The Tai People
Tai minority numbers just over 1 million, and is the dominant
group in the northwest mountains from the Red River south to Nghe
An, though most live in Lai Chau and Son La provinces.
They are distantly related to the Thai of Thailand and to groups
in southern China. their ancestral homeland. However, Thai people
have been living in Vietnam for at least 2000 years and show similarities
with both Viet and Tay cultures.
Traditional Thai society was strongly hierarchical, ruled over
by feudal lords who controlled vast land-holdings worked by the
villagers. Their written language. which is based on Sanskrit,
has furnished a literary legacy dating back five centuries, including
epic poems, histories and a wealth of folklore. The Thai are also
famous for their unique dance repertoire and finely woven brocades
decorated with flowers, birds and dragons, which are on sale in
From their early teens women learn how to weave and embroider,
eventually preparing a set of blankets for their dowry. Thai houses
are often still constructed on stilts, with wood or bamboo frames,
though the architecture varies between regions.
There are two main subgroups: Black Thai (around Dien Bien Phu,
Tuan Giao and Son La) and White Thai (Mai Chau, Lai Chau, whose
names are often attributed to the traditional colour of the women's
shirts, though this is open to dispute. In fact, the women of
both groups tend to wear similar clothes, consisting of long sarong-like
skirts, either black or very dark indigo blue, perhaps with a
brightly coloured sash or brocade panels. Their shirts are fastened
with beautiful silver clasps, fashioned in the shape of butterflies
or other insects, and on formal occasions they don intricately
woven head scarves.
Theories vary on their actual relation to the Thais of Siam (Thailand),
as do the reference to colours in the sub-groupings such as the
Red, Black and White Tai. Some contend that the colours coincide
with those of the women's skirts, while others believe the names
come from the nearby Black and Red Rivers. Villages typically
have 40 to 50 bamboo-stilt households. Tai women don close-fitting
black skirts, blouses with silver clasps and colourful robes and
kerchiefs and are also known for creating beautiful embroidery.
The Tai, using a script developed in the 5th century, have produced
literature ranging from poetry and love stories to folk tales
and song, and are renowned for their celebrations of music and
dance. Like the Tay, the Tai originated in southern China and
reside mainly in the north-west. They settled along fertile riverbeds,
which serve as the source of irrigation for fields of rice, corn,
cotton, beans and so on.