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Journeys of People and Goods

Livelihoods in Transition

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Vietnam Museum of Ethnology / Nguyen Anh Ngoc

Mrs. Nguyen Thu Tuoc pushes a loaded bicycle carrying more than 60 ceramic pieces to market.


Exchanges of goods map human encounters, from face-to-face bargaining in a village market to business on a global scale. The doors to international trade that swung wide open in the late 1980s released a stream of Vietnamese goods to the rest of Asia, Europe, and beyond. The doors swung inward, too, admitting international tourists curious about an unfamiliar culture.

Today's journeys of people and goods are transforming Vietnam. The kilns of a historic ceramics industry continue to fire pots, and now more than ever the customers are scattered around the globe. A quiet hill town on the China border becomes a mecca for international travelers, but the region's traditional embroidered textiles—the symbol of a culturebecome made-to-order tourist goods. And the highland forests, for millennia a source of food, clothing, and livelihood, are threatened by regional and global demands for wood and exotic animals.








Ceramics in Motion

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James Hicks

Most Bat Trang residents work in some aspect of the ceramics industry.


The kilns of the Red River Delta have been hot for the better part of 500 years. In the 1400s and 1500s, ships carrying wares from the Delta made their way throughout Southeast Asia. Traders in caravans sold painted platters and shapely vases probably as far west as the shores of the Mediterranean.

In the past, the village of Bat Trang, near Hanoi, produced bricks of such quality that folk poetry mentioned them by name. After centuries of diminished output, Bat Trang once again flourishes as the node of a far-flung trading network. Using modern technology--yet never abandoning traditional techniques--Bat Trang's potters make tableware for Japan, religious figurines for Taiwan and garden ceramics for North American nurseries.

Where Peddlers Meet Travelers

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AMNH / L. Kendall

Hmong girls primp beside a photographer's shack on Sunday in the Sapa market.


Once a quiet French hill resort near the Chinese border, the town of Sapa now draws tourists from around the world. Visitors admire dramatic mountain scenery, trek to remote Hmong and Yao villages to see women create batik and embroidered goods and bargain for made-for-tourist handicrafts in a lively marketplace.

Sapa's response to this international presence is still evolving. At first the Kinh shop-owners saw most of the profits, buying embroidered textiles from Hmong and Yao traders and re-cutting them into pillows, bags and vests for the tourist trade. More recently, Yao and Hmong women from villages near Sapa have begun to design tourist goods themselves, often using synthetic dyes to achieve bright but non-traditional colors. They sell these goods directly to tourists on the street, greeting them with cries of "Chapeau? Hat? Jacket? Pantalon joli, buy pretty trousers from me. Very cheap!"

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VME 95.5.3

Skirt. Hemp, cotton. Black Hmong people; Bo Nhang village, Son La Province; 1995. The batik pattern on this skirt depicts either rice grains or beans, streams and leaves. The flowers were cut from commercial cotton and stitched to the skirt fabric. Without a pleated skirt, a Hmong woman is improperly dressed to greet the ancestors in the next world.


Pleated Skirts of the Hmong People

Nearly every Hmong woman owns a pleated skirt, which she makes by hand. Personal taste and local tradition determine whether the seamstress chooses embroidery, appliqué or the batik dyeing process to decorate her creation, which may take more than a month to complete. Whatever method she selects, her designs always reflect the world around her. The finished skirt demonstrates a woman's character as well as her decorative skills.

Once upon a time, the earth was very large and the sun was very small. In order for the sun to shine on all of the earth, the planet had to shrivel up, producing mountains, hills and river valleys. The Hmong, who inhabit the steep, high mountains of northern Vietnam, believe their pleated skirts reflect this ridged landscape. --Hmong legend







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Claire Burkert

Children's hats, like the one worn by this Hmong child, are proud markers of cultural identity.


Hmong and Yao Children's Hats

Hat styles for youthful Hmong change as the children grow. Newborns wear plain caps, dyed indigo. At a three-month naming ceremony, an infant gets a more elaborate cap. The Hmong regard a child of that age as a fully opened flower, whose head can support weightier decorations.

Yao mothers create caps of differing styles for their sons and daughters. A girl's is embroidered, gathered at the top and tied with a string; a boy's cap is pieced together.

For both Yao and Hmong mothers, hats protect children from more than cold; hat ornaments serve as amulets to ward off evil spirits.

Women in the Marketplace

For Hmong women, Sapa is a swirl of intense economic and social exchanges. Turning some of their profits from the sale of handicrafts back into their businesses, the women buy clothing scraps for their next round of wares. Eager to improve their sales, they study design trends in the shops and take careful note of what tourists are buying. For Hmong girls, Sapa's allure lies in the prospect of contact with an unfamiliar world. Before their marriageable teens, young women sometimes form close friendships with foreigners in the market.

"If lucky, I can earn over 100,000 dong $7US for a set of clothes, including investment and profit." --Mrs. Tan Ta May, Yao

Sapa Style

Merchants of the Kinh majority--and more recently, Yao and Hmong women themselves--transform second-hand costumes and textiles into bags and clothing in a distinctive "Sapa style" intended to appeal to tourists. Some goods are sold on the streets of Sapa, others in boutiques in Hanoi and still others in the Hanoi airport.

Once there was a skirt carefully made by a girl in Mu Cang Chai before the New Year festival (Tet). The girl wore the skirt in the fields for two years until it became soiled and worn. A Hmong woman trader bought it and took it by bus to Sapa. Cu Ti Pa took the skirt apart and dyed the cloth bright blue. Following a design she had seen in a Kinh handicraft shop, she cut the cloth and hand-sewed it into a handbag, adding part of a Yao sleeve. Finally, the bag was sold to a tourist in the market. She took it home to San Bernardino, believing her bag to be a fine example of a traditional accessory from Northern Vietnam. --Claire Burkert (2003)

The Forest Journey

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VME 54.97.07.30

Carry basket. Bamboo, rattan. Xtieng people; Binh Phuoc Province; before 1997.


Journeys in and out of the forest were once the hallmark of life in the central highlands. Highlands people hunted and gathered the resources of the forest, including bamboo, bark and rattan, for every aspect of life. They practiced a form of agriculture known as swidden, clearing fields in the forest and moving their location every year so the soil could recover before they returned.

Today, changes in the environment have limited these forest journeys. Increased populations, especially an influx of lowlanders, strain existing resources. Thin forest soils are often over-farmed. Defoliation during the Vietnam / American War left its legacy of damage, and the local and global hunger for wood and other forest products continues to take a toll. In Vietnam, as in many other parts of the world, environmentalists face grave odds as they struggle to conserve a unique and threatened landscape.

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