family.
H’mong people typically eat three meals a day and do not usually snack in between meals. Each meal is usually eaten with a variety of vegetables, hot pepper and boiled or fried meat if it is available. This is due to the common shortage of ingredients throughout the migrant past of the Hmong. This is something that has been accepted and embraced by the Hmong.
Men Men or Steamed Corn Cake, made of small-grain corn which is grinded twice with a stone mill to be smooth. They splash some water into the corn flour to form the cake, but not to make it sticking, then the cakes are steamed until the aroma rises when they know the corn is ripe, they take them out and eat all day.
Meals of the H’mong people are not sophisticated, even during their big holidays like New Years. For a party for example, they often prepare smoked pork, steamed corn cakes, mustard green, roasted chilies to make salt in the meal.
Many H’mong still follow the tradition of taking herbal remedies. A common practice among the H’mong women is following a strict diet after childbirth. This consists of warm rice, fresh boiled chicken with herbs, lemon grass, and a little salt. It is believed to be a healing process for the women. For 30 days, she will stay on this diet in order to clean her body from the leftover blood and avoid future illness.
Coining or Spooning is another form of treatment that involves using the edge of a silver coin or spoon to scrape the surface of the skin. The process begins by applying tiger balm onto the body areas, that will be scraped to supposedly help open the pores on the body and supposedly release toxins.
Sub-groups of the H’mong people are distinguished by the color and details of their clothing. Black H’mong wear deep indigo dyed hemp clothing that includes a jacket with embroidered sleeves, sash, apron and leg wraps. The Flower H’mong are known for very brightly colored embroidered traditional costume with beaded fringe.
Embroidery and Textile Art
H’mong textile art consists of bold geometric designs often realized in bright, contrasting colors. Different patterns and techniques of production are associated with geographical regions and cultural subdivisions within the H'mong community. For example, White Hmong are typically associated with reverse appliqué, while Blue H'mong and Black H'mong are more associated with batik.
After the fiber is spun into thread, it is packet into rolls and pounded in a mortar for half an hour. This eliminates knots and makes the thread easier to weave, then the rolls of hemp fibers are boiled 3 times in water mixed with ash, and after each boiling the fiber is washed. Some beeswax is added to the 3rd boiling to make the hemp fiber whiter, smoother and stronger. White H’mong use hemp cloth that has retained its original white color, Black and Flowered H’mong dye their hemp cloth with indigo blue and decorate it with batik designs.
H’mong people are using wax painting technique to create batik patterns to decorate their clothing. They use a pen-like tool, the point of the pen is made of a copper plate which is attached to a bamboo piece. The edge of the pen is dipped into hot wax and then applied onto the cloth, after applying the wax on all the patterns the cloth is dipped into the indigo numerous times. The cloth is then boiled to melt the wax, which reveals the designs in white against the indigo blue background.
Depending on the decorative motifs, the size of the pen varies. Batik designs are smaller in size among the H’mong than among the Dao People.
Following the capture of the Hmong’s wife custom, three days after capturing the girl, the boy must join his parents to bring the offering of pork, chicken, and wine to the girl's house to give thanks and ask them permission for a marriage. If approved, the two families will first worship their ancestor, then the boy has to spend the first night with his wife at her family house before coming back the next morning.
After the worshipping, the two of them can live together until they have good economic conditions to make a wedding, sometimes they don’t have a wedding if they don’t have the money to do so.
Today the “marriage by capture” is somewhat changed, more progressive. In general, girls are having better education, so they freely choose their partners.
H’mong people strongly believe that after death, the soul reincarnates as one of many forms such as humans, plants, rocks and ghosts. Death is often considered the most important time for practicing rituals in the H’mong community, because without practicing the necessary rituals the soul will roam for eternity.
The funeral is the most elaborate of all H’mong rituals. The overall goal of the performed rituals is to guide the soul back to the placental jacket, or motherland, then to Heaven to ask for reincarnation.
H’mong culture has been around for thousands of years, and some of the rituals have slightly changed due to their immigration and urbanization. Throughout the time, rituals have always varied from tribe to tribe, therefore there is no one-way of performing the pre-funeral rituals, the burial rituals and the post burial rituals. However, the differences are minor and all are aimed at achieving the same goal of reincarnation.
- On the first day of death
After death, the body is bathed by the sons or daughters of the deceased while community members are notified and begin to travel to the home of the dead. After the body is washed, the deceased is dressed with ceremonial clothes accordingly to their sex for the ceremony.
Women ceremonial clothing is the regular traditional H’mong Clothes, but the dress is made out of a tree and the back of the shirt would have a bigger embroidery square compared to the original ones. For men, they get to wear a long shirt or gown that is made from a stiff fabric with embroideries.
Burial clothing includes hand-made hemp shoes that help the soul across the caterpillar river and over the green worm mountain on the quest for their ancestors.
Once these steps have been finished, a lamp or candle is lit nearby the dead body, and male relatives retreat outside to fire three rifle shots into the air to scare any evil spirits that may attack the house during this time of turmoil.
- Length and Belief
Funerals in the H’mong culture can from three to twelve days, depending on a number of variables. The main factor in determining the length of the funeral is choosing a good day to be buried. Another variable concerning funeral duration is the way in which the deceased has passed. For infants and victims of violent deaths, the funeral will be haste, because there are strong beliefs among the H’mong people that these deaths create negative spirits.
And for the ones who has committed suicide, their spirit roams around until they find a replacement to take their place. Sometimes the spirit can even cause someone else to kill themselves.
An essential part of the mourning process is the three daily meals prepared by the men in the family. At each meal composes of pork and rice, and is offered to the deceased body by the eldest son.
Reincarnation is a pillar of the Hmong faith. During the ceremonies, it is culturally taboo to show distress, as the ceremony is not about the death of the person but the rebirth of the soul and a new life. The main reason the funeral rituals are performed is so that the dead will be reborn into the same family.
If the rituals are not performed properly the H’mong fear that the soul will be punished by returning as a lesser form or in a different family. One ritual that must be completed is the payment of the deceased debts. Any debts unpaid are thought to negatively impact the living family along with the deceased party.
- During the Burial
The first step in burial is sacrificing a number of oxen that are prepared by the descendants of the deceased for a feast that the entire village partakes in to pay homage to the dead.
Once the body is prepared for its journey, it is positioned in a coffin with items that will be necessary for the voyage into the afterlife. A bottle of alcohol and a cooked chicken in the two halves of a gourd, together with a boiled egg, a crossbow, a knife and a paper umbrella, will be placed by the head of the corpse.
A poem “Showing The Way” is sung to help the soul on the journey to the afterlife. A female from the village will then guide the funeral procession with a torch to “light the way” for the corpse. Along the way, the procession takes steps to confuse the evil spirits. This includes stopping, changing course frequently and disposing of the torch before the burial site is reached.
The final ritual before burial is the second sacred song, “The Song of Expiring Life” and informs the deceased they have passed away, and need to begin the journey to the placental jacket and into the spirit world.
The traditional burial site is on the side of a mountain, where the body is placed facing west. This is because H’mong people believe that west is the direction of death, and if the head is facing the east it will be blinded by the sun. The placement of the grave is determined by older members of the community, and depends on age, sex, and status.
Once the body has been laid in the ground, and covered the stretcher used to transport the deceased to the burial site is destroyed, family members will burn more incense, symbolic paper and place stones on the grave.
The symbolic paper, folded into boats, are considered as money in the after world. Burning the paper right after the burial, means you are sending money to go with them so they won't become a hungry spirit in the afterlife. The final step of the burial is to construct a fence around the grave that protects the site from any harm. The celebration will continue on the way back to the village and throughout the next three days to honor the deceased.
- After the Burial
There is a thirteen-day mourning period, in which the family of the deceased observes certain sacrifices in respect of the passed loved one. There will a ritual performed with intent to welcome the soul into its former home one last time before it begins the journey into the afterlife.
The soul of recently deceased person could also be reborn as the next child in the family through the male members. Because of this, males in the family of that deceased person must not impregnate a woman between the burial day and the next two years. If they do, they must marry the female otherwise the child won't be born into his family, and they will lose that family member forever.
As their legend, this "13 day" ritual is based on the belief that a long time ago, after 13 days of "death," the corpse would return to life again, thus there is really no death at all.
However, nowadays they send the soul to be "reincarnated", because the corpse cannot come back to life anymore. Sometimes when a family member passes away due to murder, on the 13th day of the burial, their spirit would come back to take the souls that killed them into the other world.
H'mong People in Laos
In 1960, many H’mong in Laos were recruited by the CIA as part of a plan to fight and protect Laos against the North Vietnamese Army. In fact, the Royal Lao Army and the Communist Pathet Lao troops had limited participation in the fighting. Much of the war took place between the H’mong-backed CIA and the North Vietnamese Army.
General Vang Pao was a H'mong leader supported by the CIA to command the Long Cheng area, also known as Lima Site 20 Alternate (LS 20A). Due to active military activities here, Long Cheng became the second largest city in Laos. Before the end of the secret war, Long Cheng was under Vang Pao's control. It could be considered as a small country because it has its own banking system, airport, school, military, public officials as well as many other infrastructure and services.
Finally, when the US withdrew from Vietnam, General Vang Pao evacuated to Thailand. About 300,000 H’mong fled to Thailand, creating refugee camps.
In the 1990s, the United Nations, with support from the Clinton administration, began work to bring Hmong refugees back to Laos in a compulsory way. This decision was controversial because many Hmong said they were abused by the Lao government when they returned. The pressure on the Clinton administration has changed their repatriation policy, then most of the Hmong refugees are finally settled in other countries, many of them they have come to America.