From village to village the style and colour of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups showcase a vibrant and fascinating culture of textile traditions. One of the largest and diverse of these groups is that of the Dao (pronounced “Zao” and also known as the Yao or Mien) who settled in the northern border region of Vietnam after leaving China in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The Dao religion has elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism along with the worship of family ancestors and a legendary ancestor called Ban Ho. Legend has it that Ban Ho (a powerful dog of five colours), killed an enemy general and was granted the hand of a princess in marriage, who then gave birth to twelve children – which are the 12 original clans of the Dao.
Today Dao women tend to dress in traditional garb only when visiting the market or going to social gatherings or cultrual celebrations, but tend to wear western t-shirts teamed with traditional trousers and head dress when around the home or working in the fields. Men are tending to opt for western style clothing for all but cultural celebrations.
Like many of the ethnic minority group clans the different Dao clans are often named after the style and colour of their clothing. However from the Black Dao to the Sewing Dao or the Red Dao each article of a woman’s clothing is generally made up of the same elements. (The exception to this is the Coin Dao who are the only clan to wear skirts).The main elements which comprise the dress of the Dao women include:
Another characteristic feature of Dao women in many of the Dao clans is her large forehead – said to be a sign of beauty a woman plucks away or shaves along her hairline and eye bows to make sure no hair shows beneath the headdress.
Like many of the ethnic minority groups in the region a mother makes a new hat for each of her children throughout the stages of their childhood. It is believed that the hats will protect the child from sickness as when the evil spirits look down from above they will think that the child is a flower - and will leave them alone. The caps vary between boys and girls with the Dao boys caps being decorated with silver studs and coins, while the girls wear caps which have embroidery only.
Embroidery is part of every Dao woman's daily life and through this she perpetuates the identity of the Dao culture by reproducing the patterns which have developed over generations of Dao women. Generally a Dao woman is so skilled in her embroidery skills that she only needs to briefly see a pattern and is able to copy it. Girls are to taught to embroider from the age of 8 or 9 and like many other minority groups in Vietnam her skills reflect upon her suitability as a wife - the more skillful you are the better your marriage prospects are!
Marriages are arranged by parents, with the groom's family providing the bride-to-be cloth from which she must make several set of clothes for herself along with a set for her husbang and his family members. In the time leading up to the wedding the bride will be allowed to stay at home and work on her embroidery pieces. On her wedding day she wears all of her new clothes to show everyone her skills. She will also wear a wooden frame called a gong over which red clothes are hung and topped with a very detailed embroidered cloth called a 'pa dao'.
I started running my textile focussed tours back in 2007. Over the years I've seen some of the most gorgeous textiles made by the most gorgeous women. This blog is a reflection on some of these